Saturday, July 21, 2012

Illegal Cosmetic Surgury

A blog post by Yoani Sanchez (ingles) from her great blog HERE.

On Tipping In Cuba

2012 travel essay in The Walrus by Chris Turner. Read it HERE.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

New Study on Remittances to Cuba

They apparently broke the $2 billion level last year.
Opening up on both shorelines helps increase remittances sent to Cuba in 2011 by about 20%

By Emilio Morales & Joseph L. Scarpaci (THCG).― While Cubans debate the future of their economic model, measures taken by Raúl Castro since the Sixth Cuban Communist Party Congress held last April, are correlated with nearly exponential growth in remittances reaching the island. Nearly $2.3 billion USD entered the island through this venue last year, up about 19.5% over 2010.

Table 1. Remittances sent to Cuba, 2000-2011 (millions USD).

Year Totals

2000 986.96

2001 1,010.87

2002 1,072.15

2003 1,100.46

2004 1,030.84

2005 1,144.12

2006 1,251.15

2007 1,362.71

2008 1,447.06

2009 1,653.15

2010 1,920.44

2011 2,294.54

Source: Calculated by The Havana Consulting Group LLC.

Remittances increased ten fold over the past six years compared to the 2000-2005 period.

A variety of measures confirm that remittances are the main source of hard currency reaching peoples’ pockets.

What factors have unleashed this growth in the past six years?

This time, both the Obama administration’s policy towards Cuba and the measured implemented by the government of Raúl Castro have made this growth possible.

Allowing Cuban Americans to go from visiting the island once every three years, to as often as they want, has been a major driver of these remittance increases. At the same time, the Obama regulations removed the $300 wiring maximum each three months, to sending $10,000 daily.

Factors carrying the greatest weight on the Cuban side include allowing cell phones for a mass market and the sale of private homes and cars.

The six most important factors behind these changes are:

1. Increase in trips to Cuba.

2. Opening the Cuban real-estate market.

3. More space for private enterprises.

4. Growth of cell phone usage.

5. Decreasing wire-transfer and package shipping costs.

6. Out-migration.

Read the full story HERE.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Cuban Santeros, ignored by John Paul II in 1998, cool to Benedict XVI as his visit nears

Chicago Tribune
Cuban Santeros, ignored by John Paul II in 1998, cool to Benedict XVI as his visit nears

10:49 AM CST, March 4, 2012

HAVANA (AP) — They cast snail shells to read their fortunes, proudly wear colorful necklaces to ward off illness, dress all in white and dance in "bata" drum ceremonies.

But although their Afro-Cuban Santeria religion owes much to Roman Catholicism, many are decidedly unenthusiastic about Pope Benedict XVI's March 26-28 tour of Cuba, even if it is being hailed as a watershed moment for a church seeking to boost its influence on this Communist-run island.

Santero priests still remember the last time a pontiff came to town — and flatly refused to meet with them. They are expecting no better treatment this time, and some are openly disappointed.

Their religion is by far the most popular on the island, with adherents outnumbering practicing mainstream Catholics 8-1. Yet as far as the Catholic church is concerned, "we live in the basement, where nobody sees us," said Lazaro Cuesta, a Santero high priest with a strong grip and a penetrating gaze.

"We have already seen one pope visit ... and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us."

Cuesta's bitterness stems from what many Santeria leaders see as an unforgivable snub by Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 tour.

Before that visit, Santero high priests, or "babalawo," led a daylong ceremony to ask the spirits to protect John Paul and make his trip a success. As men, women and children danced to the throb of African drums, the priests blew cigar smoke and spat consecrated alcohol to salute the dead.

But while the pope met with Evangelicals, Orthodox leaders and representatives of the island's minuscule Jewish community, he never deigned to meet with the Santeria practitioners who had danced for his good health, nor even to acknowledge their faith.

Experts say as many as 80 percent of islanders observe some kind of Afro-Cuban religion, be it Santeria, which is more properly known as Regla de Ocha-Ifaor, or one of its lesser-known siblings. Practicing Catholics number fewer than 10 percent, and as elsewhere in Latin America, that share is under assault from conversions to Protestant and evangelical denominations.

The 84-year-old pope's schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul's five-day visit was, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict's schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santeria representatives.

Lombardi said Santeria does not have an "institutional leadership," which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions.

"It is not a church" in the traditional sense, Lombardi said.

A decision not to meet with Santeros is in keeping with Benedict's history of vehement opposition to any whiff of syncretism — the combining of different beliefs and practices — on the ground that it could somehow imply that all faiths are equal.

Some also blame historical racism toward Santeria's Native American and African traditions. The pope may oppose these traditions, but they are an integral part of islanders' daily life, even that of its Catholics. All Cubans know that a woman dressed in yellow honors Ochum, a patron of feminine sensuality related in Catholicism to the Virgin of Charity. Believers crawl on hands and knees in processions of homage to Babalu-Aye, or St. Lazarus, protector of the sick.

Relations between Santeros and Catholics have improved since the early days of the island's 1950 revolution, when Afro-Cuban worshippers were ostracized by both the church and the Communist Party, and those who dared to attend Mass decked out in all-white Santero garb were routinely ejected. However, priests still give homilies critical of Afro-Cuban religious tradition.

The two faiths have arrived at a tense coexistence while inhabiting dramatically different spaces in island society. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the head of the Catholic church in Cuba, consults with President Raul Castro on weighty political matters; Santero babalawos tend to the spiritual needs of the majority. Neither side talks to the other.

Scholars say Santeria, which was imported to Cuba through slaves brought from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, remains on the political margins due to its scattered, nonhierarchical nature, centuries of taboo and the latent racism that keeps Afro-Cuban faiths from being fully accepted in the fraternity of religions.

"Santeria is as much a religion as any other," said University of Havana ethnologist Maria Ileana Faguaga Iglesias. But "its structure is not vertical; it does not have a maximum leader, it has no buildings and it has never been part of any political power."

When it first emerged on the island, prohibitions forced Santeria practitioners to hide their worship of "orishas," or spirits, behind the names of Catholic saints.

During Spanish rule and in the early years of the republic, Santeros had no choice but to accept Catholic baptism since church parishes were the only ones keeping birth registries.

"Historically, at some point all Santeros had some Catholic practice. The Catholic Church was power and was official, and others were persecuted," Faguaga said.

By the end of the 19th century, Santeria began emerging from underground. Today, it flourishes openly and has spread through emigration to the U.S., Puerto Rico, Venezuela and elsewhere.

Santeria "is very extended among the people, more so than when I was young," said Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, vicar general of Havana and great-grandson of one of Cuba's founding fathers. "Not just in people of African origin, but also in people of European origin, whites, who today are also Santeros."

In the 1960s and 1970s, as the Communist government promoted atheism, Santeros risked jail if caught practicing rites. Like members of other religions, they were denied party membership until the 1990s.

Lawyers, doctors, engineers and blue-collar workers learned to hide their ancestral beliefs and traditions.

But the 1990s saw a boom in Santero consciousness, and for many it is now a focus of national pride and a fundamental part of the Cuban identity.

Though the Cuban Catholic Church acknowledges Santeria as a mass phenomenon, John Paul's decision not to meet the high priests reflected a judgment that since the faiths overlap, there was no need to treat them separately, according to church expert Tom Quigley.

"At the time of the 1998 visit, the official line of the cardinal, and I think the church generally, was that people who practice Santeria are Catholics," said Quigley, a former Latin America policy adviser at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "They are just another — maybe deviant, but not absolutely heretical or schismatic — form."

Santeros nevertheless took it as just another sign that on an island with a white majority, some still see it as a slave-barracks faith, an idea that goes against Cuban ideals of respect for diversity.

John Paul's decision to ignore the Santeros, Cuesta said, was a decision "to deny our national patrimony ... brought to us by men in chains who arrived as slaves in this country."

Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana and Victor Simpson in Rome contributed to this report.

read the story HERE.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Booming Havana Real Estate Market

From the NYT
February 15, 2012
Cuba Unleashes the Pent-Up Energy of Real Estate Dreams

HAVANA — As fixer-uppers go, Carmen Martínez’s derelict shotgun house is no cakewalk. The living-room roof collapsed 15 years ago, and the porch soon followed suit, leaving two teetering columns with nothing to hold up. The bathroom is a squalid privy, and the kitchen consists of a sink with no taps and two oil drums full of water.

But roofs — even half-missing ones — are a hot commodity these days in Havana, which has been swept by a bout of real estate fever. So Yoél Bacallao, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, offered to repair Ms. Martínez’s dilapidated house for free on one condition: that she let him build an apartment of his own on top of it.

“It was as if a ray of light had come down from the sky,” said Ms. Martínez, 41, who would hang laundry in the roofless living room and sweep furiously during rainstorms to keep the rest of the house from flooding. “I have been watching this house fall apart around me for years.”

All over the capital and in many provincial towns, Cubans are beginning to inject money into the island’s ragged real estate, spurred by government measures to stimulate construction and a new law that allows them to trade property for the first time in 50 years.

The measures are President Raúl Castro’s biggest maneuver yet as he strives to get capital flowing on the island, encourage private enterprise and take pressure off the economically crippled state.

For decades, the government banned real estate sales and kept a jealous grip on construction. Materials were scarce, red tape endless and inspectors meddlesome. Black marketeers would deliver cinder blocks by cover of darkness, and purchasing a bag of sand was a furtive process akin to buying drugs.

But during the past two months the state has reduced paperwork, stocked construction stores, legalized private contractors and begun offering homeowners subsidies and credits.

On many streets, the chip of hammers and gritty slosh of cement mixing rises above the sparse traffic as Cubans paint facades, build extensions or gut old houses. Still, it is generally small-scale stuff: Mr. Bacallao, who has savings from his business repairing mobile phones, expects to spend about $10,000 on his project.

“Before, you had to sneak a bag of cement here, a bag of cement there,” he said. Mr. Bacallao, who rents a tiny apartment with his girlfriend, built a rooftop house three years ago, but the state confiscated it because he could not explain how he came by the materials. If this house works out, he will move his daughters to Havana from the provinces.

“Now I can explain where I got the materials,” he said. “I can explain where I got the money. No problem.”

Behind scruffy porticos and walls of bougainvillea, the wheels of the property trade are turning. Unofficial brokers — who are still outlawed in Cuba — say they have never been so busy, trawling the streets and the Internet for leads and fielding calls from prospective buyers.

Cubisima, an online classified service, said the number of hits on its real estate page tripled to an average of 900 per day after the new property law took effect on Nov. 10. The law allows Cubans to buy and sell their houses, and even own a second home outside the cities, though it still bars most foreigners from buying.

It is a crude market, where househunters rely on word of mouth and prices are based as much on excitement as on any clear sense of property values, according to interviews with homeowners, brokers and experts. Buyers, who at the top end are mainly Cuban émigrés and Cubans married to foreigners, often declare a fraction of what they pay, and money sometimes changes hands overseas, suggesting that the government’s hope of reaping significant tax revenues may be at least partly thwarted.

On a recent day, a stylish flight attendant showed a viewer around the pretty three-bedroom home she hopes will fetch $150,000; a mile away, an elderly widow held out for an offer of $500,000 for her big, unkempt 1950s house — to be deposited in Spain, please.

Many sellers plan to downsize, so they can live better or leave. Victoria Pérez, a retired doctor, put her spacious house and two-bedroom annex on sale last month for $80,000. She hopes to buy something smaller and put aside about $20,000 to live on and visit her daughter in the United States.

“To earn $20,000 would take 20 years,” she said. “This opens up a whole world of opportunities.”

Statistics are few, and brokers admit that the curious outnumber the serious. The National Housing Institute processed just 364 sales in the three weeks after the new law took effect.

“Prices are very inflated,” complained a Cuban-Canadian who was viewing a mint-colored four-bedroom house priced at $240,000 one recent afternoon. He said he would watch the market for a month or two to see how things shook out.

Steep price tags notwithstanding, experts and brokers say there are signs that the better-off are starting to migrate to areas like Miramar, Havana’s embassy district, and build vacation homes on the coast.

“There is definitely a rearrangement going on,” said Carlos García Pleyan, a sociologist who worked for decades for the Cuban government’s urban planning department.

Other than Cuban émigrés, he said, the gentrifiers were “the winners of the Cuba of recent years.”

“People who have made money legally, and people who have made money illegally,” he said. “Businesspeople, maybe a restaurant owner, maybe someone who owns taxis, maybe someone who has made money through corruption.”

“We shouldn’t be worrying so much about how people rearrange themselves,” he added. “We should be asking ourselves how such large social inequalities have happened.”

While the new market dynamics helped Ms. Martínez, some worry they will do little to solve the housing problems faced by many Cubans, whose wallets would not stretch even to buy a $3,000 one-bedroom apartment.

“It’s all very well for those who have money or who have a relative abroad; but if not, forget it,” said Luis Martínez, a construction worker (who is not related to Carmen). “My son is 18. The only way he’ll ever leave home is if he marries a girl who has a house.”

If anyone needed a reminder of Cuba’s critical housing problem, they got one in January, when a building collapsed in central Havana, killing four people. Miguel Coyula, an architect who specializes in urban planning, said an average of three buildings collapsed in Havana each day, victims of neglect, overcrowding and improvised construction. Well over 100,000 people are waiting to move to government hostels.

Mr. Pleyan estimated that it would cost about $3.6 billion to build the 600,000 houses Cuba needs, according to the government. Independent estimates are more than double that. The creation of construction and housing cooperatives is one step being discussed: such arrangements would reduce building costs and allow groups of individuals to build, say, a small apartment block.

But Mr. Pleyan said Cuba would also have to open wider to foreign investment and look for models that would balance public interests and private profit, by, for example, encouraging developers to build local infrastructure.

Such projects will not happen quickly — if at all — and Ms. Martínez feels lucky that she salvaged her home before she and her family had to abandon it. Once the roof is on, she said, she would like to get running water in her kitchen, replace the toilet and finish building a bedroom for her teenage son.

“I need taps, doors, windows, tiles; everything needs fixing,” she said, looking at the stained walls and rotten shutters of her bedroom.

“Little by little,” she added. “Little by little.”

Read the story and see photos HERE.