Watching, Rooting, and Supporting this thing called "The New Cuba" from the inside out (Consultant | Producer | Sensei)


Hurricane Matthew just passed 1 week ago through both Cuba and Haiti, leaving major devastation in both our wakes. Record shopping in Havana a few days ago, this album seemed to have found me. Probably because my mind is there this moment. In Haiti, Cuba is already present and pitching in. Members of the Cuban Medical Brigade, some 648 Cuban doctors and other professionals, remain on site. They are expected to offer medical care and disease-prevention efforts in the aftermath of the storm, including a recent outbreak of Cholera.

In all these thoughts, I wanted Haitian music marinating in my home, and then this sleeve popped in my sight, so I took the calling. I had never heard of Martha Jean Claude before and it turned out her voice is so captivating, so I wanted to know more. I learned that this woman had deep connections to the Haitian people through her folkloric and voodoo lyrics. She was not just a actress, singer, dancer, but also a philanthropist and activist. As an avid speaker of the abuse of the masses, it led to her arrest in 1952. After her play “Anriette” was released, officials deemed it anti-government so she was imprisoned, and eventually released 2 days before the birth of her child. Fearing for her life, she exiled to Cuba in 1952 (before the 1959 Cuban Revolution) with her husband, Cuban journalist, Victor Marabel. Martha eventually became an international legend, touring Paris to New York to Angola using her soulful voice to share her protest music against injustice. After 3 decades in exile, the homesick Martha finally returned to her motherland in 1986 after the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier, where she held a legendary homecoming concert.

After that, she returned to Cuba, a place she called her second home — the name of her album: “Soy Mujer de Dos Islas” (I Am A Woman of 2 Islands). She passed away in her Havana home in 2001. I just recently discovered that Cuban Painter, Michel Mirabel calls Martha Jean Claude his “Mamita” (but she is truly his grandmother from his dads side). It’s a beautiful merging of both worlds since Michel’s artwork is coincidentally displayed on the first US approved credit card in Cuba (MC) issued by Stonegate Bank this year. Michel also received attention this Spring 2016 when Usher came to Cuba and visited his studio. Here’s a toast to riding on the shoulders of our ancestors, and pushing the storyline forward at all times.

This post is also a nod to the true Grand Dame of Haitian music, and the people who are keeping it real this week helping on the ground. Donate to Waves for Water (Matthew Haiti Relief) or follow @jon_rose to see his daily diary of providing clean water to people on the ground. To use his words “Basically it’s this simple — the more support we get, the more people get access to clean water. Period. Thank you to everyone who has stepped up to help us so far”.

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(Relentless Creators: Slim use of Internet time means USB sticks are golden. Photo: NPR)

This week was a big week for Cuba tech startups. Ten young Cuban tech leaders were awarded a chance at more “next level” resources. We realize that most foreigners view Cuba as a place stuck in time with its old cars and 19th century architecture, but the bodies that inhabit these relics are now hungry millennials chasing the 21st century. Today, hundreds (maybe thousands) of Cuban youth are graduating from computer science schools into a country with barely any internet. Most Cuban businesses do not even have a proper website, although there is a large trend in business owners building at least a Facebook page. It’s only been the last 1-2 years, that we’ve discovered a few company websites and mobile applications pop up in this country. After working tirelessly in their homes with no internet the last few years, a few Cuban tech stars have emerged from this clandestine scene, and are paving the way for newer generations to understand the potential Tech gold rush of their motherland.

If you’re an American and found yourself in Cuba, you’ve probably been frustrated at the fact you can’t Google your way through the country as a guide. Sure, there has been new US/Cuban phone company deals with Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T, but if the roaming charges haven’t murdered you, then the spotty service has blocked the search anyways. Cuba is not yet an open satellite culture for checking internet easily. Logins require “pay by the hour” scratch off cards issued by State owned phone company, ETECSA. But things are moving at a bizarre tortoise pace since 2015 (some believe too slow, others fear it’s too fast). The fact remains, Cuba has tripled the number of Wifi zones on the island, from 65 (at the end of 2015) to more than 200 at the beginning of September 2016. The latest news is that ETECSA announced it will make 5 miles of the Malecon, Havana’s famous seafront boulevard, a Wifi spot by the end of 2016. Despite all these announcements, at home full internet is another conversation and a ghost of a service, much less trying to start a new tech business this way. Laptop sessions in public parks are a big thing in Cuba. Still, the young ones  find a way. “Resolviendo” or “Inventando” are the common words spit out.

(The Team at Alamesa. Photo by @Engage_Cuba)

But things are changing for users. If you had been really dialed into the scene before arriving to Cuba, you would have been tipped off to a cool restaurant app called Alamesa, which lists 900 restaurants with addresses, phone numbers and reviews — and it works brilliantly offline. Game-changer. Who is the creator of this app? His name is Ariel Causa Menendez, and this week, the young Cuban was awarded for his invention by the recent 10X10KCuba contest along with 9 of his industry peers in a competition that sought to select the 10 most promising Tech startups in Cuba today.

What exactly is this contest? “10x10KCuba seeks to help talented programmers and entrepreneurs in Cuba integrate themselves into the startup community in the Americas” says John McIntire (Chairman of Cuba Emprende Foundation). More importantly he adds, “It also provides them with the resources and networks to support the growth of their businesses”.


The 10 winners this year are:

Alamesa (Havana) Entrepreneur: Ariel Causa Menéndez.
An information platform for users who wish to explore and be involved with Cuban gastronomy.

Conoce Cuba (Havana) Entrepreneur: Eliecer Cabrera Casas.
A platform for the advertising of and search for businesses, including a directory and maps, which allow the businesses to display any information they wish to consumers.

Cuba-Room (Havana) Entrepreneur: Wendy Rafael Bokly Plana.
An online service to search for and book lodging in less than 24 hours, for travellers looking for bed and breakfast accommodations at different price points.

Cubazon (Havana) Entrepreneur: Bernardo Romero González.
An online marketplace for purchasing any product produced by the private sector in Cuba, to be delivered to family or friends resident on the island with the utmost security and professionalism.

GuiArte (Havana) Entrepreneur: Adan Leiva Blaya.
A continuously updated digital directory for domestic and international users of activity in Cuba’s arts and cultural scene, with the information organized by categories and profiles.

Isladentro (Havana) Entrepreneur: Indhira Sotillo Fernández.
An easy-to-use platform offering a quick and reliable guide for information and geographic location on any place, business or other points of interest. An app where your business will make an impact.

Ke Hay Pa’ Hoy? (Havana) Entrepreneur: Juan Luis Santana Barrios.
A digital platform aimed at promoting Cuban culture, in which customers have the opportunity to showcase their offerings through different channels.

Knales (Havana) Entrepreneur: Luilver Garces Briñas.
An efficient SMS platform to advertise events, products, services and other information, customized for each user.

MiKma (Havana) Entrepreneur: Janse Lazo Valdés.
Advertising and booking platform for house rentals (in Cuban pesos) which will revolutionize the way that market operates.

NinjaCuba (Havana) Entrepreneur: Victor Manuel Hernandez Moratón.
A website for finding talent and searching for jobs in Cuba’s tech sector.

Each of the ten winning businesses receives the following prize packages, conservatively valued at $10,000 per winner:

• Two Dell laptops via EMC
• One year of cloud credits from Rackspace
• Online English or Mandarin courses from iTutorGroup
• For two entrepreneurs from each business, two weeks of immersion in a tech/start-up environment in one of our four destination cities, all expenses paid: Boulder, CO; Mexico City, Mexico; Miami, FL; and Palo Alto, CA.
• Miles to cover flight expenses between Cuba and our destination cities from American Airlines

In each city, the network of accelerator/university partners (including Boomtown, 500 Startups, NXTP Labs, Stanford University’s School of Engineering, and TechStars) will provide a customized experience to enhance the business and tech skills of the winning entrepreneurs. There will also be additional mentoring and networking through local tech busineses and entrepreneurs. Other supporting Foundations and Corporate Sponsors include: Knight Foundation, Tinker Foundation, and Americas Society/Council of the Americas, American Airlines, Dell/EMC, iTutorGroup, and Rackspace.

The contest is one of the most innovative and unprecedented collaborations between United States and Cuba’s young tech leaders on the forefront of a nascent underground. This year, the contest drew 88 applications from Cuban entrepreneurs, but we foresee next year hopefully drawing double/triple these numbers as we’ve seen internet proliferate deeper in the nation since Obama & Raul Castro’s normalization talks began December 17, 2014. More tourism and internal reforms have created new demands for these inventions as well.

Ric Herrero (of #CubaNow) and Co-organizer of this contest understands the big vision of these new thinkers, and aims to foster these voices to greater heights. “The winning entrepreneurs have the talent and resourcefulness to succeed in any tech company in the world” he says, “and we couldn’t be prouder of their commitment to growing the startup community in Cuba.”

Here’s to tomorrows tech leaders, and making life just a little more convenient and connected for residents and foreigners. I was told by my parents that Pre-Revolution Cuba was a very forward-thinking, innovative, and experimental place in the Caribbean to launch ahead-of-its-time technology (including the first color TV’s in the Americas).

Well, grab a seat. We’re about to witness the most exciting comeback in history. We realize this is an ambitious thought, but Cubans never reach for anything less than the stars. Somewhere in this pack of educated and cultured minds is the next Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs, hungry to capitalize on the gaps of the Cuban market which are very unique today. As the nation redefines itself in a new era of self-identity, it is also looking to reposition itself into the global economy. This will be a long road, and dependent on how fast the island gets wired up.

Content is king and information is power, so keep those inventions brewing, young Cubans. We’ll be rooting for you all the way from America through programs like this.

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Another shred of progress has been bestowed upon the residents of Havana. It is not so large in the grand scheme of things, but it does make day-to-day life just a tad bit easier. The very first bulk goods store has opened in Cuba. This means Cubans can buy items in larger amounts (think Costco but with only 3 aisles), which is heavenly because the usual task of buying simple things at your local bodega can drive you to madness due to random episodes of missing items — i.e. lack of toilet paper, lack of olive oil, lack of napkins, etc. In Cuba, there is an unspoken rule when visiting your corner store — IF YOU SEE IT, BUY ALL OF THEM. It’s very possible that when you need butter, none of your local markets carry it, so you will go a month or two without butter. Thus, when you see butter, you buy 10 packs and freeze the rest. This squirrely behavior usually empties local shelves the second an item comes in stock.

The name of this experimental shop is called Zona+ which is located in Miramar, a neighborhood with good families and sometimes elegant homes. The shop has constant traffic of buyers since it opened 2 months ago. One of the main customers are independent business owners, those who own restaurants in their homes (paladars) and hotels in their home (casa particulares) who are jumping for joy that now they now get to buy goods in massive amounts at one place.

toilet paper.png

Upon walking into the store, I looked up the aisles with a silly grin on my face. No more scrounging for toilet paper rolls one by one. I quickly ran to the isle and picked up not one, but two 10-packs like a giddy kid. The quality of the tissue is excellent too (compared to the low grade stuff found in corner stores).


Another item I noticed flying from the shelves was beer. Earlier in the year, Cuba had announced a shortage of beer due to the massive influx of tourists. The State announced it was creating an extra brewery plant to create more Bucanero and Cristal (the 2 national beer brands). Well, it seems this vice can be satiated now by visiting Zona+ and picking up cases for the first time. Of course this stock runs out fast too, but that doesn’t keep private business owners from flocking in to get as many cases as possible. With the limited size of the store, the offerings could be bigger, but the word from above is that if all goes well, the State plans to roll out more Zona+ stores across the country. It is a nod to the business owners who need more goods at better prices. Although a few bulk items are sold at better prices, overall the shop does not offer wholesale (something that is in very high demand with the new private sector). So in reality, it’s not really the Costco of Cuba, because it is not truly wholesale.

My only creative note with the whole operation is the illegible logo. Driving past it, the letters appear more like “Jova+” than “Zona+”. Beggars can’t be choosers, and nobody is complaining. Business is brisk. And the best Cuban marketing is “word of mouth” anyways, and it’s spreading fast. Crossing fingers that the notion of “wholesale” becomes a reality soon for those trying to build their business. Step by step. Inch by inch. This is how we’re all living in Cuba.

(Photos: Sourced CCTV, by Michael Voss)

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It’s the end of an era for British Ambassador to Cuba. Tim Cole has done his 4 years of duties, and is moving on. He’s leaving Cuba just as things start to get really interesting, but has served under a most pivotal moment in history for the island nation.  I’m posting this essay because it’s a heartfelt overview of all the chaos — good and bad — that has transpired in the last few years, as well as all the current issues at hand that need attention. Short and sweet. Tim has immersed himself in the culture, from nitty gritty bureaucracy to baseball games. I would suggest he holds a big goodbye party, although his kick ass Rolling Stones bash this past March at the UK Embassy (inside one of the chicest homes I’ve seen) was probably the best parties one can ask for. You done well!

Here’s his personal goodbye letter:

Hasta La Vista Cuba
by Tim Cole

That’s it. I’m off. It’s been four years. Four fascinating, complicated, frustrating, perplexing, wonderful years. Is Cuba the only country in the world where it’s simultaneously fast and furious and time stands still?

There’s been change. Obama came and went. In El Vedado, a Maserati now parks alongside a Moscvich. People now IMO their Miami cousins from the local park. The Pope was here, then Madonna. Four million tourists flood in to bask on beaches or chug along in a Chevy. Meanwhile cigar-scented, pastel-coloured, charming, intriguing Havana suffers. Will it survive the combined pressure of population density, climate change and tourism? Or will houses crumble, pavements crack and ugly, new hotels deface the picture postcard façade?

The economic and social model’s still being updated, Socialism 2.0 still being developed. There are some green shoots – biotech, pharma, IT start-ups. Casas & paladares of course. You can buy a private sector pizza on most street corners of every Cuban town. El Paquete and Revolico point to the creativity and dynamism of the country’s entrepreneurs. If there’s a gap in the market, a Cuban will find it and fill it. If something’s broken, an ‘invento’ will be found. The only bounds to inventiveness and ideas are the mountains of regulations and red tape (where is that not the case?).

However, much of this change still feels surface-thin. Underneath, the currents move less quickly. Whirlpools form; down deep, the dark waters slow. Peering through the gloom, forming a clear picture, understanding the subtle shifts and changes is daunting. Getting past the gatekeepers even more so.

The challenges are huge; an ageing population, youth emigration, a trade embargo imposed by the world’s biggest economy and economic strife in your most faithful partner would test any government. To unify the currencies – one of the toughest asks – the government needs reserves but how can it attract resources without currency unification? Foreign investment is vital but the profitability of state-owned enterprises, potential partners in a joint venture, is masked by an artificial peso-CUC exchange rate. Government investment, urgently needed to improve infrastructure, is restricted by low revenues. Consumers need to spend more but jobs aren’t being created quickly enough and pay is low.

What’s the solution? Finding oil? Export more cigars? The US? JetBlue? Unleash the entrepreneur? Cut the sky-high car, phone and internet costs? Cut red tape? Cross your fingers and wait and see? Cross your fingers and cross the sea? More internet? More taxation? More ideas? More change? More updates?

It’s not for me to say. Cubans will find the answers. To these questions and to the others I haven’t posed. Cubans will work out how to move the country from the analogue to superfast broadband age. How to develop a dynamic, connected, modern, job-creating country (whilst retaining the ride-in-a-1950s-Cadillac version loved by tourists). How to provide stimulating, fulfilling jobs for young people and comfortable retirement for pensioners. How to ensure everyone can achieve their ambition without having to look elsewhere. How to have a national debate that allows everyone to have a say without fear or sanction. How to ensure the shops are full, prices are affordable, people are educated and healthy, children are happy and the cousins visit from Florida or Spain. How to make sure their country doesn’t get left behind.

And what do I leave behind? Four years of BritWeeks, BritTalks, British boats and British bands. Business delegations, government ministers, sports organisations, choreographers, playwrights, actors, professors, experts, DJs and NGOs all flew in to share their experiences and learn. A British Foreign Secretary visited Cuba for the first time since the Revolution. The Rolling Stones rolled in and rocked. The Embassy moved to the Oriente for a week to show we really are here for all of Cuba and not just Havana. I travelled from Cocodrilo in Isla de la Juventud to Pinar del Rio to Punto de Maisi, visiting every single one of the country’s provinces and its only special municipality along the way. I watched umpteen baseball games, played cricket in Guantanamo (the town, not the Bay), played in a football match to mark the day when the British first brought the game here in the early 1900s, said goodbye to Cubans heading off to British universities on Chevening scholarships and welcomed others back after their year away.

Will I miss it? Of course I will. I’ll miss the country, culture and ‘Cubania’. I’ll miss the sun – too little of that in grey London where I am headed and the music and salsa – although I’ll have Alexander, Leoni, Maykel and El Niño on a loop at home. But most of all, I’ll miss my Cuban friends: the conversations, the laughs, the good times, the jokes, hearing about people’s fears and ambitions, their daily struggles, their hopes for a better future, their stories of the past. It’s always difficult leaving; I’m sorry to have to go. But one day I’ll be back.

Hasta pronto!

(British Ambassador Tim Cole made honorary member of Cuba’s Sports Car Club)

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“With Cult Hero, I wanted to draw attention to the saturation that causes the image of Martí to be repeated everywhere. I do not think we need it in every workplace, in every block for the need to remember. I do not need to see the bust everywhere to think about it; and seeing it doesn’t makes me a better human being, because for me this belongs internally.”— Ernesto Sanchez, Director of Cult Hero

The new documentary, which won an Award at Cuba’s Muestra Joven Film Festival is summarized as this: “The tradition in Cuba is to pay homage to José Martí with busts and statues dating from the early twentieth century. Today many of his busts are produced in plastic through a complex manufacturing process. This initiative is part of the effort to keep his legacy and thoughts alive, but beyond achieving the objective, this action inserts Marti into a society that sees it as something so routine that it becomes an invisible object.”

This cerebral doc touches upon the wildly complex conversation about ideology and youth today, discussed through the beautiful vehicle of Marti busts. Keep your eye on filmmaker Ernesto Sanchez, a strong new voice in Cuban cinema. Trailer below:

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In honor of this mornings epic Flight 387 Jetblue, from Ft Lauderdale (Florida) to Santa Clara (Cuba)… Kudos to the first commercial flight in over 50 years! Here’s a cheat sheet of upcoming flight routes:

Flights to Cuba from the U.S.

JetBlue – All flights originate in Fort Lauderdale (FLL)

• Beginning Aug. 31: Three weekly flights from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara
• Oct. 1: One daily flight from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara
• Nov. 3: One daily flight from Fort Lauderdale to Camagüey
• Nov. 10: One daily flight from Fort Lauderdale to Holguín

American Airlines
 – All flights originate in Miami (MIA)

• Sept. 7: One daily flight to Holguín and Cienfuegos
• Sept. 9: One daily flight to Camaguey and Santa Clara
• Sept. 11: One daily flight to Varadero

Frontier Airlines
• Oct. 27: Daily flights between Chicago O’Hare and Santiago de Cuba
• Dec. 15: Four weekly flights between Philadelphia and Camaguey
• Dec. 15: Three weekly flights between Philadelphia and Santa Clara
• Jan. 7: One weekly flight each from Chicago O’Hare and Philadelphia to Varadero.

Silver Airways – 
All flights originate in Fort Lauderdale (FLL)
• Sept. 1: Daily flight to Santa Clara
• Oct. 13: Five weekly flights to Camagüey
• Oct. 21: Two weekly flights to Cienfuegos
• Oct. 27: Daily flight to Holguín
• Nov. 3: Daily flight to Santiago de Cuba
• Nov. 17: Three weekly flights to Cayo Coco
• Dec. 2: Four weekly flights to Varadero
• Dec. 8: One weekly flight to Cayo Largo del Sur
• Dec. 16: Three weekly flights to Manzanillo

Southwest Airlines – 
All flights originate in Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and Tampa (TPA)
• TBD: Two daily flights to Varadero
• TBD: One daily flight to Santa Clara

Sun Country Airlines
 – All flights originate in Minneapolis (MSP)
• TBD: One weekly flight to Varadero
• TBD: One weekly flight to Santa Clara

(Source: Travel&Leisure)

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Rumour mill says, MasterCard is now allowed in Cuba? It seems lots of American friends keep telling me MasterCard can be used in Cuba now. This is partly correct, and partly incorrect. Here is the real deal. Are you willing to change Banks? For those that remember, last year, a Florida-based bank named Stonegate rose to the occasion of saving and handling all domestic banking transactions for the Cuban Embassy in the States (after M&T bank dropped out of that role). This is the first US Bank to accept a relationship with Cuba’s Banco International de Commercio aka BISCA, since the 1960 embargo (as well as Banco Popular from Puerto Rico). Reported June 27th, Cuban ATM’s will now accept MasterCard cash advances, including those from Stonegate Bank. Irma Margarita, VP of Cuban Central Bank (BCC), confirmed MC is already being used at Cuban points of Sale. This must mean mostly at State Hotels and State restaurants. The Cuban Bank also admitted that the service is only offered in the Capital of Havana, but will be expanded t the whole island in the future. Irma confirmed her desire to expand to more US Bank-issued Credit cards to be authorized for use in Cuba.

From my experience, it’s possible to travel a whole week in Cuba without entering State businesses. If you’re the type to frequent only casa particulars (home B&B’s) and paladars (Home restaurants), and use taxis, etc, then these sellers only accept Cash. That means, if you are an American, don’t get to comfortable in your plastic. Continue bringing all cash as usual until this makes more sense. The new rules can perhaps benefit only those who visit Cuba frequently for corporate travel. A big plus is that the Cuban government plans to waive the 10% penalty exchange on US dollars if you use the Stonegate Card. Stonegate is creating a Limited Edition MasterCard, issuing only 1,000 cards at first, with Cuban painter Michel Mirabal’s art 96 artist which Usher recently visited in Havana).

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