Watching, Rooting, and Supporting this thing called "The New Cuba" from the inside out. (Consulting | VIP Concierge | Producer)

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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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Check out the new Sheraton Havana, located in the Miramar district (on Fifth Ave, between 76th and 80th). Reuters reports a fresh new sign posted on the wall — “Four Points by Sheraton”. This will make Sheraton is the first hotel in Cuba to operate under a US brand since the 1959 revolution (according to Cuba Journal). The area is chic, mostly residential homes with several world embassies. Room listings start at $249, just to further separate the “have” and “have-nots” on the island (just to make matters more confusing in this 2 tier economy). However more tourism means more money trickling into the local economy, including the new cuenta-propistas (Cuba’s private sector, and sort of their new middle class).

Time will tell how all these forces will converge to help Cuba. Starwood is the first US company to commit major dough to Cuba’s tourism sector. It’s important to know that all these deals are joint ventures with the Cuban state, which means it is a delicate dance in business control. The second Sheraton deal, announced last month, is the takeover of Hotel Ingalettera (much more centric to foreigners in the Habana Vieja area). Hotel Inglaterra will fall under Starwoods “Luxury Collection” end of this year. For now, the existing Miramar Sheraton will not close for renovations, which will take several months. Business is open as usual. Yesterday, some painters were spotted painting the lobby walls. Stay tuned.

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Everyone is asking us about the song which The New Cuba collective made for Showtimes’ (House of Lies) new episode filmed in Cuba, a remix made by our main man, Edgaro Productor en Jefe. Click above to hear the full track on Soundcloud.

It was a historic production because it was the first time a US Scripted TV show was granted permission to shoot in Cuba by the US State Department. The production was also greeted with warmth by the Cuban State who equally contributed production assistants, producers, actors, and extras — a true collaboration after so many years of cultural divorce between both nations. Watch the final episode of Season 5 to see it.

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(Septeto Habanero & House of Lies Creator Matt Carnahan walking off the right side)

The track is a remix of a classic Cuban song “Casa de Chableta” performed by Septeto Habanero. The original plays throughout the episode as they enter Cuba. At the end of the episode, the characters hit a 2.0 moment in their life (no spoiler alerts) which is precisely when the party remix cues in. The local rappers spittin’ verses on top are Charly “Mucha Rima” and Ethian “Brebaje Man”.

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(House of Lies set in Havana)

Congrats to the whole Showtime team.
We had a ball dancing on set that night. Come again!

(Photos by: Jauretsi)

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Hello America! Cuba is bracing for a mass influx of US Flights this Fall 2016, the first time U.S. is authorizing scheduled commercial services in more than five decades. The U.S. Department of Transportation has approved six airlines to schedule trips to 9 Cuban cities (not including Havana). The lucky airlines who won the rights are American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines, and Sun Country Airlines.

In theory, passengers can take off from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. The Cuban destinations are Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba. This means that as early as this Fall, 90 roundtrips flights between the U.S. and nine Cuban international airports could be available every day. There is one hold-up: Exact flight schedules may depend on the availability of airport slots, AND the airlines have to be approved by the Cuban government. If and when approved by the Cuban state, most of the carriers plan to begin services later this fall, and will start selling tickets much earlier.

Now, what about the main city of Havana? The department is also allowing 20 daily roundtrip flights to Havana, HOWEVER, later this summer, officials will announce which carriers will make those trips and when they will begin. American airlines has already said it intends to start its first flights to the island nation on September 7, when it will launch nonstop service from Miami to both Cienfuegos and Holguín. Carriers won’t be able to advertise fares until they’re ready to put them on sale, which could happen within the next three to four weeks.

Photo: Michael Kelley

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Cuba is attracting creative community in droves these past few months. I had the good fortune of working with Bloomingdales towards end of 2015 as they arrived in Cuba to shoot their Spring 2016 catalog. The company helming the catalogue shoot was Totem Creative, an advertising marketing agency serving the fashion and retail industries. Honorable mention to founding partner Frank Tartaglia and Viviana Strauss who were a joy to create with.

The catalogue has finally been released. In addition to the Havana inspired collection of clothing, Bloomingdales requested a travelogue with “things to do” in Cuba, which I helped curate and produce. If you’re curious about what to visit on your first trip to Cuba, here’s a pretty healthy guide to get you started.

 

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So you’ve arrived in Cuba, and you need to check your emails. If it’s your first time, and if you are staying at a major hotel, you can easily check your emails in the hotel lobby, with the purchase of internet login codes at the business center. These codes will allow you tap into Wifi for 1 hour intervals.

However, if you are staying at cute little “casa particular” AKA, a private residence (thank you Air BnB), The wifi situation can be a little confusing. Fear not, below is a guide.

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(Wifi access at the Parque Coyula, in Playa, Havana. Photo: Jauretsi)

In June 2015, the Cuban state installed 35 WiFi’s in the country. These are not free Wifi parks, but rather, one can log into Wifi with the usage of a Nauta card (Nauta cards are sold by the only Cuban phone company, named ETECSA).

WHAT IS NAUTA?

Local Cubans (and foreigners alike) log into the internet using scratch-off cards from the company NAUTA. These cards can be purchased at the local phone company, ETECSA for $2 CUCS. Most tourists do not purchase these cards at the ETECSA offices, simply because the lines are too long, and you’ll find yourself wasting a full afternoon on your vacation (did we mention each person is only offered a 3 card limit purchase per person per day when bought at ETECSA?).

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(Internet Log in Cards, in very high demand in Cuba)

The smart move is to troll outside most Wifi spots until you hear a local voice pass by you uttering these words under their breath: “tarjeta de internet” [tar-he-ta-de-eeent-er-net]. This is usually a local resident selling NAUTA cards on the black market for $3 CUCS. It only costs 1 CUC more, but you’ll be able to buy a bigger wad of cards in one shot. Welcome to Cuba’s black market, offering an efficient service at a slightly higher cost (but worth it for the convenience). Hello Capitalism.

Two good spots to purchase the black market Nauta cards is the exterior of Habana Libre Hotel (near the outside stairs of Havanatur office) and Miramar Business Center (front of building). If you’re feeling brave enough to weather the long lines of ETECSA, there is also an office tucked inside the Miramar Business Center. For additional places, just ask word-of-mouth once you arrive. Most Cubans are helpful with routing you to buy a NAUTA card.

 

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(Vedado Park. Photo: Jauretsi)

PARKS THAT ALLOW LOGIN VIA NAUTA CARD

• La Rampa (from the Malecón up to cine Yara in Vedado),

• Parque de 51 in La Lisa,

• Parque Coyula in Playa/Miramar,

• El Anfiteatro de Marianao y el Paseo de la Villa Panamericana

• Parque Mónaco in 10 de Octubre;

• Pabellones Central and 14 at Expocuba (Parque Lenin)

• Calle 23, near Nacional Hotel (see Map for exact cross streets)

• Parque Fe del Valle in Havana Centro (Galeano y San Rafael)

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(A few of the public Wifi spots in Vedado, opened last year)

HOTELS THAT ALLOW LOGIN VIA NAUTA CARD:

• Parque Central – You will also need to purchase food or drink in the lobby.

• Hotel Inglaterra – You will also need to purchase food or drink in the lobby.

• Hotel Santa Isabel (Habana Vieja) note: this hotel has a weak Wifi signal, but it’s a charming hotel to stay if Wifi is not important during your trip.

HOTEL DIRECT LOGINS – No Nauta Cards here

Specific large State-Run Hotels have instituted their own “sign-ins” for a nominal fee. These hotels do not allow a visitor to log into Wifi using a Nauta card ($2-3 CUCS). These hotels charge a larger fee. There are pro’s and cons to logging in this way.

The first one being that if you need quick service, you can walk into these hotels and pay a premium price to log in ASAP, without chasing NAUTA cards on the street. Instant gratification, if you will. The con, of course, is that this option is more expensive.

Please note that when purchasing your “hour of internet”, that each hotel offers a code which expires quickly. It is important to note, because, for example, if you purchase Hotel Nacional login, the codes expire within 24 hours. If you do not return to the hotel within 24 hours, you will lose remaining unused minutes. Some hotels with Wifi include:

• Saratoga, Habana Vieja (10 CUC per hour) the code expires within 1 month

• Melia Cohiba, Vedado (10 CUC per hour) the code expires within 1 week

• Nacional Hotel, Centro Habana (10 CUC per hour) – the code expires within 24 hours

• El Presidente (4.50 CUC)

• Melia (Habana, Miramar)

More hotel options with Wifi options:

• Hotel Chateau, Miramar

• Montehabana, Miramar.

• Panorama, Miramar.

• Occidental Miramar, Miramar.

• Sevilla Hotel, Vieja.

• Plaza Hotel, Vieja.

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(Vedado Park. Photo: Jauretsi)

THINGS THAT CAN HURT YOUR LOGIN

PHONE MODELS: iPhones tend to be trickier devices to pick up wifi signals in Cuba. Traditionally, Samsung phones (Androids) log onto ETECSA Wifi quicker than iPhones. With a little patience and tenacity to search a strong signal, both models will eventually log on.

RAINFALL: From personal experience, I’ve noticed that when heavy rain falls in Havana, that most major Wifi spots (for example, Melia Cohiba and Parque Central), are useless to log in. If you’re visiting Havana on a heavy rainfall week, I would not even bother attempting to login. If you do, prepare to lose your $10 CUCS while wrestling the whole hour with no success. Cuba has not quite understood the concept of “refunds”.

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(Vedado Park. Photo: Jauretsi)

THE STATES CURRENT STANDING WITH INTERNET

This year, it was big news that Google offered to wire Cuba. 85 year old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura (Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party) rejected the gift that Google offered in July 2015 — that is, to install Free Wifi antennas for the country. His quote in the local state paper, Juventud Rebelde.

“Everyone knows why there isn’t more Internet access in Cuba, because it is costly. There are some who want to give it to us for free, but they don’t do it so that the Cuban people can communicate… Instead their objective is to penetrate us and do ideological work to achieve a new conquest. We must have Internet, but in our way, knowing that the imperialists intend to use it as a way to destroy the Revolution.” (Quote: HavanaTimes.org)

Ramon is kinda seen as part of the old guard revolutionary. Of course the other side, the hardline anti-Castro faction in Miami is having a field day with this quote and is angry that Cuba is not taking this favor. It’s so exhausting seeing these 2 forces ram heads together, like 2 stubborn rams.

While, of course I would love to see Cuba have free Wifi all over the country, it is very understandable that Cuba would have its guards up. Have we not forgotten the last US digital invasion through the usage of an absurd Cuban Twitter? Based on the USA’s latest covert operation, how could they be sure this is not another Trojan Horse?

I do firmly believe that Obama’s first visit to the island has reduced this paranoia, and hopefully paved the way to begin real open talks about lending digital infrastructure. This is a complicated trapeze walk for people on both sides looking to join forces. The 57 year ideological battle has created a deep wound, which is going to take more than 1 year to heal. With the US Presidents recent visit to Cuba, Obama announced that Google was indeed creating a deal to set up more WiFi on the island. Nobody quite understands how this will unfold, but nonetheless Google is attempting to help upgrade the island’s 2G wireless coverage. More here on this plan.

The most important thing to defend is that the Cuban people need internet… and they need it now. Access to information is everything. Stay tuned as the story of Internet evolves in Cuba.

Until that magic day arrives, good luck scratching off and logging in…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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