Watching, Rooting, and Supporting this thing called "The New Cuba" (Cuba Specialist | Production | Sensei)

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In Fall of 2016, writer Chavie Lieber came to Cuba with an open mind and curious heart. As a writer for the Fashion site Racked (same web family as Vox, Curbed, & Eater among others), she had her eye on Cuba and its emerging fashion scene. I was lucky enough to catch the early phonecall during her scout mission upon organizing her trip. It’s one of my favorite pastimes here in Cuba, hunting subcultures.

And so began our search together — sharing lists, chasing people down, booking appointments. What seemed like a simple basic request turned out to be quite the challenge. Fashion in Cuba? Is there even a fashion scene? Turns out there’s a small army rising up. Some of the fashionistas of Cuba are not easily findable on Instagram, nor do they necessarily respond to Facebook emails, much less their nauta.cu accounts. The majority do not even have a proper running website, and cuban cell phones do not have voicemail boxes which means calling one is a repetitive task requiring heaps of patience. The search alone set the stage for how isolated some of these designers exist within the global fashion market.

Finally, an itinerary was set, and Chavie flew into Cuba and tirelessly dove into the scene in just a few days, running from home to home, studio to showroom, engaging in creative conversations with residents. Topics ranged from developing their craft, to black market goods, to the new economy.

Other industry insights focused on the future. ”There’s an overwhelming air of optimism in Cuba because people are seeing more change in three years than anything that’s taken place over the last 20 years,” says Matusky. “The future is bright.” As for the Clandestina duo, they are feeling bullish. “I don’t think the state wants all this change, but they don’t have a choice because it’s happening,” says del Río, who by nature is a positive girl with a sharp sense of humor. “A year ago, it was a completely different country. We can only hope that more jobs open and that the people can make money out of their ideas. There are so many talented people here,” she tells Chavie. In general, all the designers expressed their love of Cuba, and the need for access to proper tools and goods to grow their business.

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In terms of the Chanel show, the comments were also a swirl of thoughts. As expected, the private event, complete with 3 days of festivities culminating into the big show on the Prado, made the locals feel, um, well, discarded. ”While Chanel has always been an icon and an inspiration for me,” says Freixas, “it seemed like they were interested in Havana on a social level, by only looking at people who could possibly be clients, like famous musicians. But there are more important things in the world than money. Chanel’s show could have been an opportunity to involve the Cuban fashion community and be a session to meet and exchange ideas.”

“I didn’t care about not getting a seat,” adds Gil, who acts as a Fashion Director for Fábrica de Arte Cubano. “I cared that Chanel completely ignored Cuba’s fashion community.” Designer Jacqueline Fumero, however, believes it was “promotion for the island — you start as a backdrop today, but tomorrow, more people know you”. Miguel Leyva, Cuba’s first fashion blogger, believes Chanel actually traveling to the country was a big deal. “To me, this is a step forward. I just want us to be a part of the conversation.”

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The article turned out to be a thorough look at the history of Fashion in Cuba, while sharing contemporary history of the ongoing reforms happening on the island today. As Chavie closes the piece, she reflects a sentiment felt by all Cubans: “And those talented people will keep on pushing. Hustling, as they say, is the Cuban way”.

To read the whole piece, visit: Cuba, In Clothes.

Photography: Hannah Berkely Cohen. Thanks to Patricia Morgovsky for all her contributions too. Couldn’t have done it without you ladies.

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(Illustration: Jasper Rietman for NY Times)

Tomorrow is January 20th. It’s official. Mr Trump will now be our President, and despite all the other issues to face internationally, this blog post is about one thing only — How “the Donald” will be handling Cuba/US relations and how you as an American can help shape policy and public sentiment.

On this first day at the Sundance Film Festival, we’d like to remind you to keep an eye on these films shot in Cuba. Mostly because they all exhibit a strong spirit of engagement, entering feet into the country to better understand the daily lives of our neighbors just 90 miles south.

What is the latest on the overall relations as we enter this new administration? Here’s the fat and skinny.

FROM THE US:
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order”, declares Trump, “which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do so unless the Castro regime meets our demands.”

FROM CUBA:
“Aggression, pressure, conditions, impositions do not work with Cuba. This is not the way to attempt to have even a minimally civilized relationship with Cuba”, said Josefina Vidal, a foreign ministry department head (as told to the Guardian).

We realize this looks like a runaway train in a bad action movie. The train is going to drive off the cliff, right? Well, maybe not. That is, if you believe in “People Power”. Ok, so it didn’t work so well with the popular vote during elections (by over 3 million), but Americans DID gather in solidarity over the Dakota Access Pipeline. A coalition of climate activists  and native Americans managed to raise enough awareness which resulted in the rerouting of the pipeline away from Sioux Reservation. As an idealist, I believe it’s our duty to exercise this “people power” each and every day. Before I begin spelling out action points for this particular cause, allow me to explain the landscape briefly.

We have come a long way in the last 2 years under Obama’s normalization era. While the Obama Administration has eased certain travel and trade restrictions, only Congress can lift the embargo. We have seen what isolation tactics have accomplished in the past 55 years — zilch. Just a bitter relationship between both nations. We have already seen that a policy change from hostility to one of engagement has benefited the Cuban people more in the past two years than in the last 50 years combined.

Improving the daily lives and human rights of the Cuban people is a top priority of normalizing relations with Cuba. For the past 55 years, the only people who have been hurt by the embargo are the Cuban people, as well as US Companies. Isn’t Trump’s mandate to create more jobs in the US? Will Raul Castro and Trump be able to strike a new deal? Essentially, the embargo has failed. Logically speaking, no business in the world would continue a strategy that has failed for 55 years. It has ended up punishing the Cuban people and isolating us from the rest of the world, especially our other allies in Central and South America.

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(Obama meets with Raul in March 2016. Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Time)

Re-engagement is driving change on the island that is empowering the Cuban people.

Here’s a few main points to consider:

Cuba’s Private Sector:
Cuba’s private sector is the fastest growing industry in Cuba’s economy, estimated to have grown to about 1/3 of Cuba’s workforce. This boom in private sector employment is fueled by tourism – which would dramatically increase if we lift the embargo. The over 4,000 private restaurant owners, and 28,000 bed & breakfast owners, the growing number of taxi drivers, half a million private farmers, and millions more private sector employees in the tourism sector would benefit tremendously from lifting the embargo.

Increased Tourism benefits the Cuban People:
Increased travel to Cuba is fueling private sector growth that is empowering Cubans across the island. Cuba is becoming the number 1 tourist destination in the Caribbean. International tourism has skyrocketed, and with the reestablishment of commercial flights, experts expect a huge increase in American travel. The influx of American travel will come with certain expectations – expectations that cell phones will work, credit cards will work, access to internet won’t be severely limited – this will foster the kind of change that will not only benefit American travelers, but Cubans across the island. (p.s. As an American, you can travel to North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia — but you can’t travel to Cuba as a tourist. Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. government prohibits tourist travel)

Access to Internet:
In this era of relaxed relations, recently, the price of internet has been reduced to $1.50 cucs p/hr, down from $2 cucs. The State is also launching some home internet connections in Havana Vieja, as well as wiring the entire Malecon street with wifi early next year (which requires a paid login with a Nauta card). Just a few weeks ago, Google signed a deal with Cuba’s ETECSA to install servers on Cuban soil for faster service. Although some of the internet expansion are purely internal decisions, it is however, a perfect climate to work with American brands such as Google or other digital entities seeking to improve connectivity on the island. This benefits all Cuban people.

International Credibility:
Year after year after year, every nation in the world, except the U.S. and Israel, votes at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba. But even Israel trades with Cuba. Continuing 55 years of failed policy that has been repeatedly and publicly condemned by the international community as pointless and ineffective is weakening our stance abroad. Lifting the embargo would in fact strengthen our international credibility, not the other way around. Also, major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam all publicly support lifting the embargo because they believe it makes it harder to improve human rights.

Polling:
75% of U.S. adults approve of the decision last year to re-establish U.S. relations with Cuba, while nearly as many (73%) favor ending the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, according to a new national survey by Pew Research Center conducted Dec. 1-5. Also, it is important to note that Florida did not go Trump because of the Cuban-American population. Trump’s Florida win was in fact due to votes from white voters in the I-4 corrider section of Florida. The Cuban-American vote was a non-factor. (read this thoroughly researched article on what happened in Florida). In fact, 63% of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade county support lifting the embargo, according to a FIU poll released Sep., 2016. In fact, Hillary actually out-performed Obama in Miami-Dade — a testament to how far Cuban-Americans have evolved in this area of discussion.

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(Cubans stand in support of the opening of the US Embassy in Cuba, 2016)

WHAT DO CUBANS WANT?

Mostly all Cubans I have spoken to on the island welcome the reconciliation efforts made by President Obama. After half a century of butting heads, both sides are fatigued from the hostility. It was evident when you saw the faces of joyful Cubans during Obama’s visit. A young journalist, Elaine Diaz Rodriguez (the editor-in-chief of a Havana-based independent news digital magazine, Periodismo de Barrio) expressed it bluntly yet eloquently when describing this new “frenemies” relationship between US and Cuba.

“There can be no true friendship between the governments of Cuba and the United States. They represent two opposing political systems and the first has long been denying the right of the second to exist and vice versa. The most we can expect is tolerance and respect. And that is exactly what we achieved, in a way, after December 17,2014 under Barack Obama’s administration”. She continues, “but people do not have to play by the same rules as governments. There has always been true friendship between the people of Cuba and the people of the US”.

The rest of how this story plays out will take time. We presume it will be a slow burning relationship that needs to be fostered and healed over the next few years, as we focus instead on the few things we DO have in common, as well as our general mutual interests.

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(Young Cubans enthusiastic to catch a glimpse of their first US President visit in 88 years when Obama strolled  through Havana Vieja, March 2016. Photo: © Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Elaine closes her letter to Trump with the affirmative answer: “Both leaders have spoken loudly: we want relationships, we want embassies, we want the negotiations to keep going, we want to reach an agreement in every area and we are open to dialogue. We people want to be close, not far. We want to build bridges, not walls”.

It’s safe to say that lots of Cubans feel as she does. And now for the next steps.

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GET INVOLVED

To affect real change as Americans, we need to mobilize our constituents around the US. If you’re an American and are in favor of bettering Cuba/US relations, here is a basic overview of how “people power’ can help push this forward.

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Contact your representative:
Constituents outreach has been incredibly helpful in gaining support from Republican members of Congress for lifting the embargo.  Here is a link with a sample script for folks to call Congressional offices, as well as a sample letter to send to Representatives. Although the majority of my readers are from LA, NY, MIAMI, I strongly encourage everyone to reach out to Republican members of Congress.

Contact the Administration:
While only Congress can lift the embargo, as you know, the Administration has a lot of latitude in terms of easing or tightening sanctions. Trump’s nominee for Treasury is Steve Mnuchin (read about the Hollywood movie financier). So to all my Hollywood friends and readers, if you have a connection to Mnuchin, reach out and urge him not to roll back changes. A lot of the regulatory changes have happened through the Dept. of Treasury.

Donate:
Here is a link to donate to the Engage Cuba Foundation. Engage Cuba is a national coalition of private business, organizations, and local leaders dedicated to advancing federal legislation to lift the embargo. Currently, there are three bipartisan bills that Engage Cuba is actively advocating for in Congress. Read more about their legislative priorities here. If you care about the embargo being dropped, this is the organization to support. Donations to the Engage Cuba Foundation (a 501(c)3 non-profit) are tax deductible.

Read:
1- Book: Open for Business, Building the New Cuban Economy to better understand the new private sector in Cuba, and the need to support Cuban entrepreneurs.
2- Newsletter: Go to EngageCuba.org and subscribe to their newsletter to stay in the loop on Cuba/US Affairs.

Go online and voice your opinion:
If you’re at Sundance this week and if these films resonate with you, post a social media message or write a blog post (if you’re not at the festival, spread the word anyways).

SAMPLE TWEET:

1- We ask Trump not to rollback regulations on Cuba. See #GiveMeFuture @Diplo @MajorLazer to see real engagement #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba

2- It’s time to engage w/Cuba & show solidarity with the Cuban people #GiveMeFuture #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba @majorlazer

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Utah is getting a big injection of Cuban fever at the start of 2017. We’ve spent the better part of the year reading about the importance of Cuba/US engagement from media outlets like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a myriad of other outlets. Journalists have played an important role in opening this discussion while reporting a balanced story line.

This Jan 2017, it’s the filmmakers and artists who will show us what exactly engagement looks like. We’ll see curious cameras entering homes, filmmakers having “on the ground” discussions with every day Cubans, and putting a mirror up to Cuban society. None of the films are about the normalization process per say, but each of the tales are of everyday life — an American concert on the malecon, the only State-run phone company in Cuba (ETECSA), the selling of a home in Cuba, and a school that teaches English to Cubans, and more. Because all these films were captured in 2016, it is all the more reason to pay attention to what these local Cubans are expressing as we enter the Trump administration in 2017. It will take an act of Congress to fully lift the US embargo, but the more that Americans understand Cuban society today, the better it will respond to its needs in order to grow and prosper in this new era. We cannot affect Cuban policy, but we CAN affect American policy through phonecalls to our legislators, and shifting the American consciousness towards a more open relationship with Cuba. Of course Cuba will need to determine their own future, but these films are a peek into a society seeking to redefine itself.

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(Casa en Venta – a short film on the the new real estate sector for homeowners)

I’m lucky enough to have worked on two of these films (Films #1 and #2 below) which will premiere at the festival this January, one as a Story Producer and the other as a Cuba Production Consultant. Upon entering Pre-Production, each of the teams asked a bevy of questions which opened healthy dialogue — including the current state of Cuba, its relation to the US, its complex history, its challenges with filmmaking, the US Embargo laws, the tone of questions permitted, the current reforms in Cuba, the spectrum of characters, etc. etc. It seems that answering one question in Cuba begets another 50 questions. Something as simple as weak internet on the island poses enormous challenges during production, including emailing local staff or sending large files to the States. It’s a rabbit hole of lessons, but each production diligently pressed forward and managed to capture their stories with tight deadlines, frustrating conditions, an open heart, and limited budgets. Together, both films bookmark the gamut of the population today — from the elder tales of Buena Vista Social Club to the hungry young tech scene of Major Lazer’s audience. One film presents the bowing out of an older generation, while the other film introduces the future of Cuba. Both generations are very dear to me, and both being an honor to explore with Directors Austin and Lucy respectively (and their film families) who all came to Cuba in 2016.

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(Conectifai – a short film on Cuba’s phone company and internet status)

The other 3 films playing at the Sundance Film Festival this January are mini docs, but despite their short length, they are all paramount stories to explore in Cuba today. These include the story of technology today (the phone company and the emerging internet), the new home “buyers market”, and the tale of a small school that teaches Cubans to speak English as they prepare to work with “La Yuma” (nickname for the Americans).

All three storylines share the urgency of Cuba’s desire to integrate into the global economy and international community. The most interesting part of these 3 shorts is that it was nurtured by an American Institute, Sundance Labs (who attended the Havana Film Festival the last two Decembers to workshop scripts and stories with local filmmakers). Together, the 3 shorts are presented as a collection entitled “Made in Cuba”, an an example of the Sundance Institute’s “longstanding commitment to international artists” says Paul Federbush who spearheads the lab. These films were guided by the Institute’s Documentary Film Program in collaboration with La Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV (EICTV) and Guardian documentaries.

… and now a breakdown of all 5 films:

Screen Shot 2016-12-26 at 6.57.46 PM.png1- Give Me Future: Major Lazer in Cuba – Director: Austin Peters / USA – FEATURE FILM

In the spring of 2016, global music sensation Major Lazer performed a free concert in Havana, Cuba—an unprecedented show that drew an audience of almost half a million. This concert documentary evolves into an exploration of youth culture in a country on the precipice of change. World Premiere U.S.A., Cuba

Austin Peters is a director living in New York. Raised in Los Angeles, he went on to study film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has directed two short-form documentaries: Braids, starring Lupita Nyong’o for Vogue, and NYC, 1981, a companion piece to the recent film A Most Violent Year. His music videos for Chvrches’ “Empty Threat” was named one of the 10 best music videos of 2015 by Rolling Stone

Screen Shot 2016-12-23 at 11.06.50 PM.png2- Buena Vista Social Club Doc / “Untitled” -Dir: Lucy Walker / USA,UK-FEATURE FILM

The musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club exposed the world to Cuba’s vibrant culture with their landmark 1997 album. Now, against the backdrop of Cuba’s captivating musical history, hear the band’s story as they reflect on their remarkable careers and the extraordinary circumstances that brought them together. World Premiere.

Lucy Walker is an Emmy Award–winning director and two-time Academy Award–nominee. She is renowned for creating riveting, character-driven nonfiction that delivers emotionally and narratively. Her films—including Waste Land, The Crash Reel, Devil’s Playground, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, and The Lion’s Mouth Opens—have won over 100 awards and honors. Her new film, the untitled Buena Vista Social Club documentary, is her fifth feature (and ninth film) to screen in official Sundance Film Festival selection.

Screen Shot 2016-12-26 at 7.01.58 PM.png3- “Connection” or “Conectifai” – Dir: Zoe Garcia

ETECSA—Cuba’s only telephone company—installed Wi-Fi routers in 18 public parks in 2016. For many Cubans, this meant being able to go online for the first time. Now connected to a technology that is entirely new to them, we see how Cubans explore social media, online dating, and the ability to reconnect with family members living just 90 miles away. U.S. Premiere
Director Zoe Garcia graduated in mass communication studies, specializing in photography, at the Higher Institute of Art in Havana, Cuba. In 2008 she took a course on documentary cinema and TV at the International School of Film and TV in Cuba. Garcia has worked as a screenwriter, assistant director, and photographer.

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 9.50.48 PM.png4- Film: “Great Muy Bien” – Dir: Sheyla Pool

After the United States restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, it was no longer unrealistic for Cubans to dream of one day living and working abroad. Citizens of all ages, with diverse aspirations, enroll at the makeshift Big Ben English school in Havana in order to prepare themselves for a future of normalized relations between Cuba and the United States.

Director Sheyla Pool graduated from the University of Havana in Hispanic languages and in sound from the International School of Film and TV at San Antonio de los Baños. She wrote and directed Protege a tu familia and Frágil. Pool was a consultant for the script of Esteban. Currently she is working on the script for Vínculos.

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 9.49.24 PM.png5- “Casa en Venta” or “House for Sale” – Dir: Emanuel Giraldo

After over 50 years, the ban disallowing citizens of Cuba from selling their own houses is lifted. Three Cuban families invite us into their homes as a showcase to prospective buyers — to hear their “sales pitch.” Filled with memories, souvenirs, and family members, these intimate spaces are filled with affection, highlighting a country on the verge of historical change.

Director Emanuel Giraldo Betancur was born in Medellin, Columbia in 1989 and graduated in film directing from the International School of Cinema and Television. Some of his projects are 1,2,3. . . Let’s Dance! and Amapearte. In December 2015, he participated in Nuevas Miradas in Cuba with House for Sale (2016 Sheffield Doc/Fest), which was supported by Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program.

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Stay tuned for more information as these films screen at the festival (or follow @TheNewCuba on Instagram for live activities).

For media inquiries, contact Jauretsi at jauretsi@gmail.com

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I first met Edgar when he was 16 years old in early 2000’s out of his bedroom making beats in the secluded neighborhood of Alamar (the Bronx of Cuba). Since then, his hunger and passion for music has grown and grown. Once the new kid on the block, he is now a forefather to Millennials making music in Cuba. His style has been shaped by a range of genres as its permeated the island, from traditional, raw guajiro, to rap music, and electronica. DJ and Producer Gilles Peterson once referred to Edgar as the “J Dilla of Cuba”, always pushing boundaries, maintaining Cuba’s sonic identity, yet redefining the new Cuban sound.

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Here at The New Cuba, Edgar is part of our stable of artist for various music productions, so we’re proud to give him a shout for this beautiful new portrait piece done by the crew at WeTransfer. The web series is called “The Creative Class” and features soulful artists and innovative minds in Cuba.

Watch the whole video here:

For more episodes of The Creative Class visit www.thecreativeclass.tv

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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.

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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.

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(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”.

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The 10 winners this year are:

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

Conoce Cuba (Havana) Entrepreneur: Eliecer Cabrera Casas. www.cnccuba.com
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. www.cubaroom.net
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. www.cubazon.com
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. www.lbpromo.com
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. www.isladentro.net
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. www.kehaypahoy.com
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. www.knal.es
An efficient SMS platform to advertise events, products, services and other information, customized for each user.

MiKma (Havana) Entrepreneur: Janse Lazo Valdés. www.mikmacuba.com.
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. www.ninjacuba.com
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.

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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).

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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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