Sugar Barons

A Curated World of All Things Cuba


The battle for minds of Cuban Millennials has begun. Well, technically the hunt is for digital folk in Cuba, but as we all know, it’s the youth culture that has this language on lock. There has been all this controversy this week from the left to the right, to the moderates on this issue of infiltrating the Cuban digital sphere. It’s posed some very hard pressing questions, but before I get ahead of myself, let me summarize the story.

The United States government, through an organization called USSAID (self-described as a “development agency”) whipped up a digital experiment to harness the attention of young Cubans on the island. Considered a micro-blogging site with some sort of text messaging network, the agency called the platform “Zunzuneo”, which is Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s call.

Because the Cuban government has draconian laws controlling the internet, the next smartest way to gather this demo is by utilizing cellphone text messaging to collect a subscriber base. Cell phones were legalized in 2006 in Cuba in one of Raul Castro’s reform efforts when first inheriting power from his brother, Fidel. Therefore, the last few years have seen a spike in Cubans owning cell phones.

A USAID document stated that the plan for Zunzuneo was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” In other words, to create “smart mobs” after hundreds of thousands cell phone numbers were collected. In essence, to eventually spark a “Cuban Spring”. The platform was marketed chiefly to young Cubans.

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Zunzuneo was launched in February 2010. Through a string of secret tactics (the US government calls this “discreet, not covert”), the front company was based in Spain with a shady bank account in Cayman islands. Upon the launch, Zunzuneo was marketed strongly with non-controversial content — sports, weather, entertainment — anything to just attract Cubans to sign up. The plan worked. Within 6 months, at least 25,000 subscribers signed up. Without realizing it, this government agency became a tech start-up, but didn’t’ have the bandwidth to run the business.

The Cubans didn’t care. They just ate up social networking. How can you blame them? One puzzled yet joyful Cuban told the AP Press, “The whole world wanted in, and in a question of months I had 2,000 followers… I have no idea who they are, nor where they came from.” Another savvy digital Cuban user called ZunZuneo “the fairy godmother of cellphones.” For the first time, young Cubans were developing followers — a virginal concept to this isolated youth.

By early 2011, the front company (Mobile Accord) was running into serious problems. According to AP, “USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies”. In an effort to take the burden off US government’s pocketbook, some tech companies were approached. It was rumored that Jack Dorsey (Twitters Founder) was approached as a buyer, but he has not commented nor obviously purchased Zunzuneo. Thank god too, considering none of the potential buyers were given the true facts of this projects origin.

And so began the conundrum — a social platform with 40,000 Cuban subscribers growing fiercely, and at the same time drowning in bills, and paying ungodly sums to the Cuban government. In mid 2012, the US pulled the plug, thereby confusing young Cubans all over again. After the tease of providing social networking, the website shut down leaving no explanation, leaving thousands of Cubans to scratch their heads in wonder. Was it a dream? Poor guys. I feel for them. All along, they had no idea it was a US government operation. They were just flirting with their honeys, exchanging sport scores, and texting joyously — probably the deepest part of this experiment, however, was the ability to make young Cubans FEEL CONNECTED for the first time.

On the other side of the coin, I found myself being hypocritical with myself. When I read about the uprisings of Iran through social media during their 2009 elections, I was rooting fists up in the air for any organization fostering the usage of internet for activists in repressed countries (USAID being one of the organizations promoting the flow of information in digitally prohibitive States). Yet somehow, this Zunzuneo blunder made my stomach turn. Why do I feel the same US tactics of fostering activism online used in North Korea, Burma, Syria, and Iran are OK, but why do I get creeped out when we meddle with Cuba?

And so I began to soul-search for linear belief, assuming a “one-size-fits-all” model would work for worldwide online diplomacy. The truth is, the story of Cuba is unlike any other in our history with the US. Most of these Cuban millennials were raised on a strict diet of storyline, which is that “the bad Americans are always usurping Cuba’s sovereignty” (not entirely false) and ready to attack. Even in 2004, when I was filming my documentary, East of Havana, I witnessed a State Official lecturing a crowd of young Cubans on how Bush might bomb Cuba that week, now that he is bombing Iraq. “Cuba could be next” implored the President of Hermano Saiz, “and we would have to organize marches all over the island against Bush” he continued. This is the everyday script handed to young Cubans, that the big bad wolf is lurking around the corner and ready to pounce.

The Cuban cocoon is airtight. My only fear is that we have thickened the walls of this cocoon by a perceived creepy digital invasion. The Cuban Twitter was not only about liberating information, but it was also a surveillance operation for the US Administration to categorize and diagnose the Cubans’ dissident level, from “low” to “medium” to “high”. Alas, now all Cubans can feel as vulnerable and naked online as us Americans do. Snowden woke us up. Zunzuneo woke them up. Finally, the Cubans have joined the 21st Century. We are all paranoid now.

Author Emily Parker, advisor to Hilary Clinton on digital diplomacy (and author of a book on Internet controls in Cuba, China and Russia) tells AP, “The U.S. needs to tread very carefully in countries like Cuba because to directly support [dissidents] makes it easy to call them mercenaries,” Parker said. “That sometimes does more harm than good.”

The more that the United States continues these secret operations to undermine Cuba’s everyday life, the more it allows the Cuban PR machine to spin out of control and stoke the nationalist fires of this David-and-Goliath narrative. I’m not saying I’m against freedom of internet. On the contrary, I find it is one of the most important basic human rights. All Cubans deserve freedom of information. I just feel the United States needs to play their cards smarter. The failed digital experiment just gave us more rope to hang ourselves, and ultimately, damaged any credibility or trust from the exact demo we aim to earn respect from — the Cuban Millennials.

It’s funny because, a good portion of people trying to uphold the US Embargo are the same people supporting this online cloak-and-dagger project. Senator Marco Rubio even stated his support for Zunzuneo: “Because this program, in my mind, is successful,” says the hardliner. “Not only am I glad that we did this program, what I’m upset about is that we stopped”.

Oh, the irony. The US Embargo (which Rubio supports) forbids any US citizen to spend money in Cuban civil society, and worse yet, putting money into the coffers of the Cuban government directly. Here is a US approved operation that is funneling major dough and writing checks to Cubacel (Cuba’s version of AT&T). Basically, it’s OK for the US government to pay a Cuban State business, but it’s evil if I spend my money in Cuba supporting whatever positive causes I believe help open the minds of my friends down there? Why the double-standard? Why does the US government get to spend money secretly infiltrating Cuba, but I cannot go openly and spend my money for what I believe are positive steps towards reconciliation. Wouldn’t it be easier to just drop the Embargo, be transparent, and foster change by letting ideas come in and out freely?

There’s a famous saying that goes: “a dictators best friend is a foreign enemy”. While Americans continue playing the big antagonist, the Cuban State pushes its propaganda. It buys more time for the repressive control of Cuba’s media, travel, voting rights, etc, because an attack on Cuba (digital or military) by America is always another distraction. Can we just stop this dance? We do not have this romantic tango with North Korea, and thus I believe the caribbean nation needs to be handled uniquely. It’s a different storyline, and requires a different strategy.

Another example of handling Cuba with honey, versus salt, was the simple gesture Obama made last year when shaking Raul Castro’s hand at Mandela’s funeral. I happened to be visiting Cuba that week and felt the ripples firsthand on the island. As a foreign policy tool with Cuban youth, it created a tidal wave of smiles that week in Havana. After 11 American Presidents had snubbed Cuba’s leader, here is one US President who shook a Castro hand — a small gesture but titanically symbolic. Did it solve any problems with political prisoners or human rights? Hell no. Is this too simplistic an example? Probably. All I can tell you, is that “the handshake” offered healing balm for a wound long infected. Despite young Cubans criticizing their own system (and sometimes their own leaders), it was a show of respect by America, and we earned some brownie points with Cuban youth. I believe that it IS possible to expose Cubans to good American values without implicating them in a dangerous covert US operation which can get innocent (and unsuspecting) young Cubans jailed.

Another friend once said, “If you drop the Embargo, let the real Fidel stand up”. That means, if we stop playing into the aggressive storyline, then maybe the Cuban administration would have to provide solid answers to their own people — of why they can’t vote? Why their travel is so regulated for citizens? Why their media is censored? Why the controls on the internet? Some of these official Cuban State answers hide behind the Embargo itself, so how about lifting the veil, and removing all excuses?

I mean, we’ve tried 55 years of Embargo already. Clearly, that plan ain’t working. What do we have to lose? The rebellious young Cubans have already discovered YouTube and Facebook and are using it wisely to their advantage (albeit their limited usage). Let’s remove our blockade and support the young Cubans without a forced hand. The kids will be alright.


For more details on the Cuban Twitter story, visit the articles at
Associated Press and The Miami Herald and The Atlantic.

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Big change is afoot in the area of Cuba investments. Normally, this is an area relegated to non-Cubans or foreign investors who are unemotionally linked to the Cuban Revolution.

(The Fanjul Family)

Early February, Sugar Baron tycoon Alfonso Fanjul (no relation to this blog) is the first major Cuban businessman (US Resident with a Spain passport) to stand up and speak out about his desire — and willingness — to consider investing in Cuba. This is akin to a Cuban “coming out of the closet” metaphorically. It is something many Cuban-Americans have considered, but have not had the courage to speak aloud. Of course this has caused an earthquake with the more conservative Cuban bretheren who refuse to engage in any island activity until both Castro’s are gone and the nation has transformed into fully democracy.

What made this old-school cat change his beliefs 100% from his previously unprogressive manner of thinking? A healthy visit to Cuba awoke the sleeping giant. Alfonso, also known as “Alfy” took a trip to Cuba in April 2012, then another in Feb 2013. He was so touched and taken aback after an approximate 50 year absence, that he chatted with everyday folks on the streets of Havana, and eventually all the way up to Cuba’s foreign minister. He also toured state run farms and checked out a sugar mill. In essence, he feels that if every other country in the world is checking out Cuba for future investments, then why shouldn’t his family, who had previously lived in in Cuba for 150 years pre-revolution. How can one argue that sentiment? I’m certainly not mad at him.

Here’s the statement that got him into hot water with the conservative right…
“Now, would we consider an investment at some later date?” says Fanjul to the Washington Post. “If there’s an arrangement within Cuba and the United States, and legally it can be done and there’s a proper framework set up and in place, then we will look at that possibility. We have an open mind.”

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(A Younger Mr and Mrs Alfonso Fanjul at Taboo, the Palm Beach Post)

The reason I believe hardliners are angry is because Alfonso could be a “game-changer” to shift popular opinion, both with US Policy makers and within the Cuban-American power circles. Everyone follows a leader, and Alfonso is one of the kings in the scene. Before this change of heart, he was known as a major funder of Anti-Castro movements. He’s also close to members of Congress and the Clintons. Of course this is a swamp of moral issues considering the lack of human rights on the island, the restrictions of freedom of the internet, the lack of free assembly, and many more injustices that the caribbean nation must answer to before dealmaking. It seems, however, that Alfonso has found himself a seat at the negotiation table, and will be an interesting chess piece in the game of Cuba/US policy. It’s the role of a lifetime, and he is grabbing his seat at the table with grace.

Alfy’s narrative harks back to his youth, beginning with the emotional journey of a young boy who fled Cuba after having his family’s Sugar Cane fields taken from the family. He spent a lifetime rebuilding the sugar empire in a new country. Last year, he finally returned to the motherland at the age of 76 years to face all his old demons, only to embark on this profound healing process in the 3rd Act of his life. Above that, let’s not forget, Fanjul is a businessman. The lure of Havana’s gradually opening market poses challenges in this new world. It is also a chance to visualize bringing his family’s flag back to the native soil. It is this mission that lights up this mans heart with high voltage. I look forward to discovering what projects this soul-searching individual has cooked up within the next few years in Cuba, despite all the slings and arrows he will receive from Cuban conservatives. He is part of a growing consciousness of elder Cuban-Americans contributing to the solution, not the problem.

“Do I have a soft spot in my heart?” he says to Washington Post. “Yes, that’s my country. My interest is finding a way to unite the Cuban family. When you talk with people and hear them, it humanizes. Talking is the first step.” We’ll be watching, Alfy.

Read the full article on Alfono Fanjul in the Washington Post.

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MARIA BACARDI album copy copy
(Maria’s album stash from her mothers pre-Revolutionary record collection)

2 weeks ago, I invited Maria Bacardi to the Sugar Barons Show. Born in Cuba in 1957, Maria Bacardi left the island as a young child to be brought up and educated in Europe. On the show, Maria surprised me by bringing her mothers old vinyl (pictured above), the same albums she witnessed her mother weep over for years in her youth. Yes, the records came from Pre-Revolution Cuba, to exile in Spain, then new York — 55 years later.

We played 3 songs I believe. We talked about how it is time to reconcile with Cuba, to release the wound, the pain, the anger while working towards a new day with our brothers on the island. Then the show ended, Maria hopped in a New York taxi. As she stepped out of the car, she mistakenly forgot the record bag. I felt a sharp panic when Maria first told me she lost her mothers albums, and haven’t stopped thinking about them for 2 weeks, and where they drove off to.

Yesterday I also received more news. Maria Bacardi’s mother just passed away peacefully after a very long illness. RIP Elena Gomez del Campo Bacardi.”If I know her well” writes Maria, “she has already started to organize a major dancing party in heaven”. Yes, I add, “with good rum”.

P.S. Maria is also passionate about supporting theater. Her first album, Deseo (2013) is rich in standard covers, so of course I had to ask Maria to sing Beny More’s “Como Fue” acapella in the studio. Good times.

Listen to the original podcast here:
Sugar Barons Show: Guest Maria Bacardi

To listen to additional shows/guest, visit Sugar Barons Radio.

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Curated by Adam Kvasnica, some of the songs on this mix features tracks by Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Band & Danay Suarez, Obsesión, Harold Lopez Nussa, Cuban Jazz Combo, Danay and more…

One of the producers of this Gilles Peterson album is Edgar Gonzalez, who recently appeared on the Sugar Barons show and brought some of his own remixes to play on air (expect that podcast posted on this site soon).

Danay Suarez, another singer who appears on this mix is the voice behind the closing credits song on East of Havana (an acapella doowop track played against a sunset kissed Malecon drive).

Havana Cultura Mix

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During broadcast hours, all TVs in Cuba are on, no matter if they are being watch or just serving as background noise. Simone Lueck is a Los Angeles based photographer originally from St. Paul, Minnesota who visited Cuba and captured TV culture, for better or worse. The photo essay is a hardcover 80 page book.

The actual television sets are outdated relics imported from America or Russia close to twenty years ago. Convulsing static pictures in off-color hues, the sets are jury-rigged with computer parts and other discarded technological talismans; they are adorned like religious altars.

In her words:

It happened by chance. In 2000, I tagged along with a good friend on a two-week trip to Cuba. I took my 35mm camera and a bunch of film. The first thing I noticed in Havana was that the city was dark at night. There were no streetlights, porch lights or living-room lamps. It was pitch black except for the faint colorful glow spilling out of open doors everywhere, and it came from the TVs. The light captivated me. For the next two weeks I wandered around, slipping in and out of strangers’ living rooms. Each time I came across an open door and a TV set, I asked if I could take a picture of it. The answer was always yes. Nobody seemed to think it was an odd request and it was usually accompanied by a Cuban coffee or rum.

To purchase the book, visit

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Im posting this information from the Freedom House website because the topic of Internet in Cuba is one of the most debated in my conversations. This data covers last year’s freedom of the press report (the 2012 report is being edited now and not yet ready).

Here is the information:

Cuba has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas. The constitution prohibits private ownership of media outlets and allows free speech and journalism only if they “conform to the aims of a socialist society.” Article 91 of the penal code imposes lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” and Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy imposes up to 20 years in prison for committing acts “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.” Cuba’s legal and institutional structures are firmly under the control of the executive branch. Laws criminalizing “enemy propaganda” and the dissemination of “unauthorized news” are used to restrict freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. Insult laws carry penalties of three months to one year in prison, with sentences of up to three years if the president or members of the Council of State or National Assembly are the objects of criticism. The 1997 Law of National Dignity, which provides for prison sentences of 3 to 10 years for “anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy’s media,” is aimed at independent news agencies that send their material abroad.

In July 2010, the Cuban government promised the Spanish government, the Cuban Catholic Church, and the international community that within four months it would free the 52 prisoners, including 20 journalists and editors, still held since the 2003 crackdown on political dissent and independent journalism known as the “Black Spring.” By the end of the year, 17 journalists and editors and most of the other of the Black Spring detainees had been released. The Cuban authorities forced the released prisoners to leave the country in exchange for their freedom. They were immediately flown to Spain in a Cuban effort to marginalize opposition groups. Three journalists and several other dissidents involved in this case remained in prison at the end of the year, having refused the government’s offer of exile. While the release was a relief for journalists and their families after years of suffering, the gesture did not signal fundamental changes in freedom of expression for all Cubans, and the laws under which they were jailed remain in place. The U.S. government and some European leaders publicly stated that Cuba was moving in the right direction by releasing the prisoners, but the European Union (EU) decided to maintain its 1996 Common Position toward Cuba. The 27-nation bloc turned down Spain’s request to withdraw the doctrine, and continued to link improved European-Cuban relations to Havana’s progress on human rights and democratization.

Journalists continue to be at risk of imprisonment or other severe sanctions if they engage in independent reporting or commentary. In a different case, Alberto Santiago Du Bouchet of the independent news agency Habana Press remained in prison at the end of 2010. He had been given a three-year sentence imposed in May 2009 for disrespect and distributing enemy propaganda.

The government owns all traditional media except for a number of underground newsletters. It operates three national newspapers, four national television stations, six national radio stations, and one international radio station, in addition to numerous local print and broadcast outlets. All content is determined by the government, and there is no editorial independence. Cubans do not have the right to possess or distribute foreign publications, although some international papers are sold in tourist hotels. Private ownership of electronic media is also prohibited.

Approximately 15 percent of Cuba’s population accessed the internet in 2010, but in most cases, they were connected to the government intranet and not the internet proper. Many citizens have access only to a closely monitored Cuban intranet, consisting of an encyclopedia, email addresses ending in “.cu” used by universities and government officials, and a few government news websites such as that of the newspaper Granma. Outside of hotels, only a few privileged individuals have a special permit to access the international network of the World Wide Web.

The regime threatens anyone connecting to the internet illegally with five years in prison, while the sentence for writing “counterrevolutionary” articles for foreign websites is 20 years. However, the authorities do not have the means to set up a systematic filtering system. This forces the government to count on several factors to restrict internet access: the exorbitant cost of connections—about US$1.50 per hour from the points of access to the state-controlled intranet, US$7 per hour from a hotel to access the international network (the average monthly salary is US$20)—and infrastructural problems, particularly slow connections.

Despite these restrictions, there is a small but vibrant blogging community. Bloggers in Cuba have yet to be jailed for their work, but they often face harassment and intimidation. Independent Cuban blogger Laritza Diversent claimed that the trials that characterized the crackdown in 2003 have been replaced by extralegal harassment, including official summonses and arbitrary detentions, and social and cultural marginalization. Some, such as Yoani Sanchez, have also been prevented from travelling abroad to receive awards for their work.

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 30
Political Environment: 34
Economic Environment: 28
Total Score: 92


(Image: Originally published in another article for the The New York Times entitled Cyber Rebels in Cuba Defy State Limits)

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