Sugar Barons

A Cuban-American living in New York. Building a cultural bridge between US and Cuba, one day at a time.

Photo by: Lisette Poole

It’s official. Yesterday, Airbnb announced their launch in Cuba, listing 1,000 Cuban properties on its website for American users to book (half of these homes are in Havana). I’m impressed with the official statement made by the company on its blog, specifically stating the support of the Cuban people and it’s growing private sector.

“Because we’re building on the rich Cuban tradition of home sharing, we’re uniquely positioned to help Cubans reap the rewards of economic growth while preserving their unique culture. When Airbnb guests stay in local neighborhoods, they bring business to surrounding entrepreneurs—whether they be hosts, artists, or even ice cream shop owners.”

The listing for Casa Particulares (aka home hotels in Cuba) starts at $30 and up per night. Of course, there will be many snags in the road:

First is the low internet penetration on the island (Time magazine states that Bloomberg reported only 4% of Cuban homes have Internet access of any kind). The Airbnb site relies on healthy internet usage in order to search, communicate, and book rooms. For now, Airbnb is working with “local intermediaries” to manage the listings and connect hosts with customers. There is no such thing as a clean-cut solution in Cuba, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The second issue is the fact Americans pay with cash only once in Cuba. The Airbnb model relies on 3% commission per booking which is made during the online transaction. The makeshift solution has Airbnb contracting a license money remitter, Florida-based VaCuba, to make payments on its behalf.

We salute Airbnb for finding productive solutions to complicated issues during this peaceful transition.


Leave a comment

Muestra Joven is a showcase of young talent hosted by ICAIC (Cuba’s Film Institute). It’s sort of a competition festival of audiovisual work made by Cuba’s youth today.

Screenshot 2015-03-26 23.51.30

This fresh director, René Alejandro Díaz Rodríguez, competes in the Animation section with his short film, Tiny (Minisculo). In only one minute, this animator seems to capture the “grandeur of small things”. Moreover, it shows (at least to me) how talented and young hungry Cuban artists are seemingly behind schedule, but in reality, have developed an epic imagination in their isolated vacuums… ready to be shared on the world stage.

Read more about Muestra Joven and other young directors to watch, happening this April 2015 in Havana.

Leave a comment

Screenshot 2015-03-26 23.21.52

Read this clever article released by fairly new blogger, and amusing writer, Ana Dopico on her blog Cuba Cargo Cult.

In it she describes: “The recent pictures of Paris Hilton with Fidel Castro Díaz Balart taken while the socialite was in Havana visiting the Habana Hilton (opened by Conrad Hilton)…. Smiling side by side, the selfie socialite and the socialist scion (a good photogenic surrogate for his father) seem to annul sixty years of history. Here we are, it seems to say, the celebrity descendants of two famous dynasties (three if you count the Diaz Balarts), and isn’t all that other nonsense irrelevant when a good selfie is all you need to heal the world. One can almost imagine Paris in the near future naming her new baby Havana Hilton.”

Read the full article on Cuba Cargo Cult, entitled Socialite Revolution: Dynastic Fantasies, Aristocratic Touches and Surrogate Royalty in Havana. Her Conan coverage is tight too.

Leave a comment

Although this podcast and article was released in 2012 for National Geographic, it still presents a fairly broad view on contemporary Cuba, it’s challenges, it’s black market, and mixed feelings about the future — all packaged in hope.

(Photo Credit: a receptionist in Viñales. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin)

For those beginning to read on the islands modern day news — This article, (Cuba’s New Now), is considered Cuba 101 today, although lots more has transpired since the normalization talks began in Dec 2014.

Listen to this informative podcast interview with the author.

Leave a comment

(Film Still: Esteban Insausti’s “Long Distance,” starring Zulema Clares)

This is an an old blog post I never got to publish, and it is mostly ripped off from The New York Times but given the new American policy shift, I feel it’s an important article to take out of drafts and publish into the ether. The struggle for Cuban filmmakers may take a turn if Obama opens American financial channels (namely crowd-sourcing sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter) to help fund Cuban resident filmmakers.

United States government dedicates millions of dollars each year to programs intended to promote civil society and democracy, yet cuban Filmmakers who are telling everyday life stories through their films, are cut off from this flow of American money. Currently, there is no way for a Cuban filmmaker to access American capital to tell these stories.

Case in point: Cuban filmmaker Miguel Coyula raised $5,200 on Indiegogo for his independent film but the funds were frozen.

“It’s absurd that we are in the 21st century, and we have no legal framework for independent producers,” said the director Esteban Insausti, whose 2010 feature, “Long Distance,” explores emigration and the trauma of separation. Cuban government does its part in hampering filmmakers, keeping politically provocative movies out of theaters, not recognizing private production companies, and making it hard for filmmakers to obtain permits for, say, filming on the street.

Indiegogo suspended the campaign in August and froze the money after determining that transferring funds to Cuba or a Cuban resident would violate the United States’ economic embargo.

(Cuban Director Miguel Coyula)

“It was like someone pulling the rug from under your feet,” said Mr. Coyula, who spoke in English by phone from Havana. “That was when I realized I was really on my own, that making a movie in Cuba is hard because both the Cuban government makes it difficult, and the American government makes it difficult.”

Another barrier for Cuban filmmakers are Film grants. Disqualified from grants from American institutions, crowd funding was the next logical option get films made. “Blue Heart,” which will use newsreels, animé and fiction to tell the story of a failed experiment to create a perfect revolutionary through genetic engineering, will cost about $30,000 to make, he said.

Here is the first 5 minutes of the film:

Another person who attempted to aid filmmakers, Ubaldo Huerta, a Cuban technology expert who lives in Barcelona, shut down Yagruma in February 2013 (a crowdfunding platform specifically for Cuban projects). He shut it down a little more than a year after he started it. Paypal issues were involved.

It is these same restrictions that also prevent Americans from investing in Cuban movies and prohibit Americans from making most films on the island.

Read the rest of the article at The New York Times / Cuban Filmmakers

(Film Still: “Conducta,” starring Armando Valdés Freire, center, and directed by Ernesto Daranas)

NOTE: Filmmaker Miguel Coyula says if you’d like to help him make his film, email him directly to:

Leave a comment

Screenshot 2015-01-30 16.08.36

La Gran Fuga is a story about sports, patriotism, and family. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez is a national treasure to the Cuban people, and struggled with his decision to leave his country for the promise of excelling at his passion – the game of baseball. His story is filled with complex repercussions with a cat-and-mouse escape plan worthy of a novel.

Here’s an excerpt written by Jonathan Butler:

Inside and outside of Cuba, Fidel Castro had used sports as a symbol of the revolution’s achievements, as well as a proxy for a war against the United States. Elite Cuban athletes were not only expected to defeat American opponents on the field of play, they also had to help win the media battle against capitalism. As a boy, Orlando would have been exposed to boxer Teofilo Stevenson’s three–gold-medal Olympic domination (’72, ’76, and ’80), as well as his well-publicized rejections of riches to fight professionals like Muhammad Ali: “What is one million dollars compared to the love of my people?” Along with superstar teammates like Omar Linares and Germán Mesa, Duque came to occupy an equally strategic place in Cuban society—the athlete and the human being coming together to symbolize the success of the béisbol machine and the revolution itself. He even wore 26, a number ubiquitous on the island owing to its political significance. Duque himself would later explain he simply inherited it from his father (along with his nickname), but for many others it signalled loyalty to Movimento 26 de Julio, aka M-26-7, the organization Castro formed with Che Guevara that led the Cuban revolution.

Read the “play-by-play” article on the Victory website: EL Duque La Gran Fuga

Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.51.55

Leave a comment


Strolling through a record store in Sag Harbor, I bumped into this precious find, a collection of readings by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was an elusive figure in Havana, partaking in all the macho rituals of the Latin man — booze, women, hunting, and fishing… did I mention, drinking? If you visit his home in Cuba, Finca Vigia, you’ll feel the energy and decadence that must have taken place in his backyard pool pre-Revolution. I took my father to the home once, and he sat there in silence a few minutes before sharing the visuals he recalled as a little boy in that home (when my grandfather used to visit him). On a hot balmy day, Hemingway would toss walls of ice in the pool which also doubled as floating device to place your cocktail on.

It’s these personal stories that made me pick up this record and read the liner notes like a little schoolgirl. His wife, Mary, writes the forward notes on the record about how much Ernest hated recording his own voice, calling the microphone “his deadliest enemy” and “the blackest villain that stalked his life”. The album contains 5 recordings, most at Finca Vigia. One is called “Work in Progress” which were conversation tapes Ernest made for Mary while writing. Another is called “Saturday Night at the Whorehouse” about his work The Light of the World. Some of the recordings are poems he wrote for Mary. 

Pre-internet days, I would have to told you to go ahead and dig for this record yourself with slim chance, however, today, the tools are different for the curious-minded. There’s a few of these out-of-print records at MusicStack ranging from $23 to $103. It makes a lovely gift for an aspiring writer due to the recording “The Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech”. In it, Ernest endearingly stumbles through the discomfort of his public speaking, yet offers wise words to an aspiring writers.

Leave a comment

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,084 other followers