Sugar Barons

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

(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:

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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

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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.

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(Photo: from John Glenn school)

I’ll admit it, I have not written on my Cuban blog for a few months. I’ve been truant on my own mission of trying to stoke the fires of change — to help foster the reconciliation of US/Cuba relations, and work towards a free (yet sovereign) Cuba. Yet the radio show remained my only forum to celebrate Cuban culture.

Ever since I began this blog on MySpace (I realize I am dating myself here), I’ve been questioning my own beliefs, questioning the US administration, questioning Cuban leaders, questioning the intent of Cuban-American hardliners, and desperately seeking to find resolve within all these voices. Then suddenly, I wake up on December 17th to an iPhone blowing up with news. Alan Gross was freed that morning. Obama would speak to the nation at noon. After 55 years of repeated script, the paradigm shifted. Just like that. And so began the explosion in my mind.

I dove into newspapers, TV, internet, lunch chats, Facebook, Instagram, and any possible independent media I could gobble up. There was mostly cheering (by global peers) and jeering (by hardliners). If Cuba loosens up through US engagement, then Obama is a genius. If Cuba’s iron fist tightens up thanks to their newly empowered economy courtesy of the US, then Obama is an idiot. Nonetheless, GAME IS ON. Obama just hit the “redo” button in a masterful game. The nuances are so complicated that only time will tell how this story unfolds. I had always claimed that Fidel was the best chess player of them all, outfoxing 11 American presidents, but the question remains, does Raul know the game?

The important thought is that Obama created an energetic shift. There is no evidence of Cuba promising a democratic society, but the difference with this dance, is that instead of using salt (isolation), Obama is using honey (engagement) to shift relations. I have no idea if this will work, but my heart and mind are intrigued of what is to come. I have awoken from my coma. Since my first trip to Cuba in 1997, and after shooting a documentary and hosting a radio show on the culture, the truth is I got sick of hearing myself say the same thing over and over again. “The Embargo is ineffective”… I felt like a broken record of sorts, while I placed another record on the turntable.

Then December 17th happened. Then 53 political prisoners were released. Six days ago, US announced the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba. I am filled with so much emotion, so much confusion, so many questions. Are we moving too fast? Has it been too slow? But alas, the road ahead is at the very least, NEW and FRESH. It’s almost as if Obama has just ripped off a gooey bandaid that’s rotted for half a century. It hurt everyone like a motherf$%#r. There were lots of screams. Sure, some skin got ripped. What remains is an ugly infection that has been grossly neglected. Will this wound heal? Is it beyond repair? I hope so. But more importantly, the laceration can now receive some air to breathe.

It will most probably get worse before it gets better, which leads me to my next thought. Healing. Some would call it a divine and mystical experience. Let’s move away from all the politics for one second and look at the significance of the exact speech date, December 17th.

According to spiritual tradition, December 17th is the “Feast of San Lazaro” for Roman Catholics. “Babalu Aye” is the equivalent Orisha, who represents the dead or diseased.

In Cuba, both locals and far away visitors congregate at a place called “El Rincon” located South of Havana. It is an annual mecca and arduous pilgrimage with visitors offering prayers, dropping pennies, and asking for miracles. In Hialeah, Miami, there is an equivalent spot also named “Rincon de San Lazaro” mirroring the same activities. On this day, hundreds of Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits were praying in droves and asking for miracles to end suffering. To the spiritually sound, many feel San Lazaro intervened.

Both Cubans, be it on the island or the ones in exile, have a deep faith in the divine which consequently, gets intertwined with politics. Lets take the Elian incident for example. The boy was found Thanksgiving day (1999) in the ocean after 50 hours of being alone in the blistering sun and shark infested waters. All 13 of the 14 people died on three inner tubes that fell off their DIY boat which capsized in a storm. After seeing his mother sink into her ocean grave, Elian prayed to the guardian of the sea to protect him day and night while drifting alone. Finally, a few fisherman discovered the boy, still praying in Spanish. His raft was surrounded by dolphins (note: it is sea folklore that wherever there are dolphins, there are no sharks) which means some Cubans interpreted this as Elian being angelically protected all the way to shore.

The sacred narrative was that Elian, like Moses, was abandoned by his mother to offer him a better life. After being found in the waters, this baby would grow up to lead his people from exile (Miami) back to their homeland (Cuba), just as Moses led the Israelites (to the promised land). It is also interesting to note, Elian was captured by US Immigration on Holy Saturday (AKA, “Easter Eve”, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) to be returned to his father in Cuba. To Catholics, this was the day Jesus layed in his tomb.

Conversely speaking, there was an opposite mythology from the Castro side. Symbolically representing Ellegua (the divine Orisha), Elian was perceived as a good luck charm that Castro needed to repossess, or forever lose his godly mojo of protection. Many spiritualists theorized why Fidel fought so hard to have this one boy return. Of all the hundreds of thousands of defectors leaving Cuba, this was the “chosen one”, the golden boy who must return to keep the leaders power intact. And thus began the epic tug of war that launched the Elian saga… having this poor little boy used a pawn between 2 nations.

Back to December 17th. An additional factor is the mystical merging of Feast of San Lazaro with the first day of Hanukkah in 2014. It would be the exact day that we would see a Jewish man, Alan Gross, released from exile (a Cuban prison) to return back home (the US).

What does this all mean? Is it a mere coincidence of date? It seemed out of nowhere, yet there has been 18 months of secret negotiations between both nations. Obama was raised by an anthropologist mother, which means, it’s possible Obama might be more of an astute chess player than we imagined. Or was it Raul’s idea? Instead of polarizing narratives (which clash like the Elian saga), this symbolic storyline contained more harmonious ingredients — 2 sides praying for healing and miracles, 2 sides praying to end suffering. On this one day, both Presidential speeches stopped throwing punches, dropped their differences, and requested to seek common ground.

“Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism” said Obama, pointing out the historical shortcomings of both sides. “Todos somos Americanos.”

Raul spoke through rickety TV sets all over the island: “Cuba reiterates its willingness to cooperate in multilateral bodies, such as the United Nations”. He also spoke about considering the “principles of International Law and the United Nations Charter.” Whether Raul keeps his promise or not, is another matter. Raul continued: “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people.” Then he broadcast Obama’s face on national television to reaffirm the peace talks. All of Cuba’s youth population was born after the Revolution and deep into Anti-America fever. If seeing an American President speak lovingly on Cuban television was not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

For those that don’t know who Jose Marti was, he is considered one of the founding fathers of Cuba, a Cuban George Washington, if you will. Towards the end of his speech, Obama quoted Jose Marti: “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.” Drop the mic, Obama.

Is this the end of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere? Well, maybe it’s not the ACTUAL ending, but it is the long awaited thawing. There is ALOT of work to be done. For now, let’s call it “the beginning of the end”… and it all began on December 17th.

Long live San Lazaro…

… and Babalu-Aye. Take it away, Desi!



If you listen to the Sugar Barons show, you’d know that I am a fan of a good cover track. One of the songs I play often, in all its different incarnations in Piel Canela (meaning “Cinnamon Skin”). It was originally written by Puerto Rican artist named Bobby Capo, who recorded an English version in Havana with Sonora Matancera.

Since then, the song has been covered TONS of times in Spanish by American artists — think Nat King Cole, Eydie Gorme, Linda Ronstandt, etc, etc. Josephine Baker recorded a French version. It’s a delightfully infectious track.

“Black eyes, cinnamon skin, that drive me to desperation.
I care about you and you and you, and only you and you and you,
I care about you and you and you, and no one else but you”.

Here’s Eydie bringing it home…

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Ana Sofia Pelaez feels life through her food. Raised in Miami as the great niece of the avant-garde painter Amelia Pelaez deCasal, her childhood dinner table was surrounded with stories of Cuba, culture, and family. Ana finally moved to New York and flipped the recipes with her Brooklyn markets, while launching a food blog called Hungry Sofia in 2008.

In 2011 she plotted to visit her homeland to write her magnum opus. Enter The Cuban Table. This is more than a cookbook, it’s a feast of images, history, flavors, and storyline. Photographer Ellen Silverman also photographed Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook My Fathers Daughter. Ana’s dedication reads: “To my grandparents, who had to leave it all so I could have it all”.

Follow Ana on her Blog or Instagram: @hungrysofia

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