• Top Five Havana, Cuba Travel Tips

    July 14, 2017 // 12 Comments »



    Though the rules governing travel to Cuba by Americans are expected to tighten back up this fall, that shouldn’t stop you from traveling there. I just got back from Havana, and the place is well-worth what little extra effort it takes to get there. Here are a few things I learned that will help your trip…



    1) You can’t use U.S. credit or ATM cards. You have to bring cash.

    You really do. I know that one blog said you could use your U.S. debit card, and your friend’s cousin’s old boyfriend claims he hit up ATMs across the island, but because of the American government’s six decade long economic embargo on Cuba, U.S. folks cannot do any business electronically. Your credit cards and ATM cards will not work. Nope. No way. Most everyone else, no worries, ATMs are available, at least in bigger cities. But as an American you have to arrive in Cuba with the money you will spend, in your pocket, in cash. You simply cannot access your money at home (maybe via Western Union if mommy will wire you) from Cuba. Scour the web for prices for your style of travel, add some extra for extras, and roll up to Cuba with a (literal) bankroll.



    2) Changing money (CUC versus CUP)

    With the exception of at the few duty free shops available at the airport as you exit Cuba, all tanned and happy, everything you buy will be bought in one of the two local currencies. So you’ll have to change your foreign money. U.S. dollars (alone) are penalized for the exchange (it’s all politics, friends) at 10%, so it is better to get Euros, Canadian dollars or even Yen outside Cuba, and then exchange those.

    It is relatively quick and easy to change money at the airport upon arrival. You already have your passport with you, and the workers there are used to the whole messy process even though you may not be. Change what you think you’ll need for the whole trip at once. Otherwise, once in town, changing money means either a lower rate at the big hotels that may help you, or a typically long wait at a local bank where clerks seem to draw mysterious strength from working s-l-o-w-ly and enjoying watching you burn away your vacation hours in their lobby.

    There are two currencies circulating, convertible pesos (known as CUC) and “local” money (known as CUP.) Do some Googling on the difference. The short answer is CUC is used nearly anywhere you’ll be as a tourist, is desired by local people as a tip or payment, and is what you will receive anyway when you exchange foreign currency. The coolest part about the local money, the CUP, is the three peso note has Che’s picture on it, a great souvenir. You can change any leftover CUC — but not CUP — back into foreign currency when you depart Cuba.


    3) Taxis and negotiations

    A lot of things in Cuba are negotiable, none more than taxis. For practical, casual, tourist purposes, there is no such thing as public transportation. You’ll travel around by taxi. They have no meters. Taxi drivers have been doing this longer than you have.

    So research a bit and get a general idea of what prices are from the airport into old Havana, or from Vedado (a popular AirBnB location) into town. For the latter, we paid at times US$5 and US$20 for the same trip. Nicer cars, time of day, negotiating skills, official taxi or not, and maybe just luck all affected price. If you are a group, make sure the price you settle on (and settle before you get in the cab!) is for the whole group. Some unscrupulous drivers will offer a group of say four a low price, only to demand x4 that price upon arrival. Negotiations are soft-style, a smile, a little sigh, a lower number, another smile, that kind of thing. You’re not Liam Neeson trying to get his daughter back, you’re on vacation.



    4) Spanish words, every one helps

    Speaking of negotiations, every word you know in Spanish will improve your trip to Cuba. English is not widely spoken, and in most cases you will have a better/easier/smoother/more culturally mindful time if you can tell drivers your destination in Spanish, and settle a bill in Spanish. So go, right now I’ll wait, and write down the Spanish words for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25… and so on. Know the street address of where you’re staying in Spanish, and thrown in an hour of review online somewhere for a few handy phrases. It’ll all pay off. Tourists who already can communicate well in Spanish are in for a real treat because…


    5) Hit the Beach (Playa de Este)

    …because the Cuban people I met were uniformly friendly, warm, and interested in chatting. We were held back only when language walls were reached. Not everyone was willing to talk politics, but if you want to, so do some others. Local baseball fans seem well-informed about what was happening in the U.S., and young people have reasonable access to the web and are aware of music and fashion trends, at least in Miami and the Bronx.

    One can’t miss way to mingle is to hit the beach. About 30 minutes’ taxi ride outside of Havana is the Playa de Este area, a string of great beaches. Pick one (we liked Santa Maria), go on a Sunday, and it will be mostly Cubans of all types. Go on a dull Monday afternoon, and there still will be plenty of local people. Everyone is in a good mood, beer and rum may be involved, and it was easy to strike up a conversation. The beach trip also gives a short-term visitor a (albeit) brief glimpse outside the city itself.

    You can also easily find people to talk with at Havana’s outdoor WiFi spots, as well as the usual places like bars, cafes, restaurants and the like.



    Bonus

    Otherwise, I encountered no crime, and never felt threatened or afraid. Drink bottled water. Wear good walking shoes, and sunscreen like it’s the tropics because it is. Bring pocket tissues as some public toilets don’t have toilet paper. Enjoy the fact that there are no fast food places cluttering up the streets.

    And say hello for me to the Cuban people. I already miss being in their company.




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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    U.S. Government Hilariously Creates Secret-Cuba Twitter, Then Just Quits

    April 4, 2014 // 27 Comments »




    There is, clearly to at least two or three people in Washington, no greater threat to American safety and security than Cuba. America has had a Cold War hard-on over Cuba for decades, and so spending millions of taxpayer dollars on it, even if it means a lot of that money actually and knowingly gets paid to the Cuban government itself, is OK. Freedom isn’t free.


    One of the most recent such events was a failed U.S. government attempt to create a Cuba-only Twitter-like text system, and then to use subscribers’ mobile phones to seed anti-Castro propaganda. The bizarre thinking underlying all this was that such social media would foment “flash mobs” in Cuba that would somehow lead to a people power revolution to overthrow the Cuban government.

    Cuba Libre, Cuba Tweet

    In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), best known for overseeing billions of dollars in reconstruction money in the successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, decided to create a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s Internet restrictions. It was called ZunZuneo, apparently slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. Like Twitter, get it?

    To hide the U.S. government’s involvement in all this, fake companies were established in the Cayman Islands, while DNS spoofing and other naughty tricks were employed to disguise the origin of messages, all with the goal of making sure neither the Cuban government nor the Cuban people knew this was a U.S. propaganda ploy. The plan was, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, for the U.S. to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content” such as soccer scores and hurricane updates. When the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, the U.S. would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” that would assemble at a moment’s notice a Cuban Spring. One USAID document said the formal goal was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” This was all at a time when the U.S. fantasized that the Arab Spring would yield the same outbreak of democracy that the Ukrainian Orange Revolution is now famous for.

    Hilarious aside: USAID in its internal project documents called hard-core Castro supporters “Talibanes.”

    No Hay Problemas

    To begin, the propaganda network coincidentally activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to surreptiously help “provide citizens access to the Internet,” was arrested. No one claims there is any connection.

    As the Cuban government became aware of the program, its users (who had no idea they were unwitting stooges in a USG black op) came under intense suspicion. This may cause Cubans to be wary of participating in future U.S. programs, and/or to be very suspicious of any legitimate third-party programs for fear of ending up in jail.

    Because sending the texts needed to participate in the program was quite expensive in Cuba, and because the U.S. sent out thousands of messages itself, significant amounts of U.S. money were paid directly to the Cuban government-owned telephone company. The good news for taxpayers was that the Spain-based front company for this mess negotiated with the Cuban government for a bulk-rate for the texts. Can I get a Viva! from the crowd?

    When the service started to become popular and exceed the technical capabilities of what the U.S. set up, the U.S. limited Cubans to only one text a day per person, unlikely to be conducive to creating flash mobs and revolution.

    Various problems capped Cuban participation in the program to only about one percent of the total population. At one point USAID claimed this was good, and kept the project “under the radar.”

    By mid-2012 Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all, and ZunZuneo simply vanished. The old web domain is now up for sale by a URL broker. Surprisingly, no takers to date. The ZunZuneo Facebook page is still online, last updated in May 2012. Be sure to hop online and “Like” them.

    To hide the program from Congressional scrutiny, the money spent on Cuba was taken out of funds publicly earmarked for Pakistan.

    As part of all the texting, a contractor for the project built a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” This will never be leaked, hacked, stolen or ever come into the hands of the Cuban government so that they can stomp out any legitimate dissent.

    A lawyer specializing in European data protection law, told the Associated Press it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team illegally gathered personal data and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish front company. Especially in the wake of the revelations of NSA spying throughout Europe, this is unlikely to have affect on broader relations.

    Since USAID, ostensibly a humanitarian aid organization, apparently created several international clandestine front companies, spoofed Cuban telcom networks and funneled money through Cayman Island banks, there is no chance that the CIA had anything to do with any of this.

    USAID at one point turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on “new media projects.” Ms. Hall, who appears to be about 26, is captured on video here, explaining how cool social media thingies are. Please note the statue of Hillary Clinton on the bookshelf on the right side of the screen.

    Nothing in the documents available lists exactly how much this all cost American taxpayers.


    Note: As we go to press, the Cuban government is still in power and doing just fine, thank you. Please note that U.S. government efforts to promote freedom in Cuba in no way conflict with U.S. government plans to maintain its off-shore penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, indefinitely.



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    More Drowning on Hypocrisy

    May 25, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    Holding one of her endless signature “Town Hall Meetings,” this time on the role of enhancing civil society, Secretary Clinton stated (apparently without irony as she is programmed to do):

    Each time a reporter is silenced or an activist is threatened it doesnt strengthen government, it weakens a nation… We have to continue making the case for respect, tolerance, openness, which are at the root of sustainable democracy.



    As a sign of commitment to such openness, the State Department continues to censor Washington Post articles about my case from its internal press summary. While running other articles from the Post’s Federal page, State did not include yesterday’s or today’s story. Luckily, despite such pathetic efforts at message control, the Washington Post has a greater circulation than State’s own press summary.

    Meanwhile, Clinton’s own State Department struck blows against respect, tolerance and openness, this time through the denial of visas to enter the United States for people whose words scare us.

    That’s what the State Department has done ahead of the 30th Conference of the Latin American Studies Association, to be held this week in San Francisco. Of the 2000 or so conferees expected from Latin America, eleven Cubans have been singled out and denied visas to enter the United States. Of the eleven, many are well known and internationally respected academics with long-standing ties to top American scholars. One is a former ambassador to the European Union. Another once taught at Harvard. All eleven had previously traveled to the US. The State Department’s form letters to the rejected applicants said that their presence would be “detrimental” to American interests.

    As if to make it abundantly clear that such actions are policy, not happenstance, the same week the Cuban scholars were deemed too dangerous to enter the US, the State Department also denied a visa to the US to Muhammad Danish Qasim, a Pakistani student and filmmaker. Qasim released a short film entitled The Other Side, that shows the social, psychological and economical effects of American drone attacks on the people in tribal areas of Pakistan.

    Denying visas to people whose ideas scare America has a long history, and was a favorite tactic of the Bush administration. That it is in healthy use by the Obama administration is not a surprise, but do we have to listen to Clinton’s endless empty prattle about freedom alongside of it?



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