Even though I have been reading about Cuba for six years and talking with many people that are "in the game", I had never been to Havana. So, this is my story about my first trip to Cuba.I want to thank Rich Waltzer and Craig Jacobs from SplashDrinks.com for inviting me to Havana for the Alimport food conference called “Commercial Negotiations”. I was able to travel legally to Havana under the US business license of Splash Tropical Drinks in order to try to sell snack foods.
I'm writing this travel log to inform average Americans (like myself) who have never been to Cuba. I designed the Havana Journal for the same purpose.
Tuesday April 13, 2004
So, I’m on the 6:00 am flight from Boston to Miami followed later in the day with a flight from Miami directly into the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Havana. You will need a “specific” or “general” license to travel from Miami to Havana. See the US Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control for more information about the US restrictions regarding trade with and travel to Cuba.
Tuesday afternoon I arrived at the Hotel Palco in Miramar in the shadow of a Spanish colonial church. It is connected to the Palacios de las Convenciones. I received my credentials for the Alimport food conference and met with Bob Guilmartin from Splash Tropical Drinks.
Bob said there would be a cocktail party hosted by Chairman Alvarez that evening so I quickly went to hook up my Advisor to the Havana Journal, Gary Shannon. We rented a car and he brought me over to a legal casa particular in Miramar. A quick shower and then back to Hotel Palco for the reception.
The lower level was filled with US business executives and politicians. My other Advisors to the Havana Journal were at the reception, Rich Waltzer and Larry Luxner from CubaNews.com. Open bar and the mojitos were flowing freely. I was told that attendance was 450 US citizens representing over 200 US companies. Pedro Alvarez, chairman of Alimport was there and spoke to us about the possibilities of more trade with Cuba. Ricardo
Alarcon, President of the National Assembly was also there talking with people.
Stayed there for a while then hooked up with my guy Gary for a drink at the Hotel
Nacional. WOW, great first site to see. The Hotel
Nacional was built in 1930 and the lobby
of the Hotel Nacional and clocks
in the lobby at the Hotel Nacional are fantastic.
Then, off to Plaza Vieja for a beer. The place is closing and in walks a high ranking Cuban official that Gary knows. I won’t go into more details but let’s say that we stayed there till about 2:00am.
So, at the end of my first day I have to say I am wildly impressed with the whole Cuban experience.
Wednesday April 14, 2004
This was a business day of casual meetings for me. Bob G, Rich Waltzer and Craig Jacobs were handing the business negations for the snack foods.
I met many people from a variety of US-Cuba trade related industries like poultry, port authorities, shipping and logistics, medical and other food related companies. The entire day was all business for everyone at the show.
There is a Casa Del Habano, an official Cuban cigar store, in the Hotel Palco. I understand that visitors can legally return to the US with cigars accompanied by a receipt stating that the purchase price was $100 or less. I bought my share but would have loved to buy all the authentic Cuban cigars.
Invitations were extended to us for this evening's speech by El Presidente Fidel Castro at Palacios de las Convenciones to be followed by a dinner reception at the Hotel
El Presidente arrived promptly at 6:00pm and Fidel Castro began his speech at 6:10pm after a standing reception. I had been told that he can easily speak for hours without a break. He spoke without stopping until 9:00pm, without notes, without a break or interruption and without taking any questions. He started out slowly with a rough voice but became more clear and energetic after about an hour of speaking. Many times he complemented his points with detailed statistics and relevant facts.
El Presidente left the room slowly and many people got a closer look at Fidel Castro
The convention room was nicely air conditioned. A rather simple room by US convention standards but the translators and sound quality of our headsets were excellent. Pedro Alvarez of Alimport is to the left and Congressman Otter is to the right.
Each line represents a subject that El Presidente talked about in great detail. I couldn't resist the opportunity to note each topic.
I couldn't resist the opportunity to note each topic.
Meals in Cuban schools
His love for rice cakes and asked for aide to get some
Calorie count of various crops
History of mankind
History of architecture
Population growth and the world’s ability to feed all the people
Rice cakes arrive 7:27pm
and he offers them to people
Now more energetic
Refers to his news briefing book and talks about the AP news story for this event
Now on target about buying food in quantity from US and recent history but does not want to be captive to one large supplier
Likes to pay cash and get discount
Has bought 20000 computers from Vietnam
Now back to talking about education
Medicine and healthcare
US food production
Food purchases from China
8:50 Castro ask for the time
He ends the speech and gets a standing ovation. He picks up the microphone and keeps speaking for ten more minutes.
Buying US food
Sugarcane cutters now literate thanks to Revolution
Will have to have quotas on US tourists when Embargo is lifted
Central bank minister hosting Hotel Nacional dinner
After 5 years from time of lifting Embargo, US-Cuba trade would be $20 billion
Alimport purchases would triple
Havana turned on the charm for our dinner! I couldn't resist the opportunity to stand up on the famous
stage at the Hotel Nacional. The President of the Bank of Cuba addressed the crowd. Then, without notice, one after another after another about fifty
Cuban wait staff burst out of the kitchen doors carrying a FANTASTIC Caribbean salad that was half boiled lobster and 3 large
shimp. As they delivered each salad, they continued to the kitchen to get more and I would say that all 300 +/- guests were served in less than five minutes. VERY impressive.
Each course was followed by dancing or
music and entertainment on the stage. The menu featured a five course dinner followed by Cohiba Esplendidos for anyone that wanted them. There are no smoking restrictions in Havana so the room quickly filled Cohiba smoke. I quit cigarettes eight years ago and haven’t even had a cigar in that time. I figured if I was going to have a cigar, I wanted it to be a Cohiba. Little did I expect that it would be a gift
of a Cohiba Esplendido from the Cuban government inside the Hotel Nacional after a fantastic meal and day of international business.
Thursday April 15, 2004
The day started with a presentation called “Business opportunities in Cuba. Alimport announced that they have signed multiple contracts and that the show has been a great success. Mentioned many high level US business people and politicians at the show…including 57 people from Florida. First US food was bought just 19 months ago.
Great presentations about the interest and need of the Cuban government for foreign investments in oil exploration offshore and on land, oil refining, Mariel port dredging and operations and many other industries. Cuba expects to do $150 million this year in joint ventures. There are currently 343 joint ventures. Law 77 in 1995 legalized foreign investments by the way of joint ventures with the Cuban government.
Top foreign investment countries are Spain, Canada, Italy, France, Mexico then China. China is moving up very fast. Apparently there is a lot of Chinese investments in Cuba now. Current priorities are tourism, hotel development and golf. There are 41,600 hotel rooms in Cuba now.
See www.cpi-minvec.cu in Miramar for more information. Speaker sums up the presentation with the quote “The best way to predict the future is to build it”.
Other events that day
Telephone service from the hotel was clear and reliable. The ladies at the desk were very helpful with translation when needed.
The ladies at the Business Center were also very knowledgeable and helpful.
Met with Sergio from cubaweb.cu (Cuba's top rated web site) and we talked about the Internet.
(Cuba's top rated web site) and we talked about the Internet.
Take a look at my spectacular view of Vedado Havana from my second casa particular on Calle Linea in Vedado, Havana. Everything about Havana is interesting and different than in the United States. Check out the hot water system in the shower.
Gary took me to see Bruno at a Cuban paladar called Casa Sarasua. Bruno, the owner of the licensed 12-seat paladar (home-based restaurant) features a lifetime collection of historic guns, swords, documents, Cuban exonumia and other memorabilia.
We had dinner with the former Minister of Communications and talked about Cubacel, Cuba's wireless cellular network.
Friday April 16, 2004
April 16, 2004
Took the day off away from the show and met with the publisher of the new H Magazine at the Miramar Trade Center. There is currently three or four buildings in the complex. More are under construction and there will be a complex of eight buildings when done. I understand that this area is the business center of Havana.
Jose Marti Monument. This is midday traffic in downtown Havana.
The Gran Teatro of Havana Cuba was magnificent...the Partagas Cigar Factory and the Plaza de la Revolucion (note all the satellite dishes on the roof). Checked out the Plaza de la Catedral and sat next to a Santeria woman.
We had such a great dinner at Bruno’s last night that we had to go back a second night. We had a generous ham steak, salad and papas fritas (French fries) and a nice bottle of Chilean wine. $43 for four people.
Saturday, the plane leaves at 3:40pm for Miami. I ran around with Gary to do some business and some errands with him. We went out to San Miguel del Padron. There is most certainly a different lifestyle in this Havana suburb. I leave the commentary for another day but this is the Cuba that tourists usually don't see. Poor yes. Poverty? I would say that exactly. There are no homeless people or "bad areas" with regards to crime, just very run down living conditions. There is a lot of rubble and overgrown bushes and trees but no trash on the street. The outskirts of Havana need to be seen to be understood.
Expenses were minimal:
2001 Volkswagen Gol (like a Golf in the US) for $75 a day, unlimited miles from Havanatur.
Casa Particulars were $35 a night.
Meals were less than $5 usually except at the Hotel Palco.
Souvenirs and cigars
I read that Alimport signed $80 million to $106 million in contracts to buy US food this week.
So, I'm telling everyone back home that I would go back again right away and bring my wife and kids. Politics and human rights issues aside, Cuba truly is the "Pearl of the Antilles".
It is a very different culture than the United States.