Monday, August 31, 2009

Cuban Actors Do Shakespeare in Alabama

Diplomatic drama: Cuban actors in US perform Bard
August 5, 2009 by The Associated Press / JAY REEVES (Associated Press Writer)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — It's opening week for a new act in U.S.-Cuba relations: A Spanish-language version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is beginning a three-day run at the University of Alabama, starring professional actors from Havana.

Anyone up for "Un Sueno de Una Noche de Verano"?

The Obama administration's decision to let 12 Cuban artists enter the United States for the production marks a midsummer milestone of sorts for greater U.S. openness toward the Communist-ruled island nation.

"This is beyond uncommon. No musician or performing group has been allowed in this country like this from Cuba since 2003," said Ned Sublette, a performer and composer from New York who has studied and written about Cuban music.

With nearly three weeks of rehearsals complete, the troupe of 10 Cuban actors and two managers are turning the Bard into a modern-day diplomat. They will perform Thursday through Saturday in a joint production with nine University of Alabama students and a Tuscaloosa-area actor.

The drama within the drama: the Cubans speak little English and the Americans, no Spanish. But together they are memorizing lines in Spanish to stage the 400-year-old romantic comedy about young lovers, fairies and an enchanted forest.

"None of the American actors speak Spanish," said the director, Seth Panitch, an assistant professor at the university who helped the Americans learn dialogue and even when to take their cues in a foreign language. "It's terrifying for the Americans."

Panitch compressed about 2½ hours of Shakespearean dialogue into 90 minutes of Spanish-language drama.

Alianne Portuondo Olivera, 23, said the communication gap hasn't been too wide. The Cuban actress portrays Hermia, who is loved by two different men.

"We can communicate with each other by physical actions and emotions," she said through a translator. "The American actors we are working with are always aware of the work of the Cubans, and the Cubans are always taking care of the Americans."

The play, to be staged in a small campus theater at $5 a ticket before a mostly English-speaking audience, comes amid what advocates of more U.S. openness toward Cuba see as a string of encouraging events.

Last week, American actors Bill Murray, Robert Duval and James Caan visited Cuba on a research trip, and U.S. has agreed to let the New York Philharmonic perform in Havana later this year under an exemption to travel restrictions to Cuba.

And last year, Panitch traveled to Cuba to direct another Shakespearean play, "The Merchant of Venice," under the university's Treasury Department license to conduct research with Cuba.

This year, Panitch sought to bring Cubans to Alabama for a production, not knowing whether a history of strained relations between the two countries would thwart his plans. Travel between the countries is tightly restricted.

The play was cast in January with actors Panitch knew from his work in Havana, and the Cuban government granted permission in late June for the actors and managers to travel.

Despite some tense moments, the U.S. government approved the visas in July, days before the Cubans were scheduled to leave for Alabama. "Getting them here was very difficult because there were so many days when we didn't think it would happen," Panitch said.

For now the Cubans are under a busy rehearsal schedule while living in a university dormitory. But they've managed to do a little sightseeing in Alabama, touring Birmingham, cruising a local river and sampling Southern barbecue.

Following their run in Alabama, the Cubans plan to return home to perform "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Havana with Cuban actors filling the roles performed by the Americans in Tuscaloosa.

Advocates for greater cultural exchanges say there were a burst of them under Bill Clinton's presidency in the 1990s and for a few years into the George W. Bush administration.

Whether there will be more Cuban arts and cultural groups allowed to visit the U.S. is an open question.

In Washington, the Obama administration hasn't issued new policies on U.S.-Cuban cultural exchanges. But State Department spokesman Andy Laine said the government "continues to review our policy with Cuba."

"The president wants to ensure that we are doing all we can to support the Cuban people in fulfilling their desire to live in freedom," he said.

Cuban officials in Havana did not return messages seeking comment.

Louis Head, executive director of the Cuba Research and Analysis Group, is anxious for the next act: "What we're waiting to see is something more of a definitive policy change out of the Obama administration."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

US Bishops Urge Change

US bishops press for further easing of restrictions on Cuba

By Catholic News Service

Posted: 8/21/2009

HAVANA (CNS) -- A delegation of U.S. Catholic bishops visiting Cuba urged U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leaders to take advantage of the change in the U.S. administration to end the trade embargo Washington has imposed on the island nation since 1962.

"I believe that the church (both in Cuba and the U.S.) wants to be the protagonist of a better approach," Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., a member of the U.S. bishops' international policy committee, told reporters at a press conference in Havana Aug. 18.

After a meeting earlier in the day with the staff at the U.S. Interests Section, which represents the government in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries, Bishop Wenski said he believes the Obama administration's revision of policies toward Cuba is serious and proceeding step by step.

The U.S. church supports easing travel to Cuba and eliminating the embargo that prohibits most trade between the two countries.

Obama has already announced the easing of restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba to visit relatives, loosened restrictions on how much money people can send to their relatives, and created some openings in trade barriers to facilitate telecommunications improvements. Efforts are pending in Congress to end all travel restrictions and to end the trade embargo.

"The church of Cuba wants these changes as much as the church in the United States," said Bishop Wenski.

He also said such gestures raise the confidence of both parties that further change is possible. He insisted that after opportunities for change were lost in the past "it's important we not lose the opportunity this time."

Bishop Wenski, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantu were visiting Cuba the week of Aug. 17, in part to see the island's progress in recovering from three hurricanes and two tropical storms that hit late last summer and fall.

The U.S. bishops provided $250,000 in hurricane relief aid as part of $860,000 in support given last year to the church in Cuba.

The U.S. prelates, accompanied by Oblate Father Andrew Small, head of the Church in Latin America office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal O'Malley's secretary, Father Jonathan Gaspar, also met with Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino and were scheduled to meet with Ricardo Alarcon, the head of Cuba's parliament.

At the press conference, Cardinal O'Malley said the U.S. church "has a very close historical relationship with this country." Since the visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Cardinal O'Malley said, conditions for the church and its relations with the government have clearly improved.

"We see that the church now has more space, and we want to see that grow," he added.

Bishop Wenski said he was astonished at the progress at a seminary built recently near Havana. He said it is appropriate that during this Year for Priests designated by the Vatican the seminary is the place where the seeds of vocations are nurtured.

He said the presence of a seminary in Cuba is testimony to the hope for the pastoral mission of the church.


US church leaders urge Obama to end Cuba embargo

By JAMES ANDERSON (AP) – Aug 18, 2009

HAVANA — A delegation of U.S. Roman Catholic Church leaders urged Barack Obama's administration Tuesday to seize what they called a rare political opportunity to lift the 47-year-old economic embargo against Cuba's communist government.

Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida, said the U.S. church welcomed a recent move by Washington to relax travel restrictions on Cuban Americans with family in Cuba as well on the remittances they can send to those families. But he said there is much more to be done.

Wenski said at a news conference that the U.S. church hopes "both sides listen to their better angels" and move to normalize ties.

The U.S. church long has urged an end to the embargo, imposed by Washington in 1962 to weaken Cuba's communist government. Opponents argue that easing or lifting the sanctions will only sustain a government that doesn't tolerate dissent.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston said Obama's election presents a rare opportunity to bridge an "immense psychological distance" that has marred relations and end an economic policy the church says punishes Cuban citizens.

"There were other opportunities that were lost," Wenski said. "And it's important we do not lose the opportunity this time."

Wenski, O'Malley and Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Antonio, Texas, met on Monday with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section, which serves as an informal U.S. government mission. They planned to meet with Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's parliament, later Tuesday.

Wenski said the delegation came away from the Interests Section meeting with the impression that U.S. policy toward Cuba is under review and that "their approach seems to be piece by piece." He urged a quicker pace after "50 years of lack of confidence on both sides."

"That's a lot of history to overcome," Wenski added. "We would hope that both sides listen to their better angels."

The delegation is also in Cuba to check on church-funded hurricane recovery projects.

Cuba's Catholic Church received more than $860,000 in funds from U.S. churches after Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma struck the island last year. The storms caused more than $10 billion in damage, left about 500,000 Cubans homeless and devastated farms across the island. Church funds are being used to rebuild homes and local churches and to construct a new seminary on the outskirts of Havana.

The delegation is visiting parishes in Havana and the eastern cities of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba before returning to the United States on Friday.

Under Obama, the U.S. and Cuba have agreed to renew immigration talks suspended under the administration of President George W. Bush. But they've sparred over a U.S. suggestion that Havana release dozens of political prisoners.

Cuba insists that any dialogue have no preconditions — but it also has pushed for the release of the "Cuban Five," men convicted of being unregistered foreign agents by a Miami court in 2001. Three also were convicted of conspiracy to obtain military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command. Cuba says that the men were trying to avoid terrorist attacks on the island and that anti-Castro sentiment in South Florida kept them from getting a fair trial.

Wenski said Tuesday that the Cuban church has enjoyed more freedom since a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II and that the country, which is suffering a severe economic crisis, "has reasons for hope. I believe this visit is a reason for that kind of hope."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Venceremos Brigade Travel Challenge

Busting the Cuba embargo

Lila Nordstrom: Cuba is an inspiring country for Americans like me to visit – and going there is an important act of civil disobedience

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The 18-year-old Canadian next to me on my flight from Toronto to Cuba had, like me, undertaken a 10-plus hour journey to get to the airport. She lives in a small town that sends children to school by helicopter. I had taken a bus from New York City, which only feels like the wilderness if you are trying to get to Cuba. While we looked similar in our summer clothes, she was going to Cuba for a week of sun and surf. I, on the other hand, was embarking on an act of civil disobedience, breaking US law merely by being on that flight.
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Aside from a brief reprieve during the Carter administration, the US has prohibited travel by US citizens to Cuba since 1961. The restrictions are enforced through the US Treasury department, so Americans are able to travel to Cuba through third countries. However, the restrictions make it illegal for tourists to "engage in any travel-related transactions". Essentially, then, it is illegal to buy a ticket to Cuba or spend any money there. In doing so one risks receiving a substantial fine from the US government and potential harassment by customs and immigration officials upon returning to the US.

I was on this flight to Holguin as a member of the Venceremos Brigade, a US-based Cuban solidarity group that returned to the US on 3 August. Communist countries have a tradition of inviting international brigades to visit, do some sort of revolution-furthering volunteer work and learn about the successes of the revolution.

The Venceremos Brigade is somewhat unique among Cuban solidarity brigades, however, since in travelling to Cuba participants are not just showing support for the ideals of the Cuban revolution but are also protesting the travel ban and economic blockade that the US continues to enforce against this small island nation.

As a result, the most exciting, terrifying and arguably important part of this voyage is the trip back over the American border, something my Canadian friend from the plane did not have to worry about. In fact, it hadn't occurred to her that Americans might worry about it either, until I told her that it was the main purpose of visiting Cuba more than 90 of the passengers on our flight.

Cuba is an inspiring country for Americans to visit. Despite the poverty, Cubans enjoy many of the things Americans lack: truly universal healthcare, free education and a spirit of internationalism that is focused on helping people, not attacking them. Cuba also faces the increasing number of major hurricanes that batter the island with a focus on saving people over preserving profit. Citizens of New Orleans, Galveston and even lower Manhattan can attest to the fact that that in major disasters in the US, the wellbeing of citizens is not always the main priority.

This is not to say that Cuba is perfect. Like anywhere else, there are problems with the Cuban system that any average citizen will talk your ear off about. Banning exchange, however, ensures that nobody gets all the sides of the story, and that, for Americans, learning about Cuba will continue to be taboo.

This year, more than 140 people went to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade and walked across the US border with Canada at Buffalo, New York. Another 130 Cuba travellers walked across a Texas border on the same day with Pastors for Peace. All participants in this act of civil disobedience were fully aware that they may receive letters or fines in the future from the US Treasury, but perhaps because of our sheer numbers (the Buffalo customs and immigration office had to devote five windows to our group exclusively), we faced little trouble crossing the border.

We were handed a four-page questionnaire about our trip, but all 140 of us refused to fill in any information that we had not already provided on the regular customs sheet. As the last members of our group crossed, to expedite matters, customs agents were handing out these sheets saying: "Here is the questionnaire for you to cross out."

Though participating in this border crossing felt empowering, when I think of my Canadian friend from the flight to Holguin, the whole charade seems unnecessary. For Canadians of all political stripes, Cuba is just another Caribbean island. Their citizens enjoy the sand and sun, and those who care to learn about the Cuban system are able to do so without restriction.

And so what if Americans go to Cuba? So what if Cubans survive, or even thrive, on our tourism dollars? So what if some Americans are impressed with what Cuba has done? The cold war is over. The future of Cuba is not what America wanted to make it, and Americans need to live with that.

It is time for the US to re-establish relations with Cuba, end the travel ban that stifles exchange between the two countries and, most importantly, end the inhumane economic blockade. © Guardian News and Media 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Governor Beebe is optimistic about Arkansas-Cuba trade

By ANDREW DeMILLO (AP) – Jul 31, 2009

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Gov. Mike Beebe said Friday he returned from a visit to Cuba optimistic that Arkansas can increase its agricultural exports to the communist country.

Beebe, who joined a growing roster of governors and members of Congress who have visited the island to promote trade, wouldn't say whether he thinks the federal government should end its 47-year-old trade embargo with Cuba. But he noted he traveled there amid signs that trade restrictions may ease.

The governor said he thinks there's a chance for Arkansas to boost its trade with Cuba, primarily in rice and poultry.

"I'm optimistic because, just on the pure merits, we've got something that is better than most folks in the rest of the world and can do it better and can do it efficiently and can do it more productively," Beebe told reporters at a Capitol news conference. "I don't think anybody can grow rice or can have the kind of livestock and poultry efficiency that Arkansas has, and I think that's proven by the relative stature that our companies have."

Arkansas already has limited trade with Cuba under terms of the U.S. embargo. Exemptions were created to the embargo in 2000 to allow limited agricultural trade with Cuba.

Last year, the state exported $32,996 in goods to Cuba, all of which was cotton and fabric, said Scott Hardin, a spokesman with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

That was a steep drop from 2007, when the state exported $1.3 million in meat and poultry to the island. In 2006, the state exported $1.4 million worth of goods, mostly rice and cereal.

Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Richard Bell has blamed the dropoff on a rise in rice prices and a rule requiring cash in advance before shipping products.

With the trip, Beebe became the latest in a string of governors, including those from Nebraska, Idaho and Maine, who have traveled to Cuba to promote trade. The potential market also has led Arkansas' congressional delegation to visit the nation in the past.

Representatives from Riceland Foods Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. also traveled to Cuba on the latest trade mission.

Experts say Beebe's trip comes amid the potential for even more trade between the United States and Cuba under the Obama administration. Officials from Cuba and the U.S. discussed immigration this month for the first time since 2003, and the Obama administration has lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or send money to the island.

"I think it's fair to say there is a new climate," said Kirby Jones, founder and president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association. "I think people are seeing a change in attitude, and so companies and states are looking at this and saying there may be a new day here."

Jones, who also is president of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm that works with companies seeking business in Cuba, said he traveled to the nation last year with officials from New York, Delaware and California. Jones said he wasn't aware of any governors who have traveled to Cuba since Obama took office in January.

Beebe said he didn't make any formal agreements with Cuban officials during the trip but that he believes the country wants even more trade with the state.

"Arkansas is particularly well situated to be a major exporter of our goods and products to Cuba, and it's a new market, in terms of expansion," Beebe said. "They want to do more. They want to increase the share of what Cuba buys from Arkansas."

One challenge may be Cuba's president, who said earlier this week that the country can't pin all its problems on the trade embargo. Raul Castro on Sunday called agricultural production Cuba's top priority and a matter of national security.

Bill Reed, vice president of public affairs for Riceland, said he doesn't see Castro's comments as a threat to Arkansas' attempt to expand its market in Cuba.

"You still have 11 million people, and they do not have the agricultural capacity, the inputs that Arkansas farmers have, the equipment, the crop protectants, the fertilizer, even the technology, to do the type of agriculturel technology that we do in Arkansas," Reed said. "I don't expect it would decrease the propsect of imports in the foreseeable future."

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.