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Angela Rojas, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Academy, speaks about the preservation of historical Cuban architecture Tuesday evening. 

Photo Credit: Ellyn Snider | Daily Texan Staff

Angela Rojas of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Academy discussed the importance of preserving Cuban world heritage at a lecture in Goldsmith Hall on Tuesday.

During the lecture, Rojas said certain locations in Cuba are key to understanding Cuban history and identity, including Trinidad, Old Havana with its fortification system and the urban historic center of Cienfuegos.

According to Rojas, visitors can learn about the sites’ histories and how they contributed to present-day Cuba. Rojas said Camagüey is a city that has been on the island since the 16th century.

“It is a city where you can witness history while traveling east to west, and it is incredible in its preservation, as there is much to learn from it,” Rojas said. 

Anna Nau, an architecture graduate student who attended the lecture, said such sites are important for Cubans and Americans. 

“The general culture significance is great for those who live there and for the rest of the world,” Nau said. “It’s a country that Americans have a very specific idea about based on the political issues between the United States and Cuba, and I did not know the cultural significance these Cuban cities possess.”

Rojas said proper planning and management for the sites is crucial for their preservation, and it is the general public’s responsibility to ensure that actions are being geared toward the stability of these sites. 

“Management should be led by community,” Rojas said. “The rest of the stakeholders should support a strict control of authenticity and integrity.”

Rojas said a way of helping stability in the region includes improving the living conditions and schools for those who live in the cities. She said she is content with the work that is currently being done in Cuba and credits tourism for much of the work that has been done.

“There are a lot of problems, but there is a lot of great private work going into the restoration due to new policies” Rojas said. “An innovative management system in Old Havana improving everything including restorations has its bases on cultural tourism.”

Isabelle Atkinson, an architecture senior who attended the lecture, said restoring and preserving Cuban sites also helps preserve Cuban culture.

“Restoring such sites keeps true to Cuban heritage and does not allow international influence to change the rich culture that is already there,” Atkinson said.

The front page of a Venezuelan newspaper features a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama with a headline reading in Spanish, “Obama: I won!” at a newsstand in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday.
Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — From Caracas to Havana to La Paz, President Barack Obama’s re-election victory was welcomed with a sigh of relief by many on Latin America’s left, though others cautioned that the U.S. leader had not made the region a priority during his crisis-buffeted first term and was unlikely to do so in a second.

In Cuba, state-run news website CubaSi called the outcome a victory for the lesser of two evils, saying: “U.S. elections: the worst one did not win.”

“The news of Barack Obama’s triumph in yesterday’s general elections in the United States was received with some relief and without great optimism,” CubaSi wrote.

On the streets of Caracas, some said they worried that a Romney win would have brought a much harder line against leftist leaders such as their own President Hugo Chavez, and that they hoped another four-year term for Obama would bring relatively peaceful U.S.-Latin American ties.

“The other guy would have cut off relations with Venezuela,” said Cesar Echezuria, a street vendor selling newspapers emblazoned with front-page photos of Obama celebrating. “It would have been a disaster for Venezuela if Obama had lost.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has not commented since Tuesday’s vote, but he raised eyebrows during the campaign when he said that if he were an American, he’d cast his ballot for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney. Despite years of strained relations between Chavez and Washington, the United States remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil.

President Raul Castro’s government is also often critical of the American president, but under a Romney administration it might have faced unwelcome rollbacks of Obama policies that relaxed restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances and increased cultural exchanges.
The U.S. remains the top trading partner of many countries in the region, with exceptions including Brazil and Chile, where China has recently taken its place.

During the presidential debates, Romney had called Latin America a “huge opportunity” for the U.S. economically. The region, however, was far from a hot topic in the election and seldom garnered mentions by the candidates — although one pro-Romney television ad in Florida had played up Chavez’s pro-Obama comments.

Ahead of the vote, some commentators in Latin America had groused that Obama and Romney were so similar in foreign policy stances that the result didn’t matter much. A recent front-page cartoon in Argentina’s Pagina12 newspaper summed up such complaints, showing a conversation between two bearded men. One remarked: “What difference is there between Republicans and Democrats?” The other answered: “Both bomb you, but the Democrats afterward feel just a little bit bad about it.”

HAVANA — Cuban city Santiago is still struggling to recover from the effects of Hurricane Sandy two weeks after the storm, even as streetlamps in hard-hit lower Manhattan shine brightly and its subways begin rumbling through tunnels again.

The electrical grid has been restored to 28 percent as workers labor to replace power lines downed by thousands of fallen trees, the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina reported Monday.

“Sources in (state-run power company) Empresa Electrica emphasized that the task is titanic since it means building practically all of the secondary networks from the ground up,” the agency said.

HAVANA (AP) — After controlling the comings and goings of its people for five decades, communist Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to lift many travel restrictions. One senior official says a “radical and profound” change is weeks away.

The comment by Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon has residents, exiles and policymakers abuzz with speculation that the much-hated exit visa could be a thing of the past, even if Raul Castro’s government continues to limit the travel of doctors, scientists, military personnel and others in sensitive roles to prevent a brain drain.

Other top Cuban officials have cautioned against over-excitement, leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana’s leaders are willing to go.

In the past 18 months, Castro has removed prohibitions on some private enterprise, legalized real estate and car sales, and allowed compatriots to hire employees, ideas that were long anathema to the government’s Marxist underpinnings.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: After 50 years, Cubans hope decision will admit free travel

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez kisses a Venezuelan flag after greeting supporters at a balcony of Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 4, 2011. Chavez returned to Venezuela from Cuba on Monday morning, stepping off a plane hours before dawn and saying he is feeling better as he recovers from surgery that removed a cancerous tumor.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — In his monthlong fight against cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has placed utmost importance on secrecy, carefully offering only scraps of information about his condition.

Now, as he begins planned chemotherapy in Cuba, Chavez appears to have found the perfect place where he can tightly guard details of his illness and keep the prying eyes of the news media far away.

The Venezuelan leader first underwent surgery in the island nation on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvic region. He returned Saturday night, saying he would be starting a “second phase of treatment.”

Typical of the cone of silence Chavez has lowered over his health problems, he hasn’t said how long the chemotherapy is likely to last, and there was no immediate confirmation from either Cuba or Venezuela that the treatments had in fact begun.

Chavez, 56, had said he would begin the treatments in Havana on Sunday to ensure cancer cells don’t reappear. He has also said he has been open about the details of his medical condition.

Maria Teresa Romero, professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela, said controlling information about his illness is important for Chavez to maintain both his hold on power and an image of strength at home.

“The secrecy, the trust is assured [in Cuba],” she said, “which is something that wouldn’t be assured if he were treated in Brazil, for example, or here in Venezuela. It would be much more difficult to keep secret everything they are going to do him.”

Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba from 2001 to 2004, said Chavez is likely receiving the same sort of protections and accommodations that ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro himself would expect. Hare was also the deputy head of mission for the British Diplomatic Service in Venezuela from 1994 to 1997.

“Everything there will be arranged as if a member of the Castro family were being treated — strict secrecy, encrypted communication with Venezuela, transport, etcetera, just as if a favorite son had returned,” Hare said.

“Just as there is no accountability for the subsidies that Venezuela provides Cuba, the political relationship is based on shared commitments and understandings between the leaders that are never subjected to institutional scrutiny.”

On top of that, Hare said, “non-Cuban specialists could be more easily flown in to Havana than in the countries with a free and inquiring media.”

When Fidel Castro himself was gravely ill in 2006, a Spanish surgeon, not a Cuban, treated him.

One of the few messages that emerged from Chavez by early afternoon Sunday came via his Twitter account, where one of three notes offered congratulations for the start of the ALBA Games in Venezuela, an athletic competition involving countries in the left-leaning Bolivarian Alliance bloc.

“From my trench, battling for life, I congratulate the entire homeland for the marvelous inauguration of the ALBA Games! We will live!” the message said.

Chavez has been treated by a team of Cuban and Venezuelan doctors since doctors removed a cancerous tumor that Chavez said was the size of a baseball. He hasn’t said what type of cancer he was diagnosed with nor specified where exactly it was located, saying only that it was in his pelvic region.

Government officials have deferred to Chavez to provide the information he chooses about his prognosis, while opposition leaders have demanded that the president come clean about what exactly his medical condition is. Three days before he left for Cuba, Chavez acknowledged for the first time that he expected to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Printed on 07/18/2011 as: Chavez conceals treatment in Cuba

48 Hours

Musicians play Cuban music in the style of the Buena Vista Social Club at the Taberna de La Muralla. Microbrewery patrons can listen to live music and look out at Plaza Vieja while drinking from a three-liter cylinder full of beer.

Photo Credit: Claire Cardona | Managing Editor

Our plane touches down on bumpy tarmac and docks with a gray claustrophobic terminal. Outside, there are very few lights and even fewer cars. A few small lampposts with fluorescent blue and white lighting struggle against the ominous night. Back in the terminal, a PA system screams what sounds like looped propaganda messages. One of our passports has been confiscated, and we haven’t even left the airport. A cold dose of realism settles in.

We planned our trip to Havana, Cuba, in a naive and senseless manner, mostly prompted by the fact the island is off-limits to Americans and permanent residents. Claire and I had no plans and no real concept of the country we were going to stay in. All we knew is we wanted to go, so on Tuesday, March 15, we packed a bag and left. Because we missed our first flight from Mexico City, we only have two days to spend in Cuba.

Despite the months we spent dreaming of the country, reinforcing our desires to visit the secluded and vilified island, we didn’t actually start booking flights and finding a place to stay until roughly 72 hours before spring break. Lesson learned. And now we are in José Martí International Airport faced with the most antipathetic welcome committee either of us ever experienced.

Clusters of khaki-wearing immigration agents surround a red and white wall comprised of cloistered booths: Cuban Immigration. At 11:20 p.m., there are more immigration and police officers in the airport than passengers, and they survey the motley crew of 50 who just touched down from Panama City. Claire and I are among them, exhausted, headed straight toward the wall of booths. I try not to make eye contact with anyone. Claire is behind me. Unease creeps in. From the United States’ perspective, we are entering Cuba illegally. We are not Cuban-American and the embargo prohibits free travel to the island without approved federal passes. We do not have these passes. We are hoping the Cuban government won’t mind.

We are allowed through, but immediately there is a problem.

“Pasaporte por favor.”

A burly immigration officer, one of maybe 30 lingering near the baggage claim, sweeps in, confronts Claire, takes her American passport, puts it in his pocket and walks off without acknowledging our questions. The radio on his shoulder crackles with the door number another passenger walked through. Those manning the immigration booths must have tipped them off.

We follow who we think is another American wearing a huge Nikon camera with a telephoto lens being led aside for questioning. There, I ask, in my best Spanish and with as much authority I can summon, “Quién tiene su pasaporte.”

Struggling between broken English and Spanish, we too get pulled aside for questioning. Both our passports now held hostage, we are interrogated in the middle of a squat hall about where we are staying, what we are studying (they don’t take kindly to journalists, even students) and who we are going to see. We tell the agent we are staying at a local hotel.

U.S.-Cuba relations have not been cordial since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and the government has a tenuous relationship with foreign press, said Reuters Cuban bureau chief Jeff Franks, who we would later meet during our stay.

In the past week, relations have deteriorated after the Cuban government sentenced American Alan Gross to 15 years in prison for allegedly distributing cellphones and computers to members of the Jewish community in Cuba. The Cuban government said distributing the phones constituted “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.”

While there are no apparent travel restrictions once you are on the island, the Cuban government wants to know the addresses of where every person traveling into the country will stay. No one on the island can harbor foreign nationals, even tourists such as ourselves, without authority from the Cuban government and without charging money. Hotels are expensive, so we found a host home online to take us in, but we don’t know whether they have the government pass to house us.

After 15 minutes of questioning, we pass through, collect our passports and our visas and shuffle toward the exit. A cab drops us off shortly afterward in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, three blocks away from the Malecón, the city’s sea wall. Vedado is one of Havana’s more affluent neighborhoods. In this part of town, roughly five miles from the old city center, streets are shaded by huge trees, homes are pastel-colored and often three or four stories tall. They could look like palaces if they were in better condition, a fact of life for most of Havana.

Entire blocks of the city are in ruin, and some structures that appear barely standing house multiple families. At night, the city’s vacant, often darkened streets are foreboding. The old quarters of the city act like mazes and with no street signs or addresses. It’s very easy to get lost.

We arrive at the house. Cab fare: $25.

Cuba has a dual currency system, a lesser money, the peso cubano, and a much more valuable currency, the Cuban convertible peso or CUC as it is called. Most Cubans’ salaries are paid in peso cubanos, but many of the island’s goods, including gasoline, require the CUC. As of March 15, $1 USD is equal to one CUC, or about 24 peso cubano. Most Cubans, therefore, live in poverty. The woman we stayed with, an artist and writer, gets paid 20 peso cubanos a month — less than $1 USD.

We stand outside, unsure which door to knock on. Thankfully, our hostess Aries was expecting us. We climb the four stories to our room and hatch a quick plan to go the beach the next day.

We wake up to the sounds of a rooster in the small alley next to our house. After yogurt and strong coffee, we head out with four students from Colombia also staying in the same complex. Together we venture into a book store stocked with communist, Marxist and socialist histories of the Cuban Revolution. I especially want a copy of “Granma,” the Cuban equivalent of the Chinese little red book, but sadly, the shop doesn’t carry it. From there, we visit the old historical center of Havana and stop for a drink at a microbrewery.

Throughout Havana, anti-America and pro-Cuban propaganda from the revolution still plasters the walls, billboards and buildings. In a 30-minute taxi ride to Santa María del Mar, one of several beaches that make up the Playas del Este east of Havana, we pass billboards in Spanish detailing the cost of the U.S. embargo on the Cuban people — “Two hours of the blockade amount to all braille machinery needed for the blind of the country.”

The U.S. imposed the embargo on Cuba in October 1960 after Fidel Castro started a one-party communist system on the island and nationalized property owned by U.S. citizens and corporations a year earlier. Associated Press estimates from 2007 put the cost of the embargo on Cuba at more than $89 billion in the 45 years since it began.

After watching the sunset from the Malecón, we get lost in Old Havana before taking a cab to a jazz club located on the top floor of a decommissioned shopping center. Moments later we are invited for rum at a street-side bar and walk out with a box of 50 Cuban cigars, which will later pass unnoticed through customs in three countries.

The next day we venture back into Old Havana and eat lunch at La Bodeguita del Medio, a small bar and restaurant famous for being Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spot for mojitos. Later that afternoon, we join Jeff Franks, the Reuters chief, at his office and walk to Hotel Nacional for drinks and cigars on a patio overlooking Havana Bay. The city looks almost frozen in time — American cars dating as far back as the 1940s still run as if in their prime. If it weren’t for the ever-present immigration officers on every other street corner, you could almost forget there ever was a revolution.

Franks takes us to Atelier, the newest private, family-owned restaurant in Havana, where we dine on rabbit, shrimp and beef with multiple glasses of wine. These paladares are part of the government’s plan to make more Cubans self-sufficient. In return, restaurant owners pay high taxes. The atmosphere of the restaurant is like a Midtown New York bistro. Toward the end of our meal, Franks introduces us the Norwegian ambassador and his entourage, and they treat us to several glasses of rum.

We get back to the house around midnight, pack our bags and say our goodbyes before the cab arrives at 3 a.m. to take us to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight. We were only in Cuba long enough to get a brief glimpse at life on the island. Barely back in the routine of things in Austin, we are already planning our return.

Havana is a city that teeters on the edge of life and decay. It’s an alluring place that is both inviting and cold. The two days we spent in Havana remain for us a very surreal experience. It would be presumptuous to think that at the end of this journey we would have some sort of mental or spiritual awakening.

Maybe the whole experience is still incubating, but it almost feels as if we never really left the island. We still feel the jagged rocks below the Malecón, smell the spice in the air and hear the ever-present salsa music from every passing radio.
We catch ourselves day-dreaming about what the people we met along this journey are doing, and then we realize we haven’t seen anything of Cuba. The island remains very much a mystery. Our wanderlust is quenched, but not satisfied.