A Canadian mother and her sick son are desperate to get back home after an illness forced Cole Antinello, 7, off an airplane tarmac in Cuba, leaving them stuck in hospital and searching for answers.
Nicole Antinello of Caledonia, Ont. flew to Cuba for a holiday on July 14 with her seven-year-old son, alongside her 76-year-old mother and her 16-year-old daughter.
Towards the end of the trip, the family started experiencing flu-like symptoms, she said. It hit Cole the hardest — and officials flagged the Caledonia Centennial School student as too sick to fly when sitting in his seat on the tarmac in Cuba, about to take off to come home.
“He had a fever and chills, and thought he was going to throw up,” Antinello told CBC News from Cuba. The family was pulled off the plane, and Cole was rushed to a pediatric hospital in Holguin.
There, doctors diagnosed Cole with appendicitis and wheeled him into surgery to have his appendix out — but his mother says she isn’t sure that was the right diagnosis.
The doctors pushed on his abdomen to gauge his pain level, and though her son said “Ow,” he “just wasn’t in a whole bunch of pain,” Antinello said. The doctors also performed a blood test, which she says revealed a an irregularity.
“The doctors started speaking in Spanish, and then they turned around and said he needed his appendix out.”
Mother alleges hospital conditions were ‘like a warzone’
According to the Mayo Clinic, a physical exam to assess pain and a blood test can both be used to help diagnose appendicitis. Urine tests can also be ordered, alongside imaging tests like an ultrasound or CT scan — but those options weren’t available in the hospital, Antinello told CBC News.
She called the conditions in the hospital “disgusting,” with water running down the walls, constantly running toilets, and construction happening right next to her son’s room. “There was dust everywhere,” she said. “It looked like a warzone.”
After the surgery, doctors told the family that Cole’s appendix hadn’t burst. He has since been discharged from hospital, and is now staying at a nearby hotel. But, she says, he has since fallen ill again.
Antinello says the family purchased travel insurance for medical emergencies through Manulife.
“Now, we’re waiting for the insurance to guarantee payment for the hospital bills before we’re allowed to leave the country,” she said. Antinello’s daughter and mother are set to fly out tonight, while she and her son are hoping to fly out on Friday night.
A Manulife spokesperson said she couldn’t comment on the situation.
“The health and well-being of our customers is our priority and we take great care to ensure their needs are met,” said Shabeen Hanifa, media relations manager. “Manulife takes the responsibility of protecting the privacy of our customers very seriously and are not able to discuss specific details of any case.”
‘I haven’t slept in days’
Global Affairs Canada told CBC News that they are aware of the situation, and that their thoughts are with Cole and his family.
“Canadian consular officials in Guardalavaca and Havana are in contact with local authorities and are providing consular assistance to the family as required,” said spokesperson Brianne Maxwell in an email. “To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further details on this case cannot be released.”
A GoFundMe page has been launched by some of Antinello’s friends to help out with costs. She says that she’s not trying to cover medical bills (as insurance should take care of those), but she is trying to pay for flights (which aren’t covered under her plan, she says), as well as hotels, food, and her rapidly expanding phone bill.
Antinello, who is currently off work on disability leave, says she has had to up the limit on one of her credit cards to keep going.
As of Wednesday morning, the fundraising page had raised $2,030 of an $8,000 goal — though Antinello says she wasn’t aware that’s how much her friends were asking for. “We don’t need that much,” she said.
More than anything, she and her family just want to get home, she says.
“I haven’t slept in days. It’s so scary, and my head is spinning, and I just want to get back home to Canada.”
Ontario regulator says travellers to Cuban resort without water have legal rights
Canadian travellers who ended up at a Cuba hotel that had little or no water for 12 days can file complaints with Ontario’s travel industry watchdog or sue in small claims court, according to the organization that regulates the province’s travel companies.
The Travel Industry Council of Ontario, known as TICO, governs licenced travel companies and enforces the province’s Travel Industry Act.
“We ask that consumers approach the travel company involved first to allow the company the opportunity to address the matter to the consumer’s satisfaction,” said Dorian Werda, TICO’s vice president of operations, while responding to questions raised by Global News about why travel agencies and tour operators continued to sell package vacations to the Starfish Cayo Santa Maria resort in Cuba in early March when the water system there wasn’t functioning.
Travellers told Global News they had little or no fresh water for their entire trip to the resort, making it impossible to flush toilets, take showers or wash their hands.
Some, like Donna Carvalho of Georgetown, Ont., returned to Canada and went almost immediately to hospital with severe diarrhea, vomiting and an excruciating headache. Carvalho was placed in isolation for five hours and released after she said doctors concluded she had likely become ill from unsanitary conditions at the resort.
Carvalho said she witnessed the hotel restaurant using a “dirty rag” to clean dishes, cutlery and glassware in lieu of a dishwasher. Other travellers described similar nauseating experiences.
“The dishes were often filthy and we witnessed people bathing in and around the pool. We tried not to think about just how unsanitary it all was, but now thinking of it – gross,” said Gary Pearson of Lindsay, Ont., who was on vacation with his girlfriend and staying at the Starfish resort.
“In Canada, if a school doesn’t have running water they close. If a restaurant doesn’t have running water, they close. However, this resort continued to check in new guests. Walking downwind from the restaurants filled our noses with a very unpleasant odour of rotting food, clearly from a lack of cleaning with limited water available,” said Pearson.
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WEDDING FROM HELL Couple left distraught after dream £25,000 Cuba wedding turns to disaster when hotel roof COLLAPSED leaving bride permanently scarred and groom with broken ribs
Sarah and John Wenham were both injured the day before the wedding of their dreams
A BRIDE and groom had their dream wedding destroyed after the roof of their hotel lobby collapsed – trapping their family and guests under debris.
Sarah and John Wenham had saved for years for ‘the wedding of their dreams’ in Cuba, costing more than £25,000 for themselves and 24 guests.
But they were left fearing for their lives when the lobby roof at Sol Rio De Luna y Mares Hotel, in Cuba, suddenly buckled and collapsed – trapping them underneath and injuring many members of the wedding party, including the bride.
Sarah, 35, said: “We were just about to meet with hotel staff to discuss our wedding plans in the lobby, when John pointed out the ceiling as it started to move.
“A loud ‘bang’ followed as the roof then suddenly collapsed and fell upon us, trapping us underneath.”
Tour company Thomas Cook have now apologised for the incident in August last year, saying they had done “everything we could” to support the family.
Sarah relived the horror, saying that roof debris knocked the group “clean to the ground”.
She said: “It was so heavy that I couldn’t move under it, and I was terrified because I couldn’t get to my daughters who I could hear screaming from somewhere beneath the debris.
“I saw the blood start to gush from my head and I genuinely thought in that moment that I was going to die.”
John, from Gravesend, Kent, says he looked up after they had been in the lobby for around ten minutes to find the ceiling moving.
He shouted at Sarah and their nine-year-old daughter Mia to run, pushing them out of the way.
But as the ceiling fell, he leaped in front of baby Penny, 20-months, to shield her from the debris, taking the brunt of the weight.
John added: “It was horrifying – sheer fright.
“When we eventually found Sarah, it took two people to lift the debris off her and I had to crawl underneath and drag her out.
“After the incident, we were all traumatised.
“We didn’t know what to do for the best.
“In one split-second everything we’d planned and saved for so long was gone.
“We felt terrible that so many people had spent so much money and had travelled so far to be with us for our special day and then this happened.
“So when we were told that the wedding could still go ahead at another venue at the last minute, we felt we had no option but to go ahead with it.
“Unfortunately, we’ll now always remember the wedding as being a distraction from the horrifying events of the day before.
“We couldn’t enjoy it and we just wanted to go home.
“That’s not how we should remember our wedding day.”
John was left with two fractured ribs, an injured spleen and severe bruising.
Sarah suffered head and eye injuries and required ten stitches to a deep laceration on her face, which is now likely to leave a permanent scar.
Several other members of the wedding party suffered serious injuries, including head and spinal injuries, a leg fracture and a deep head laceration, with one guest requiring 19 stitches across the top of her scalp.
John said: “The only way we could get over it was to have the wedding, to try and mask what had happened.
“Sarah won’t look at the pictures because she’s got stitches on her face – it shouldn’t be like that.
“I couldn’t walk properly, I couldn’t lift her over threshold and I couldn’t even pick the kids up for five to six weeks.”
When the couple did have their ceremony at a different hotel, Playa Pesquero, it was in the foyer, and not the beach wedding they had planned.
But this was far from the end of the couple’s problems.
Even before the roof collapse, on just the second day of their disastrous holiday, Sarah and John’s hotel room was flooded with sewage, damaging clothes, their children’s toys and un-opened wedding gifts.
The couple say despite their bags and clothing being ruined, their belongings were never replaced.
In other rooms there were exposed wires which John, an electrician, described as looking ‘deadly’.
John and many of the other guests, including Mia and Penny, also suffered from diarrhoea and sickness throughout the holiday – later confirmed to be salmonella.
The couple have now instructed personal injury lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to take legal action against tour operator, Thomas Cook.
Jennifer Lund, a partner in the specialist international personal injury team at Irwin Mitchell, representing the group, said: “Sarah, John and their closest family and friends should have been overjoyed on what was supposed to have been an incredible holiday, centred around a magical wedding day.
“Instead, the whole trip ended up being a terrifying ordeal that will forever be etched in their memories for all of the wrong reasons.
“We are investigating the cause of the roof collapse at the Sol Rio De Luna y Mares Hotel as well as the group’s other complaints.
“We are seeking to recover a settlement to help each of our clients with their recovery and to compensate them following the dreadful ordeal they have suffered.
“Our thoughts are with all of those injured, and we wish them a speedy recovery.
“We would be grateful to hear from anyone who may have witnessed the roof collapse or its aftermath or who can provide information about illnesses suffered by guests during stays at the Sol Rio De Luna y Mares Hotel, as they may be able to help with our enquiries.”
A Thomas Cook spokesperson said: “Clearly this is totally unacceptable and we are in close contact with the hotel to understand how it happened.
“We are very sorry and disappointed that this occurred on what should have been such a happy occasion.
“We did everything we could to support the Wenham family and all those affected after the accident, and we continue to take this matter very seriously.”
On social media, celebrities laud the quaint poverty of Cuba while ignoring that real life for most Cubans is a daily grind of hustling for money and food.
During vacation in Cuba last week, Victoria’s Secret Angel Sara Sampaio posed for a photo in jean cut-offs and a light blue denim shirt next to one of the island’s old-fashioned, candy-colored cars, then shared it with her 4.5 million followers on Instagram. “When in Cuba match ur clothes with the cars,” the 25-year-old Portuguese model wrote in the photo’s caption.
The old car as photo-op has become a tourism cliché in Havana, particularly among the style-obsessed celebrities and fashion set—Madonna, Beyoncé and Jay Z, the Kardashians, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton, and so on—who have visited the island in recent years, unable to resist the retro charm of Cuba’s 1950s Cadillacs.
And who can blame them for being seduced by the quaint authenticity of Cuba’s old cars and buildings, preserved over time and untouched by the hideousness of capitalism?
The island has seen a tourism boom since the U.S. and Cuba announced in 2014 that they would restore diplomatic ties, in part because warmer relations between the two countries have made it easier for Americans to get there, and in part because Westerners who have never been want to see it before Starbucks and McDonalds pop up all over the island.
So when the Kardashians flew down with their reality TV show’s camera crew last May, two months after President Obama visited Cuba (and became the first American president to do so since Calvin Coolidge), even they found this top poverty tourism destination to be rather charming.
Taking in the sights from the back of a 1957 Chevrolet convertible, Khloe Kardashian marveled at how friendly and close to nature Cubans are (“the goats are, like, people’s dogs!”) and told her chauffer she enjoyed the “real life” on display during their sightseeing tour.
It was a spectacular moment of irony, of course, given that “real life” for most Cubans is a daily grind of hustling for money and food, including a number of young women who prostitute themselves to geriatric tourists. In an interview with The New York Times after Fidel Castro’s death, one older Cuban man who lives on a $12 monthly pension said that much of the island’s’ food supply is being funneled into the tourism sector—and that he’d recently been forced to sell two antique lamps in order to pay for his next few meals. Affluent Westerners may be upset by the idea of fast food chains invading Cuba, but Cubans themselves might not mind it so much (fast food is better than no food, after all).
While many Cubans are hopeful that their country will change under President Raúl Castro now that his elder brother has died, Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report on Cuba paints a grim picture of life for its citizens: “Government critics continued to experience harassment, ‘acts of repudiation’ (demonstrations led by government supporters with participation of state security officials), and politically motivated criminal prosecutions. Reports continued of government critics, including journalists and human rights activists, being routinely subjected to arbitrary arrests and short-term detention for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement.”
But who needs freedom of expression and economic freedom when life in Cuba is so adorably simple? Tilda Swinton said as much, exposing her own ignorance, when she attended Chanel’s Resort 2017 fashion show there in May (the Kardashians had originally planned their trip around the show as well, since Kendall Jenner was supposed to walk).
“Look, capitalism is visiting and the Cubans are doffing their caps,” she told New York magazine, “but my sense is that this is a very healthy country and any notion that they need saving by a moribund capitalist country from across the sea is just absurd.”
It’s hardly an uncommon sentiment among certain segments of the left, generous with their praise of Cuba’s free health care and education systems, along with its high literacy rates. Never mind that the number of poorly compensated Cuban medical professionals who defected to the U.S. reached a record high in 2015, or that Cuba’s literate people aren’t free to read what they want.
The irony of showing a luxury fashion collection in a country isolated from modern consumerism was apparently lost on Karl Lagerfeld, who showed his Chanel Resort 2017 collection in Havana last May. He noted that while there was no “fashion” as Westerners know it in Cuba, there was plenty of singular style to be fetishized. “Here, you can really wear jewelry,” he told New York. “Here you can smile whenever you want. It is adorable.”
Toothless smiles are considerably less “adorable” in Paris or New York. But in Old Havana, they’re as charming as the decrepit neo-classical buildings and colorful cars.
Despite fetishizing Cuba’s poverty, Lagerfeld redeemed himself when he admitted: “But of course, what do I know about Cuba? It is very childish, my idea.”
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with Lagerfeld bringing couture to Cuba, along with a troop of fashion A-listers and stars from Gisele Bündchen to Vin Diesel. Nor is there anything wrong with Western tourists Instagramming photos of themselves next to pastel pink Chevrolets.
Bringing different cultures to Cuba is of course a good thing, and tourism is good for the economy—though Cuba’s economy can’t survive on tourism alone and has suffered since its regional benefactor, Venezuela, has been in economic freefall.
“For the first time in decades, Cubans are dealing with power outages and transportation shortages,” NPR reported in September. Tourism is up, but “they just don’t have the infrastructure to really get at all that money.”
There’s nothing wrong with the exchange of ideas through high fashion shows, but Cuba needs goods—not couture—to be exchanged in order to build up its infrastructure.
The only problem with the Kardashians et al seeing the island and its old cars as Instagram bait is that it casts Cuba in a patina of sentimental filters, obscuring the realities of life there.
Cuba is indeed a beautiful place, but the fancy tourists don’t need a vacation on the island as much as they need a lesson–and they’re not going to get it on the tourist route advertised in brochures.
Another American company violating the right of Cuban-Americans in order to obey the stupid laws of Cuba’s dictatorship.
Shame on you American Airlines!
Cuba won’t allow Cuban-Americans flight crews to stay overnight, so an airline grounded them
When American Airlines launched the first of an unprecedented 12 daily commercial flights from Miami to six cities in Cuba, the company rolled out the Cuban-American brass to mark the milestone at Miami International Airport.
At a pre-flight ceremony, the executives evoked their emotional connection to the business at hand — winning the bid to fly the largest number of commercial flights to Cuba.
“Today is historic not only for American Airlines, but also for Miami, the heart and soul of the Cuban-American community in the United States,” said Ralph Lopez, American vice president of Miami hub operations, before the Sept. 7 departure to the city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast of the island.
Fernand Fernandez, American’s vice president of global marketing, spoke of the “pride and excitement” he felt.
“This flight is not only important to our airline, to our 12,000 employees here in Miami — many of them Cuban-American — but also… this is of huge importance for Miami-Dade County, home to so many Cuban Americans like my parents.”
Behind the scenes, however, another story played out.
When doing business with Cuba, all those American Airlines employees of Cuban origin Fernandez heralded in his speech don’t have the same rights as their U.S.-born counterparts, or their Latin-American counterparts, or their counterparts born anywhere else in the world for that matter.
That first “historic” flight brought home the point.
A Cuban-born crew member arrived in Cienfuegos without a Cuban passport — required for anyone born there who left the country after 1970, even as babies — and a brouhaha ensued with Cuban authorities on the ground. The crew member was not allowed entry, much less the required overnight rest stop after a crew member flies 12 hours.
Questions were posed by AA to authorities: What happens in the future if there’s a flight with a mechanical delay and the crew that includes a Cuban American is grounded overnight? What will happen, routinely, with the two Varadero flights that require the overnight stay of the crew?
The answer: Only in the most “extenuating circumstances” would Cuba allow an exception to its separate set of archaic travel requirements for Cuban Americans. No overnights for Cuban-American crew members. Period.
Now the Dallas-based airline, which makes its schedules far from Cuban politics in Texas, had to identify Cuban-American employees and take them off Cuba flights that required an overnight stay.
“Please remember that those who are Cuban born should be removed with pay from Cuba flights until we can verify what requirements the Cuban government has for these crewmembers,” says an AA memo to managers that a source shared with me.
And I have to ask: Can you imagine in your company a staffing memo that says, “Please remember that those who are Israeli born should be removed?”
Or, please remember that those who are (fill in the blank any other place of origin) should be removed?
The Cuban government’s long arm is cherry-picking the assignments of employees of an American company. How is that for a historic development?
Sounds as outrageous as when Miami-based Carnival Corp. denied bookings to Cuban Americans on its cruises to the island because of an archaic Cuban maritime law that said Cuban Americans could not arrive by sea.
Now with commercial flights, an American company once again finds itself in the position of having to discriminate against a class of people — their employees of Cuban origin.
“No crew member born in Cuba is allowed to enter Cuba unless they meet immigration requirements,” American spokeswoman Alexis Aran Coello confirmed. “That’s a Cuban government demand. That’s not something we’re saying. We are abiding by the laws of the Cuban government.”
Cuba’s discriminatory rules also apply, of course, to the flight crews of JetBlue and Spirit, which also recently began commercial flights, and to the others that will soon follow them.
This is the price of doing business with the still-repressive and antiquated Cuban government: Giving up American ethics for a piece of the action.
Complying with the Cuban government’s discriminatory policies against Cuban Americans — spelled out in the U.S. Embassy’s website as a warning to travelers — is a choice. Airlines need to negotiate harder. Enough of an uproar from the traveling public convinced Cuba to change its maritime rule and allow Cuban Americans to travel there on cruise ships.
On the American side, strides have been made in the last 18 months since President Barack Obama announced an end to hostilities between the two countries. But the Cuban government remains stuck in anti-exile, anti-American bellicose mode despite documented evidence that a growing number of Cuban Americans strongly support President Obama’s engagement policy and the reestablishment of relations. For the first time since 1991 Florida International University began surveying Cuban Americans, a new poll shows that a majority — 54 percent — said support the lifting of the Cuban embargo.
Cuba, however, has a long way to go to show it is seriously interested in being a travel destination for all Americans.
Perhaps customer response, if not companies, might help move the needle: Saturday’s flight on American to Cienfuegos had 53 out of 120 seats empty as of this writing. It may be the slow season, but were it not for Cuba’s restrictive policies, there might not be a single seat left.
As Americans know well, discrimination is bad for business.
A violent robbery at a Cuban resort ended Paul Sampalean’s dream vacation before it even started.
The 33-year-old construction worker also had to pay a $3,000 hospital bill before he could return to Toronto with a nasty gash on his head.
“He’s scarred for life,” Antonia Sampalean told the Toronto Sun on Friday — hours before her brother was expected to arrive back in the city.
She said the Toronto resident enjoyed his first visit to Cuba last year and decided to return to the popular vacation destination for Canadians.
“Obviously he won’t be going back there — ever again,” Antonia said.
Paul Sampalean landed in the communist country on Sept. 2 to learn his luggage was lost.
“Air Transit told him to go wait in the lobby of his hotel and his luggage would be dropped off,” Antonia said, recalling her brother’s version of events.
She said Paul remembers chatting with locals in the lobby of Sol Sirenas Coral, a four-star all-inclusive resort in Veradero.
“The locals tried to grab his wallet,” Antonia said. “There were three of them and he was alone, but he fought back.
“I wish he would have given them his wallet, but he’s not like that,” she said, adding her brother is about 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds.
Paul was knocked unconscious, but witnesses later helped him piece together some of the ordeal.
“Hotel security staff intervened,” Antonia said, adding the crooks took off with the $100 or so Paul had in his wallet.
She said her brother thinks he may have fallen and hit his head. His forehead was split open.
He was taken by ambulance to the hospital where medical personnel used a mere four stitches to close his 13-centimetre cut. Antonia said her brother is unsure what other tests were conducted during his two-day stay.
“But the hospital issued him a $3,000 dollar bill and threatened he’d be sent to jail if he refused to pay,” she alleged.Another
Her brother also told her that the initial police report allegedly stated he was “found wandering in the streets of Varadero.”
But Paul alleges that report mysteriously disappeared after four witnesses provided statements noting “the ambulance was called directly to the hotel,” she said.
After the attack, Antonia said her brother was uncomfortable having a large amount of cash on him, so she sought help from Global Affairs Canada.
Antonia sent used her credit card to send the government agency $3,100, which included a $75 special consular fee. The money was forwarded to consular officials in Cuba who then paid the hospital bill.
Paul’s luggage finally arrived at the resort four days after the robbery.
Air Transat, Global Affairs Canada and the Cuba Tourist Board in Toronto never responded to the Sun’s request for comment.
One could easily argue that nothing is hindering progress more in Cuba than its government and its military’s lack of skill and experience to do even the simplest things well. It is not competent enough to run a simple tour bus or tiny restaurant, let alone a UNESCO site. — Jason Clampet
At the height of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis, a man with the obscure title of city historian began transforming Havana’s crumbling historic center block by block, polishing stone facades, replacing broken stained glass and repairing potholed streets.
Over a quarter century, Eusebio Leal turned Old Havana into a painstakingly restored colonial jewel, a tourist draw that brings in more than $170 million a year, according to the most recent available figures. His office became a center of power with unprecedented budgetary freedom from the island’s communist central government.
That independence is gone. Last month, the Cuban military took over the business operations of Leal’s City Historian’s Office, absorbing them into a business empire that has grown dramatically since the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.
The military’s long-standing business wing, GAESA, assumed a higher profile after Gen. Raul Castro became president in 2008, positioning the armed forces as perhaps the prime beneficiary of a post-detente boom in tourism. Gaviota, the military’s tourism arm, is in the midst of a hotel building spree that outpaces projects under control of nominally civilian agencies like the Ministry of Tourism. The military-run Mariel port west of Havana has seen double-digit growth fueled largely by demand in the tourism sector. The armed forces this year took over the bank that does business with foreign companies, assuming control of most of Cuba’s day-to-day international financial transactions, according to a bank official.
“GAESA is wisely investing in the more international — and more lucrative — segments of the Cuban economy. This gives the military technocrats a strong stake in a more outwardly oriented and internationally competitive Cuba deeply integrated into global markets,” said Richard Feinberg, author of “Open for Business: The New Cuban Economy.”
Castro has never publicly explained his reasoning for giving so much economic power to the military, but the armed forces are widely seen in Cuba as efficient, fast-moving and relatively unscathed by the low-level payoffs and pilferage that plague so much of the government. Economic disruption also is viewed as a crucial national security issue while the government slowly loosens its once-total hold on economic activity and renews ties with its former Cold War enemy 90 miles to the north.
While U.S. President Barack Obama has said detente was meant partly to help ordinary Cubans develop economic independence from a centrally planned government that employs most of the island’s workers, the Cuban government says the U.S. should expect no change in Cuba because of normalization with the U.S.
The takeover of Old Havana shows how the Cuban government is, so far, successfully steering much of the peace dividend into military coffers.
The announcement nearly two years ago that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations set off a tourism boom with Old Havana at its epicenter. The cobblestone streets are packed with tourists browsing souvenir stands, visiting museums and dining in trendy private restaurants. World figures and celebrities from Madonna to Mick Jagger to Pope Francis and Obama have all visited. Hotels are booked well through next year.
The largest business arm of the historian’s office, Habaguanex, named for a pre-Columbian indigenous chief, directly runs some 20 hotels and 30 stores and more than 25 restaurants in Old Havana.
Under a special exemption by the ruling Council of State, the office has been allowed to use its revenues as it sees fit rather than returning them to the national treasury and receiving a yearly budget allocation from the central government. That 1993 measure is widely credited for giving Leal the power and flexibility to restore Old Havana to international standards while much of the rest of Havana suffers from neglect that has left buildings collapsing and streets rutted with big potholes.
A towering figure in Cuba’s intellectual and political life, Leal, who turns 74 on Sept. 11, is often chosen to deliver meditations on Cuban history and culture at major public events. He has never groomed an obvious successor. He has appeared frail and thin in some recent public appearances and close associates say he has been receiving treatment for a serious illness.
“I’m giving up everything that I think should be, under current conditions, better directed,” Leal told The Associated Press when asked about the military takeover of his financial operations. “There’s a reality. I was trained and educated to work in cultural heritage, and that’s my calling.”
Last week, regularly-scheduled commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba took off for the first time in more than fifty years. Now, a bipartisan pair of senators has submitted legislation to ground those planes over what they say are airport security concerns.
Senators Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, have submitted legislation to that would pause the Cuba-US routes until an assessment of Cuban aviation safety could be completed.
Is Cuba ready for a boom in U.S. tourism?
“With so many serious security threats around the world, it is irresponsible to leave key aspects of our airport security in the hands of anti-American, repressive regime in Cuba,” Rubio said in a statement.
But the Transportation Security Administration says it has reviewed operations at eight of the 10 Cuban airports set to provide commercial flights to and from the U.S. and that all met international standards.
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who was to meet with members of Congress Thursday, told CBS News earlier this summer that his agency “will ensure that they in fact meet all of those requirements that we put in place at last points of departure.”
Currently, the United States and the Republic of Cuba have an agreement allowing federal air marshals on board certain passenger flights between the two nations. But Menendez says it’s not enough.
“Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship that continues to harbor American hijackers and terrorists as heroes…and remains a strategic ally of some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations,” he said. “Every airport worker is employed directly by the regime, and its airports lack the technology and security capabilities we’ve grown to expect in the United States.”
Excitement over first flights from U.S. to Cuba
While Cuba, a nation of more than 11 million about 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, has been largely off limits to the United States for 55 years, it is a major tourist destination from Canada, Europe, Latin America and Russia. Dozens of international airlines serve Cuba each day.
Scheduled commercial airline service from the U.S. ended in 1961 after the communist government of Fidel Castro rose to power, and nationalized foreign assets (many of them belonging to American companies). The Cuban missile crisis brought the world to brink of nuclear war, after the Castro regime allowed Russian missiles to be set up, prompting the ongoing U.S. embargo.
But even before Jetblue flight 387 left Fort Lauderdale with 150 passengers August 31st bound for Cuba, on average 17 charter flights travel between the U.S. and the island nation daily. The charter flights have existed for years, and all of the passengers on those flights passed through Cuban airport security without legislation from Congress to stop it.
CBS News was on that first commercial flight to Santa Clara, Cuba’s fifth largest city. Our experience was far from a comprehensive review of airport security. We found it to be similar to screenings at airports around the world, but with a few quirks.
Upon arrival in Cuba, our bags were x-rayed with equipment resembling those seen in American airports. Each passenger passed through a magnetometer. Some were also “wanded” with a handheld metal detector. Security officers would not allow bottled water past the checkpoint and held a safety razor (used for shaving) for no clear reason. When asked why water couldn’t enter the terminal, the officer simply said it wasn’t allowed.
Our photojournalist was allowed to keep his water. Prior to heading for customs, the razor was returned, and we were screened again. At the Santa Clara airport, we did not see body scanners.
After checking into our return flights and clearing immigration in Havana, the security checkpoint at Jose Marti International Airport’s Terminal 3, looked a lot like security at many small airports in the U.S. There were several lanes closed — and just one screening passengers. While the line wasn’t long, the process was slow. Bags were x-rayed, passengers passed through metal detectors, and in some cases were also ‘wanded’ by a handheld scanner. This terminal appeared to have one body scanner station.
Our CBS News crew was selected for additional screening, our bags were emptied and examined. Security officers express particular concern over several old books we purchased.
The senators’ Cuban Airport Security Act follows a similar measure introduced by Congressman John Katko, R-New York, in July. Earlier in the summer members of the House Homeland Security Committee were denied visas to enter Cuba for a trip to examine airport security there.
On the day the senate bill was announced American Airlines began rolling out its service to Cuba with a flight to Cienfuegos. The Department of Transportation has authorized up to 110 daily flights from the U.S. to Cuba on 10 carriers. Flights to the island’s capitol city are expected to begin in November.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said last week that commercial flights from the United States to Cuba are “propping up a regime that oppresses its people” and “enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy.”
“All we’re doing is enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy. So, if we could create, for example, business opportunities with the average Cuban person — if the average Cuban person was free to decide, you know, that I want to start up a little business, a little barber shop or restaurant or a repair shop and be able to profit from that and then because of their economic freedom see greater freedoms from the government. That might be a catalyst.” Sen. Menendez said in an interview with NJTV.
“But all that’s happening here is that in Cuba there are only two main entities that you can deal with. Both are controlled by the Castro regime. One is controlled by Castro’s son. The other one is controlled by his son-in-law. Both of them part of the Cuban military, both of the profits from the proceeds go to the Cuban military,” Menendez said.
“So, we’re actually propping up a regime that oppresses its people and has actually been since the president’s initiative more repressive. More arrests have been taking place, more beatings of human rights activists and political dissonants, because they think the message is, ‘We want to do business with you. We want to go to your beaches, and we’re willing to let human rights and democracy fall by the wayside.’”
Menedez said in order for it to be acceptable to him for the United States to have relations with Cuba, Cuba must be willing to free political prisoners, permit independent journalists, and hold free elections.
Last month, Jet Blue flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Santa Clara, Cuba, was the first direct commercial flight from the United States to Cuba in a half-century.