Tag Archives: Havana

Havana: some questions answered

A few tips for getting the most out of Cuba’s spectacular capital city…

 

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I’m going to Cuba. I’ve heard Havana is noisy and dirty, and the beaches of Varadero are the place to be. Should I bother visiting?

Yes, you should. The palms and piña coladas of Varadero ain’t got nothin’ on Havana. It is dirty and noisy, though. Get excited!

 

Where should I stay?

If you want to soak up the colonial charm of the old town, find somewhere in Habana Vieja. It’s lovely just to be able to wander around, and after losing a couple of hours in this maze you’ll be very grateful for a nearby refuge. However, culture vultures or those wanting to escape the madness should head for the wide, green boulevards of Vedado. This district is my favourite – cinemas and theatres abound, and you’re never far away from a world-class music venue.

Re accommodation: I heard recently that with the recent surge in tourism, Cuban hotels are all booked up forever and ever. Whether that’s true or not, don’t let it put you off. If you want the real deal, stay in a casa particularthese private homestays go from experienced family businesses to couples just renting out a spare room. They tend to be cosy, clean and serve delicious meals, including generous breakfasts. TripAdvisor and MyCasaParticular have plenty of recommendations. Book in advance in high season, but don’t stress out – somebody will put you up.

However, if you prefer the backpacker vibe, I stayed in Casa de Ania (Calle Jovellar y San Francisco) near Vedado, which I would definitely recommend. Hostels are pretty new on the scene in Cuba but this one strikes the perfect note, with several shared and private rooms and a nice common area to meet fellow travellers and drink rum not on your own.

 

How long do I need to get to know the city?

Probably a lifetime, but three to five days will do if you’re on a whirlwind tour. You’ll have time to scamper around and see all the beautiful sights, but still have a moment or two to stop and stare, sip a daiquiri in an old Hemingway joint, and watch life at its liveliest on the Malecón.

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How do I get around?

Those world-famous American cars, or máquinas, aren’t just there for show – they keep Havana moving all day and night. They’re essentially shared taxis that travel fixed routes. The key to getting one is not being shy. Stick your arm out and indicate how many people you are with your fingers, and when someone stops, just tell them where you want to go. Try and get a good map so you know which side of the road to stand on, or ask your hosts if you’re not sure! A short ride should cost about 50 cents, or 1 CUC for longer journeys. It can be confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s definitely the quickest way to get around.

Alternatively, use your feet. There is so much to see and take in that if you’re feeling energetic, this is the perfect way to roam. Wear sensible shoes, and take plenty of water.

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I’ve heard that communist states have a pretty miserable cultural life. What am I going to do with my time in Havana?

Even a quick visit will put paid to this myth. I’ve never been anywhere as exciting and culturally rich as Cuba’s capital, and even in the hardest years of economic crisis, the country has been a very good place to be an artist or dancer. Whether it’s cutting-edge modern art you’re into, or the catchy melodies of traditional son (think Buena Vista Social Club), you’ll never exhaust what Havana has to offer.

For those interested in Cuba’s revolutionary history, the Museo de la Revolución (Calle Refugio 1, Monserrate y Zulueta) is not to be missed – the palace is a sight in itself, and the collections are fascinating. Other great museums include the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (San Rafael, Monserrate y Zulueta) – look for Wifredo Lam’s abstract sugar canes and the bright canvases of Amelia Peláez. Lots of small, contemporary galleries are dotted around Calle Mercaderes in Old Havana, and are definitely worth a look around. The Centro Wifredo Lam (Calle San Ignacio, cnr. Empedrado) is a fantastic (and free!) exhibition space and always has interesting displays on.

Havana boasts a world-class ballet at the Gran Teatro (Paseo del Prado) – pop in and see what tickets are on offer. The classical concerts every Thursday and Sunday at 6pm at the Basilica San Francisco de Asís are also terrific (book the day before). Check LaHabana.com for current listings of loads of musical and cultural events.

It might get dark at some point, but Havana never sleeps. If you don’t want to either, start off by sipping mojitos in one of the million bars in Habana Vieja or Vedado. Or do as the locals do – buy a bottle of Havana Club and head to the Malecón. If you like jazz, head to La Zorra y el Cuervo (Avenida 23, N y O) – you enter through a mysterious red postbox into the underground club. Entry costs 10 CUC and includes two drinks, and listings are posted outside – if Miguel Herrera y Joven Jazz are playing, you would be mad not to go. Later on, La Gruta (next door to La Zorra) does good salsa nights on Wednesdays, and the hybrid bar/club/gallery Fábrica de Arte (Calle 26, cnr. 11) promises an otherworldly experience and, obviously, excellent music.

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I’m hungry.

Not to worry – Havana isn’t famed for its food but there are some very decent cheap eats and more upmarket paladares. La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207) does very good traditional fare. El Chanchullero (Teniente Rey, 457a bajos) is shamelessly hipster and always full of tourists, but the food is great and the mojitos strong. For cheap peso restaurants, Los Primos (Calle 23 y H, Vedado) is very good – the mango batido (milkshake) is delicious.

In general, fish is always a good shout, but steer clear of the pizza (except in Don Giovanni, #107-109 Tacón y Mercaderes). Vegetarians can usually get huevos fritos (fried eggs) with the staple beans and rice, even if it’s not on the menu.

 

What should I take?

Clean, cool clothes and sensible walking shoes, and whatever essentials you can, as finding provisions in Cuba can be fraught (tampons, always remember tampons).

A good book – try Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana or Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (not for the faint-hearted).

It’s best to take money with you, which can be exchanged for CUCs in banks, but there are lots of ATMs throughout the city as well.

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Any safety concerns?

Havana’s pretty safe, so no need to worry at all. However, like in any capital city, it pays to keep your wits about you. Hold on to your bag and watch your pockets, especially in crowded places. Sometimes things are snatched by someone on the back of a motorbike, so make sure you fasten your bag securely around you or wear a money belt. Look out for scams, too – a common one is somebody chatting you up and taking you to a bar, then the waiter bringing you a hugely inflated bill. Cubans are friendly, but keep an eye out for people being too friendly.

 

Do: drink overpriced cocktails at the top of the Habana Libre hotel for the stunning view, even if only once.

Don’t: … not dance salsa. You must dance salsa.

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Useful resources and things to read:

Lonely Planet is a reliable guide for the main sights, and a great guidebook to buy is Christopher P. Baker’s Moon Guide.

The Huffington Post have a great series of articles on Cuba at the moment, including David Latt‘s excellent travel tips. I also enjoy the in-depth pieces on Havana by Guardian Cities, especially Oliver Wainwright‘s latest insight into the changing world of tourism.

Contact me with any questions or suggestions!

¡Buen viaje!

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Walking tour: Havana’s best ‘piropo’ spots

Piropo: Untranslatable word. Term used fondly to describe the whistles, hisses, kissing noises and comments any woman should expect as she steps out onto the streets of Cuba’s capital. Commonly mistranslated as ‘chat-up lines’, since the last thing solicited is a chat. It’s more a game of action and reaction, subject and object, predator and prey. For aficionados of everyday sexism, this is a must. Here follows a guide for the best places to experience this intriguing phenomenon first-hand.

Throw yourself right in the deep end if you really enjoy being hassled and head straight to the wonderful maze that is Habana Vieja. Getting lost in these streets should provide a comprehensive introduction to the practice of piropos, especially if you only have a few days in Havana. Listen out for the distinctive ‘Psssst!’ or occasionally ‘Hey lady!’ and try not to recoil visibly at the kisses and winks. Examples of personal comments heard include ‘chica linda’, ‘bonita’, ‘muy sexy’; but there is a wide range of derivatives. You’ll never be bored.

If you’re with a man, forget the whole tour. As someone else’s property you’re officially off the market and no longer fair game for piropos, and so you may run the risk of being well and truly left alone. If you’re lucky, somebody might jovially offer your companion to swap you for his girl, and you can all have a good laugh. But this is the extent of it, so try to stick with women to guarantee that the comments are completely unrelenting.

And as we all know from playground bullying, you will always get the most attention when on your own. This is the best way to really get a feel for it. You’ll probably be offered a lot of sex and, if you’re lucky, maybe a few relationships. ‘¿Te falta un novio?’ (Do you need a boyfriend/ are you missing a boyfriend?) As a woman without a man beside her, a part of you is missing – so apparently it’s a free for all.

Next stop is Centro; the busy roads of the centre. Walk past large groups of men for the best results, although comments from people on their own are pretty common as well. Interestingly, they often come just after you’ve passed, so be patient. This way, since you can’t return the gaze directly, it becomes much easier not to treat you as a real human being – any form of social interaction is cut off.

Venture out to the leafy boulevards of Vedado only if you have ample time in the city. There is a danger of having real conversations with people on these streets, so exercise caution at all times. Still, you’re never far away from a degrading remark or sexual proposition.

If you still don’t feel quite like a sexual object, end your trip on the Malecón. Simply sit down and people will come to you. Read a book, enjoy a conversation – look as preoccupied or uninterested as possible. Be sure to tell people to leave you alone several times, because no seems to mean try harder in the world of street harassment. In the more secluded parts, very occasionally, men masturbate as women walk past. But this is slightly off the beaten track.

None of this is to suggest that women do not face this kind of treatment everywhere. Street harassment is a worldwide problem that may be worse and is certainly more threatening in other cities. The term machismo is perhaps misleading as a culturally specific term that confines inequality to the region of Latin America.

Relatively speaking, Cuba is a very good place to be a woman. Statistics place the country highly in world rankings of gender equality. 50 percent of students in higher education, 60 percent of doctors and 48 percent of high government are women. Childcare is free, as is birth control assistance. Men and women are guaranteed the same salaries. It all looks great on paper, hence why a stroll in Havana can be quite a sobering experience. Equality is quite an empty term if you are reduced to a sexual object the second you venture out into public space.

Havana is one of the most culturally rich and exciting places I have ever been. This makes the constant reminder that, as a woman, you are somehow less entitled to actively enjoy it, a real shame.

Cuba’s outdoor WiFi hotspots

There’s another revolution in Cuba, and this time it’s online. All over the country, WiFi is being made available in plazas, parks and outside important buildings. Throngs of people are gathering daily, armed with laptops, phones and other devices for what would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Life here is rapidly transforming, and this is one of the most visible changes.

Walking down Havana’s busy shopping street, Boulevard de San Rafael, I was suddenly accosted by a teenager shouting fast Spanish at me and thrusting dozens of small packets into my arms. Soon they were everywhere. ‘¿Tarjeta de Internet?’ ‘¡Wifi, wifi, wifi!’ ‘Cinco pesos… ¡tres pesos!’ It didn’t take long to see what all the fuss was about. In the small square opposite were hundreds of people, and hundreds of small screens.

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Some held phones at arm’s length, smiling and chatting to friends and relatives abroad. Others were sat on benches typing furiously away at laptops, worlds away from the city life around them.

Having only been introduced outdoors a few months ago, these telepuntos (hotspots) are everywhere. All you need is a scratchcard which gives you a username and password to connect whenever you please. Whatever the weather, Cubans are plugging in at all hours to connect with the wider world. One night, I left a jazz club on the Malecón to find a dozen users still going strong on the steps of a library. (Havana is pretty safe, apparently to the extent that you can parade your iPhone at 2am without concern.) It didn’t look like they were packing up anytime soon.

The same thing is happening in the provinces. The network ETECSA, Cuba’s state-controlled service provider, pops up on my phone as I walk through almost any plaza. This is usually accompanied by hard sells from groups of competing teenagers. I chatted to one student in Cienfuegos who had been going to and fro between his sister’s birthday celebrations and selling Internet scratchcards in the city centre – one card sold, one more mojito.

Earlier this year, telepuntos were limited to small sales offices, where you bought similar cards to rent a computer. Otherwise, the only Internet access outside authorised workplaces was the unreliable and expensive WiFi in the lobbies of a few swanky hotels. Now it’s al fresco, communal, available to all – except that you still have to pay.

The strict laws and controls on Internet access in Cuba are well-known. Only in 2008 were citizens granted the right to own a computer. For a fee, sending and receiving emails was permitted. But a direct Internet feed required government authorisation, usually only granted for professional or educational use – so the vast majority were limited to a local Intranet of approved websites.

In 2013, Raúl Castro announced that full Internet access would soon be permitted. You only have to walk the streets of Havana to see that the Cuban government seems to have made good on its promise. However, restrictions certainly still exist, particularly concerning the freedom of the press – a sticking point between Cuba and the rest of the world. According to US-based NGO Freedom House, a growing number of outspoken bloggers are routinely harassed and detained for their criticism of the government. The nation is still one of the ‘enemies of the Internet’ named by Reporters Without Borders, which argues that connection problems can no longer be blamed on the US embargo since a submarine cable linking Cuba to Venezuela was installed. The main barrier is financial. In a nation with shockingly low wages, people just can’t afford to sit back and surf the web.

Yet as the political climate shifts, so too does the urban landscape. Park benches are occupied not by old men smoking cigars and leafing through Granma, but by citizens of all ages staring at screens. Headphones shut out the world around in favour of an exciting, virtual space that links Cubans to a community they have long been denied. This might seem a shame to those of us who find it more of a luxury to switch off for an hour than to connect. It may appear to spoil the tranquillity of those leafy plazas where people stop to collect their thoughts, read in peace, or talk to strangers like old friends. Far from it – nothing could do away with the all-important rite in Cuba of park bench chatter. But now relatives in Miami can join in the conversation.

I’m currently staying at the lovely Hostal Los Ricardos, overlooking the main plaza in Sancti Spíritus. The WiFi just about reaches the balcony. It feels like breakfast in bed.

Exploring Santería in Havana

Facts and figures don’t seem to apply to Cuba. All that is paraded in both the national and international press needs to be taken with a massive pinch of salt – news and comment can be grossly misleading, as if there is ever a correct way to be led when it comes to ‘understanding’ a country. With Che Guevara’s diary nestled under one arm, most travellers seem to rock up brimming with confidence, churning out their knowledge about the Revolution and the lives of numerous Castros, only to head off a few weeks later dazed and confused. Cuban culture is as shadowy as the most labyrinthine streets of La Habana Vieja, today more than ever.

One of its most fascinating aspects is the cult of Santería, although any foreigner would have to dig hard even to scratch its surface. Nominally, 85% of the population are Roman Catholic, but in reality a large proportion are followers of this mysterious syncretic religion. When millions of slaves were brutally imported from Africa during the colonial era, many from modern-day Nigeria, they brought with them their Yoruba beliefs and rituals, which they were forced to mask with a veneer of Catholicism. Santería is the hybrid product of this oppression. Hence the name, which means ‘Way of the Saints’, as every deity (orisha) has its overt Catholic avatar.

Although it may not be the first thing visitors to Cuba notice, the religion is crucial to much of the nation’s treasured heritage: art, music, everyday life. Every Cuban, believer or non-believer, will be well-acquainted with the faith. Deities and symbols of Santería figure across the arts, from Wifredo Lam’s surrealist, sugar-filled paintings to Alejo Carpentier’s famous novels of lo real maravilloso (magical realism). And Havana trembles with the drums of rumba, born of the sacred rituals where orishas would be invoked by ceremonies of los tambores.

Yet the culture isn’t confined to the arts. Santería dolls swing above the dashboard of almost every old American car, protecting it against the lethal Havana traffic. Many homes hold small shrines to personal orishas. Most obviously, newly initiated priests (santeros, or babalawos) are seen dressed distinctively all in white.

The Museo de los Orishas, run by Cuba’s Yoruba association, is a large, spacious haven of peace overlooking the chaos of the Capitolio. At 5CUC, guide included, the museum is de rigueur for anyone wishing to learn more about Santería and the many orishas worshipped.

Upstairs, a vast hallway is divided by totems painted like trees. It is both a spiritual and educative space where you can wander at ease between the dozens of wooden sculptures. The whole pantheon is massive, with up to 400 orishas, but only a dozen or so figures of everyday worship are represented here. Oludomare, the one supreme God and creator of the universe, has no image – only two large, bright white sheets of satin cascade down from up high, as if to crown an invisible ruler.

The orishas he communicates through stand proud, offerings left at their feet, lit up majestically against a painted backdrop of their home – woodland, waterfall or ocean. We start with Elegúa, orisha of roads and crossroads, and protector of travellers. (His Catholic avatar is San Antonio de Padua.) Then there is the matronly Naná Buruki, grandmother of the forest, who sits beneath a tree with a child in her arms.

Yemayá interests me most. Formidable against the crashing waves of the sea that she rules, she can be beneficent or cruel. Protector of maternity and children, parents have left dolls and children’s toys in the basket below her feet in return for the welfare of their families. Her Catholic counterpart is the Virgin of Regla. Thousands make the pilgrimage to Regla every September on her feast day, paying tribute to Yemayá via the image of the black Madonna at the altar of the church – Roman Catholic in name only.

Femininity has often been associated in art and religion with water and the sea, while masculine symbols and deities tend to remain on solid land. Yemayá’s role exemplifies this. Other female deities of Santería also represent bodies of water; Ochón rules the fresh waters and fertility, her sculpture resembling a mermaid in a fishtail dress. There is also Olokún, who owns the depths of the ocean. However, when I ask about this, my guide is eager to point out that gender in the Santería pantheon is fluid and unstable – many orishas shift from man to woman at midnight. Olokún is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fish. Others have no sex at all.

Santería was inaccurately named from the start, saints being but disguises for the Yoruba orishas. This seems to epitomise the mystery of this religion for outsiders. But before delving into the provincial churches and communities – where the real practice takes place, far from any Christian altar – this museum is a great place to start.

The Hershey Electric Railway

The method of transport everybody tells you not to bother with in Cuba is the train. Slow, hugely unreliable and subject to schedules changing at the last minute, the national rail service Union de Ferricarriles de Cuba is not recommended for those with limited time or patience.

But in the case of the old Hershey Electric Railway, the journey is a beauty not to be missed. It takes four uncomfortable hours (experienced locals bring cushions) to complete the 90km journey from Havana to Matanzas, but the experience is worth every minute.

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The train was built in 1922 by the US chocolate mogul Milton Hershey, to connect his remote sugar mill to the two cities. The factory was nationalised during the Revolution and renamed to commemorate the rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos, but the train continued chugging along, still known informally by its former name.

We caught the 12.21 from Casablanca (a short ferry ride from Habana Vieja) and sat down to a no-frills carriage filled with Cuban families, for whom our adventure was the run-of-the-mill slog home from the capital. The train stopped and started numerous times to allow for latecomers before we eventually set off, rumbling along the tracks in no hurry and pausing at a very tiny rail-side village for passengers to hop on and off.

Sometimes the ride was leisurely and peaceful, but more often we gripped out seats nervously as the carriage swung precariously from side to side. The roar of the engine precluded all attempts at conversation, and all we could do was gaze out at the surroundings.

Certainly nothing to complain about. The journey begins in the suburbs of Havana, literally passing through people’s backs yards and starkly displaying the ‘real’ Cuba – a life of hard agricultural work, but at a slower pace than in the exhilarating capital. Cattle and goats graze in the fields, and banana and sugar cane plantations abound. Occasionally a tractor makes its rounds, but more often a horse and cart.

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Lush green countryside is scattered with sky-high tropical palms, and the rolling hills seem like they go on forever, despite the knowledge that a few miles north is the Atlantic, and – not much further – Florida, worlds away from this rural part of the Caribbean. Come 3pm (true to form in hurricane season), the sky darkens and the palm branches blow threateningly in the wind.

The train at last grinds to a halt a few hundred yards before the platform, and we all jump off onto the rubble-strewn tracks to walk to the station. The sky opened as we arrived in Matanzas, and stayed that way for most of our time there. But it was the journey that was the real gem.

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First impressions

On my first day in Havana, I woke up late (jaded from jet lag and Cuban rum, always much less sweet the next morning) to see US Secretary of State John Kerry delivering his speech at the newly operational embassy. So I sprinted – or walked, as hastily as any foreigner could in the scorching midday heat – down to the Malecón. I was just in time to hear the end of the US anthem and see the flag flying high at the top of the mast-pole. An expected step after the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington last month, but nonetheless a patent symbol of peace and immense possibility for the future of Cuban citizens for whom hostilities with their northern neighbour has taken a huge toll. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the building, cheering and clapping, Cubans and Americans alike.

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So a wonderful time to be in Cuba, to say the least. The thaw in relations with the US and the knowledge that the crippling embargo is one step closer to being lifted adds hope and excitement to a city that already astonishes with its resilience and constant movement. Havana is big – much bigger than I had imagined – but nothing is diluted. Buses, motorbikes, bicycles and the archetypal American cars blaze down the Malecón in a continuous stream of every colour imaginable. To the left, hundreds of narrow entrances to the maze of streets that make up the city centre. To the right, quiet; silhouettes of couples sitting and boys fishing at the seafront. It’s a city of juxtapositions that still seem perfectly in tune.

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Inside the labyrinth, the energy of children playing football in every street is offset by their parents reclining on chairs on the pavement, as languid as the cigar smoke you breathe in everywhere. It’s like a novel of magical realism where time fast-forwards then stands still before you turn the page. It might be cliché, except that it’s too confusing.

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However, as a traveller, you can’t just leave your wits behind and enter the euphoria. Cuba has a strained relationship with tourism. It’s perfectly safe, but many try every scam to lighten your wallet. In a country where wages are shockingly low, it is perhaps inevitable that the tourist tax is sky-high and you can expect to be charged for everything as much as locals can get away with. Tourists take different transport and even use a different currency (pesos convertibles rather than the national peso). When you are reminded at every turn that you are an outsider, the divide seems pretty unbridgeable.

These were my first, and most likely very shallow and inaccurate impressions. I think that for the first few days, you can really only enjoy yourself, reserve judgement and get thoroughly lost in the amazing, perplexing streets of the city.

Cuban Embassy opens in Washington

It has been a day of celebration for both countries as Cuba’s flag is raised above the embassy in Washington, signalling that the thaw in hostilities has turned to real and open diplomatic relations.

This was the latest stepping stone in a long effort to normalise relations. It comes after several landmark changes in the past year, beginning with Obama’s historic announcement of a ‘new chapter’ last December. In January, talks continued and restrictions on travel and trade between the two countries were significantly relaxed. On May 29, Cuba was formally removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which may sound like no more than a long overdue rubber stamp, but in fact opened the path for foreign companies and banks to trade with and invest in Cuba. In a country where the average wage is said to about $20 a month, this can only be a good thing.

There are many problems that remain unresolved, as all parties are reminding us – and rightfully so, since the trade embargo is enshrined in law and will need congressional approval to be finally lifted. The impassioned chant of ‘Cuba sí – bloqueo no’ was heard today as the flag was raised. Calling the embargo a blockade is vividly accurate. In 2011, Cuba calculated that the economic damage of the policy had reached over $1 trillion over the course of half a century.

Neither can anybody ignore the humongous elephant in the room that is Guantánamo Bay. Since the Revolution, Cuba has cashed none of the payments offered for the naval base, and maintains that the territory is illegally occupied. Again, Obama’s call to close the facility is hampered by Congress.

Nevertheless, this latest step is a victory for global diplomacy and promises further developments in the not too distant future. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba in August for a similar inauguration of the US embassy in Havana. Meanwhile, talks will continue behind the scenes, and each announcement is another hurdle cleared at last.