As rumors of an impending thaw in relations with Cuba make the rounds, some well-heeled tourists affiliated with a UCSD-related think tank had planned to set off this weekend on a seven-day, $6100-a-person haute cuisine tour of the island. The excursion is now on hold, which can't be said of a flurry of diplomatic intrigue involving the long-embattled island.
According to a November 26 report in the Christian Science Monitor, recent moves by the Obama administration, including the dispatch of confidential messages to Cuban officials via the Spanish foreign minister, "have some Republicans fretting that the White House aims to move even further from decades-old policy of isolating communist Cuba."
Florida GOP senator Marco Rubio — whose campaigns have drawn financial backing from U-T San Diego publisher Douglas Manchester and his Russian-born second wife Geniya — is leading the charge against liberalization of Cuba policy.
"The thing that concerns me is that I haven’t heard you say point-blank that, absent democratic openings, we’re not going to see actions on the part of this administration to weaken the current embargo and sanctions on Cuba,” Rubio told Obama deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken.
A key concession from the Cubans said to be sought by Obama is the release of Alan Gross, a subcontractor of the U.S. Agency for International Development who has been in a Cuban prison since December 2009 after being accused by the Cuban government of smuggling satellite communications equipment to dissidents under the guise of a tourist. He is serving a 15-year sentence.
Gross, who repeatedly traveled to Cuba before his arrest, had previously warned his employer about the dangers of his "discreet" mission but was ignored, according to a November 30 account in the Miami Herald.
"This is very risky business in no uncertain terms," said a memo from Gross. "Provincial authorities are apparently very strict when it comes to unauthorized use of radio frequencies.... Detection usually means confiscation of equipment and arrest of users.”
According to his lawyer, Gross's long captivity has caused his mental state to deteriorate. “We must remember that Alan was in Cuba serving the U.S. government [USAID is part of the State Department],” Scott Gilbert, who recently saw Gross in Havana, told the Herald. “Alan is about to give up, and we are running out of time.”
According to the paper, Gross staged a nine-day hunger strike in April but has since regained 23 of the 110 pounds he lost.
Meanwhile, the group that was about to embark from San Diego on Sunday, December 7, appeared to be armed with a hearty appetite, according to a "notional itinerary" of the trip, sponsored by the non-profit Institute of the Americas at UCSD.
The first night on the island was to be spent at the Hotel Parque Central, "the best hotel in Havana." Dinner was scheduled at Paladar San Cristobal. "About a 10‐minute walk from Parque Central, this cozy ‘paladar’ — a privately owned restaurant — provides great food in an elegant 1940s ambience."
On Monday, the group was set to huddle with an architect and urban planner before heading off for lunch at Doña Eutimia. "Famous for its ropa vieja and frozen mojitos, this paladar made Newsweek Magazine’s top 100 restaurants in the world in 2012."
That evening was to be set aside for an economic discussion with a foodie spin.
"Cocktails and tapas at Café Madrigal with English‐speaking graduate students from the University of Havana in the fields of economics, international relations and law. Students will offer their opinion about everything from the higher education system to the country’s future to the delicate relationship with the United States."
On Tuesday, meetings with a foreign Cuban diplomat and a representative of the Catholic church were to be interspersed with "a traditional Cuban meal overlooking the Straits of Florida at the Hotel Nacional, Cuba’s most famous hotel, with a great view of the malecón, Havana’s sea wall, and the Morro, the Spanish fortress built to protect the harbor."
Dinner at Chef Ivan y Gusto was scheduled to be with “third country diplomats serving in Cuba."
The next day, a "visit to a Cuban home and local market for discussion of ration card and purchasing power" was to be followed by "Lunch at El Aljibe restaurant, famous for its roasted chicken and black beans."
Then it was to be off to the Latin American School of Medicine before a stop at Prive, "a hip new trova bar, for a musical discussion with Frank Delgado, a renowned singer and songwriter, about the nueva trova movement in Cuba, followed by a musical performance. We will enjoy light appetizers and cocktails along with the show."
Thursday presentations by Cuba experts from Canada and the U.S. are to be accompanied by a trip to La Finca Vigía, the historic home of writer Ernest Hemingway, and dinner at Paladar Atelier. "This restaurant is equally known for its atmosphere and exquisite cuisine."
On Friday, the group was scheduled to make a "stop at a cooperative farm along the way" to Cienfuegos, including “sandwiches en route.”
In the afternoon, it would have been "Music and cocktails with the local chapter of UNEAC, the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba, featuring an interactive discussion with photographers, musicians and other locals, followed by live music and dance….
“Orlando Garcia, president of the Cienfuegos chapter of UNEAC, will discuss freedom of expression and UNEAC’s efforts to ensure more pluralism."
The day before heading back to San Diego there was to be a "discussion with [a] local priest regarding church‐state relations, religious freedom, social programs and current events" along with a "Conversation with artist Yami Martínez at her gallery, La Casa de los Conspiradores."
"Yami has achieved international recognition for her art depicting the strains of life on Cuban women. She will discuss her art, as well as her experiences running both a gallery and a 'casa particular' (bed and breakfast) out of her home."
Reached by phone on Wednesday, December 3, Institute for the Americas' vice president S. Lynn Walker said the long-awaited tour had been put on hold for a future unknown date. She provided no information regarding the reason for the abrupt postponement.