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So You Want To Go To Cuba? 6 Tours Specifically for Gay Travelers

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This weekly travel column is brought to you by ManAboutWorld, an immersive digital premium gay travel magazine from Billy KolberEd SalvatoKenny Porpora, and nearly 75 Global Correspondents.

Thanks to President Obama’s recent initiative to thaw relations with Cuba, our geographically near (yet ideologically distant) neighbor, it’s now a little easier to go. But don’t expect to hop on a plane, grab a hotel and hit the beach on your own just yet.

HAVANA Gareth Williams smallerThere are still restrictions in place, specifically with respect to pure leisure tourism — it’s still not legal for Americans, who must travel under a general or specific license (i.e., visa). Check out this comprehensive Q&A in the New York Times and visit our blog for further information. 

So how exactly do you go gay to Cuba?

There are quite a few gay tour operators running fantastic trips to get you to Cuba safely and (mostly) legally. Our friend Matt Smith has a licensed group for Cuba’s Pride Week May 4-10, 2015, and a license to do custom People-to-People trips if you’re looking for something customized. As a Canadian company, Out Adventures presents the most leisure-oriented of all the LGBT tours, with departures scheduled March 7-15 and December 27, 2015-January 4, 2016. (U.S. citizens may join at their own risk and in six years of running tours, they’ve brought a number of U.S. citizens without a problem — inquire directly with them for details.) 

Moretravel

Coda International Tours — March 8-15 — explores the art and food scene of Havana before heading to Cienfuegos; HE Travel's April 14-19 trip focuses on the life and work of Tennessee Williams with an elegant reception at the National Museum of Fine Arts; Detours With Mattduring Cuban Pride Week from May 1-11, includes Old Havana and encounters with Cuban nationals, plus a Pilgrimage to La Guarida, a restaurant based in the apartment where Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed; and Zoom Vacations takes their third trip to Cuba, from December 28-January 2, where guests can ring in the New Year at a beachside all-inclusive resort with white sand beaches to experience all the art, culinary and culture Cuba has to offer.

For more opinionated travel information and inspiration, get ManAboutWorld Magazine on iTunes (iOS) or Google Play (Android). 

Image credits: Top: Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas; right: Gareth Williams bottom: Thomas Leuthard

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AGGRESSIVE STRAIN OF HIV THAT CAUSES ACCELERATED AIDS DEVELOPMENT RESURFACES IN CUBA

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A number of Cuban patients have tested positive for a new, highly aggressive strain of HIV that seemingly develops into full blown AIDS much faster than most other strains. There is no set timeline for if and when an HIV-positive person will develop AIDS, it can take anywhere from 5 to 10 years according Anne-Mieke Vandamme, a molecular virologist who was contact by Cuban public health officials. These patients, Vandamme explained to Voice of America, were developing AIDS within 2 to 3 years.

"So this group of patients that progressed very fast, they were all recently infected," Vandamme explained to Voice of America. "And we know that because they had been HIV-negative tested one or a maximum two years before."

When we talk about HIV (a virus) and AIDS (a syndrome,) we tend to lump the two in together as a single ailment, and fail to differentiate between the multiple strains of HIV that function differently from one another.

AIDS, which is a persistent compromise of the immune system, typically develops in HIV-positive people who don’t have proper access to antiretroviral drugs that effectively stop the virus from being able to infect new cells. It can also result from a positive person merely having an already weak immune system.

Accoring to Vandamme, none of the six patients were being treated for HIV, but their immune systems were fully intact. The speed with which their AIDS progressed was linked to the very virus itself, a mutated variant that is being called CRF19.

"Here we had a variant of HIV that we found only in the group that was progressing fast. Not in the other two groups. We focused in on this variant [trying] to find out what was different. And we saw it was a recombinant of three different subtypes."

The new strain bears similarity to a number of Group M-class HIV strains that are found throughout Africa and Europe. This isn’t the first time that CRF19 has surfaced, Vandamme explained, but in the past it proved difficult to find people infected with that specific virus. Though the CRF19’s rising prevalence in Cuba is worrisome, it could also give researchers a better shot at understanding and treating the strain.


New Cuban Travel and Trade Rules to Take Effect Friday

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Many of the broad range of changes to the U.S. Government's policies toward Cuba which President Obama announced in mid-December are going to take effect tomorrow, the administration announced today.

Reuters reports:

The United States eased decades of trade and financial restrictions on Cuba, opening up the country to U.S. telecommunications, construction and financial services in a slew of changes announced by the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Treasury.

The new rules, effective on Friday, are the first concrete step to implement U.S. President Barack Obama's move last month to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and ease the long economic embargo on America's Cold War enemy after more than 50 years.

The AP adds:

The measures include permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cuba and U.S. companies to export some technologies. Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses.

Americans can also bring home up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco from Cuba, meaning the ban on Cuban cigars is officially over.

Only Congress can lift the full embargo which has been in place for more than 50 years.


The Lives of Transgender People In Cuba Are Slowly But Surely Changing: VIDEO

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In terms of cultural acceptance, Cuba’s relationship with members of its LGBT community has been varied and complex. While the Cuban government and police force have a fraught history with Cuba’s queer population, the Cuban society has been accepting to varying degrees. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have officially been able to be to serve openly in the Cuban Military, though most opt to remain in the closet for fear of the implicit repercussions they might face.

Gender non-conforming drag performers, known commonly as transformistas, have been a common fixture of Cuba’s queer subculture for decades. Self-identified transgender people, however, have been met with significantly more substantial hurdles. Slowly but surely, though, things are changing. In 2005 Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of current Cuban President Raúl Castro and vocal advocate for LGBT rights, proposed sweeping legislation that would allow trans-identified Cubans to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. The bill was signed into law in 2008, and since then transgender people have continued to make inroads.

In 2012 Adela Hernandez became the first transgender woman to be elected to public office as a local representative to the Caibarien delegation of Villa Clara, a Cuban central province.

"My neighbours know me as Adela, the nurse," Hernandez told The Guardian. "Sexual preference does not determine whether you are a revolutionary or not. That comes from within. As time evolves, homophobic people – although they will always exist – are the minority.”

Though Hernandez’s election was a landmark achievement for trans people in the country, her success was due, in part, to Cuba’s official protocol for recognizing its citizens’ genders. Because Hernandez had yet to opt-in for sexual reassignment surgery, Cuba still officially recognizes her as Jose Agustin Hernandez, a man. Ana Rafaela Díaz Gómez, a transwoman living in Havana, is the subject to a short New York Times documentary, dealing with a similar situation.

“By the time I met Ana, I only had about 36 hours on the ground left, so I knew I had to keep my video very focused,” explained Alexandra Garcia, a visual journalist with the Times. “ She still had to have the legal change of identity so she could be married to her partner of eight years ‘as a regular heterosexual couple,’ so I focused the story on the two of them and their relationship.”

The video is a part of a larger series the Times is running on LGBT lives in Cuba. You’ll need a subscription to access the full article, but watch the video about Ana Rafaela Díaz Gómez AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "The Lives of Transgender People In Cuba Are Slowly But Surely Changing: VIDEO" »


U.S. to Begin Talks With Cuba to Open Embassy, Normalize Full Diplomatic Relations

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President Obama is set to announce a broad new range of changes to the U.S. Government's policies toward Cuba including talks to normalize full diplomatic relations and open an embassy, the AP reports.

The announcement was preceded Wednesday morning by the freeing of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, held in Cuba since 2009, CNN adds:

Gross' "humanitarian" release by Cuba was accompanied by a separate spy swap, the officials said. Cuba also freed a U.S. intelligence source who has been jailed in Cuba for more than 20 years, although authorities did not identify that person for security reasons. The U.S. released three Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage in 2001.

President Obama is also set to announce a broad range of diplomatic and regulatory measures in what officials called the most sweeping change in U.S. policy toward Cuba since the 1961 embargo was imposed.

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CNBC adds:

Obama plans to overhaul Cuba's policy while Cuba plans to free 53 political prisoners and to allow U.S. debit and credit cards, Dow Jones reported.

General tourism will still not be allowed but some travel restrictions will be eased for the purposes of making it easier for Americans to do business there.

Some of the other changes, according to CNN:

In an effort to boost the nascent Cuban private sector, the President will also allow expanded commercial sales and exports of goods and services to Cuba, particularly building materials for entrepreneurs and private residences, and allow greater business training, as well as permit greater communications hardware and services to go to the island.

Other announced changes permit U.S. and Cuban banks to build relationships and travelers to use credit and debit cards. U.S. travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco -- even Cuban cigars. Remittances by Americans to their families back in Cuba will also be increased to approximately $2,000 per quarter.

While only Congress can lift the decades-long full embargo, the President appears to be extending many measures which are within his power.

Many, of course, will be asking how the human rights violations of the Castro regime will be addressed during these talks. Just this week, on Human Rights Day, more than 100 and reportedly up to 240 political activists were arrested throughout the island.

Obama is set to speak about Gross and Cuba at 12 ET today. At the same time Cuban President Raul Castro will be giving a press conference about the policies in Havana.

A CNN report on Alan Gross, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "U.S. to Begin Talks With Cuba to Open Embassy, Normalize Full Diplomatic Relations" »


Head Of U.S. Agency For International Development Says Human Rights 'Essential' In Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 1.01.30 PMRajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, linked human rights to the fight against HIV/AIDS during remarks he made during a World AIDS Day forum reports the Washington BladeThe forum highlighted a USAID-backed initiative through President Obama's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to combat the global epidemic among gay men, transgender people and other affected groups. 

Said Shah:

"Getting to where we need to go to a genuine AIDS-free generation will perhaps require even more determination, innovation and capacity to link the fight against HIV and AIDS to a broad range of critical issues, including the very basic and unassailable fight for human rights for all individuals.

"The only way to achieve the end goal of an AIDS-free generation is to more systematically embrace and empower this broader range of partners in this fight."

George Ayala, the executive director of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, said that the U.S., Canada, Russia and Australia are among 61 countries with laws that criminalize people who have the virus. Lisa Carty, the director of the U.S. Liaison Office of U.N. AIDS, added that an estimated 80 countries have a policy or statute that, "Is a barrier to the communities we care about to get the services they need."

The State Department announced on Monday a $210 million public-private partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates and Nike Foundations through PEPFAR that is designed to lower new HIV infections in girls and women in 10 countries; an additional $116.5 million is going toward African nations' healthcare systems as well. However, the Associate Press reported that USAID hired nearly a dozen men from three Latin American countries to undermine the Cuban government through an HIV prevention workshop, among other means. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, expressed dismay about the actions of USAID in the matter.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 1.05.05 PMSaid Lee:

"I am appalled by recent reports that the U.S. government orchestrated and funded clandestine democracy promotion efforts under the guise of public health and civic programs.

"I am particularly concerned by the revelation that HIV-prevention programs were used as a cover. This blatant deception undermines U.S. credibility abroad and endangers U.S. government supported public health programs, which have saved millions of lives in recent years around the world." 

Shah made no references to Cuba in his speech. The head of international development continued to discuss helping marginalized populations and linked human rights to national security.

Said Shah:

"Efforts that we will discuss today and take forward will help not only address HIV in marginalized populations, but will help society after society through that experience recognize that the universal reach of human rights is in our collective social and national security interest."


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