Military-linked Business Enterprises Dominate in Cuba

American tourists strolling the ample squares and narrow streets of colonial Havana may not know it, but from novelist Ernest Hemingway’s famed Floridita bar to Sloppy Joe’s eatery, they are probably patronizing businesses owned by Cuba’s military.

It is that lucrative line of business that President Donald Trump will target when he rolls out his new Cuba policy Friday in Miami, the heart of the country’s hard-line exile community, according to U.S. officials who have seen a draft presidential memorandum.

Trump will significantly restrict U.S. companies from doing business with some military-linked enterprises, the officials said.

“Any ban on using military-owned tourism facilities would make it very difficult to bring groups larger than seven people, because for logistical reasons you need to work with the government,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel.

The number of Americans traveling to Cuba, mostly in large groups because of U.S. regulations, has nearly tripled in recent years and was expected to reach around 400,000 in 2017, according to U.S. travel agencies.

Trump’s expected limits on U.S. business deals will target the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), a conglomerate involved in all sectors of the economy that is led by General Luis Alberto Rodriguez, reportedly President Raul Castro’s son-in-law.

That is bad news for the pro-engagement U.S. politicians and hundreds of businesses that flocked to Cuba in the last few years in search of new opportunities.

Lone hotel deal

The only hotel deal struck to date may prove the last for now, at least in the capital. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which is owned by Marriott International, signed on to manage a Gaviota hotel in Havana under the Sheraton brand, which opened in 2016.

Gaviota is part of GAESA, and tourism development projects in Havana and other choice locations are almost exclusively in its hands.

U.S. Gulf Coast ports and the Port of Virginia, which have signed letters of intent to work with the new Mariel container terminal, will most likely have to look elsewhere for shipping partners because it is controlled by Almacenes Universales, another GAESA company.

The terminal feeds a surrounding Chinese-style development zone that allows investors 100 percent ownership and that was visited by dozens of U.S. business delegations beginning in 2015, though no deals were signed. It also is controlled by Almacenes Universales.

GAESA does not run Cuba’s airports, or its cruise ship terminals, meaning U.S. airlines and cruise operators might not be directly affected, but it does control the marinas.

All the state hotels, stores and eateries in colonial Old Havana are owned by Habaguanex, which was recently taken over from the city historian’s office by GAESA.

GAESA began modestly enough in the 1980s as an effort to bring modern management to the civilian sector mired in the ways of Soviet-style administration.

It has grown dramatically over the last decade since Raul Castro took over for his ailing and now deceased older brother, Fidel.

Today GAESA boasts dozens of companies that control 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings, according to Cuban economists.

GAESA’s books, like those of other state-run companies, are not public.

Military’s self-interest

Some Cuba experts and diplomats believe the military is feathering its own nest and perhaps preparing to cash in if the government falls.

But others believe revenues flow to the cash-strapped state.

A former British ambassador to Cuba, Paul Hare, who lectures at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, said the military was viewed as a guardian of the Revolution.

“Their function is to ensure that private Cubans and foreign investors do not undermine the principles of ‘socialism,’ ” he said.

The holding company controls virtually all of the thousands of stores, supermarkets and malls in the country that sell imported products ranging from food and beverages to clothing and appliances, and hundreds of gas stations and eateries.

That means when you enter a shop in Cuba to purchase a bottle of water, soda or beer, you probably are patronizing a military establishment.

If you want to rent a condominium or satellite TV service, you have to go through a GAESA company.

The holding company also controls two banks and all credit card and money transfer transactions through Fincimex. RAFIN, the conglomerate’s mini-hedge fund, owns shares in the telecommunications monopoly ETECSA.

From: MeNeedIt

Study: Three Mutations Could Make Bird Flu a Potential Pandemic

Scientists have identified three mutations that, if they occurred at the same time in nature, could turn a strain of bird flu now circulating in China into a potential pandemic virus that could spread among people.

The flu strain, known as H7N9, now mostly infects birds but it has infected at least 779 people in outbreaks in and around China, mainly related to poultry markets.

The World Health Organization said earlier this year that all bird flu viruses need constant monitoring, warning that their constantly changing nature makes them “a persistent and significant threat to public health.”

At the moment, the H7N9 virus does not have the capability to spread sustainably from person to person. But scientists are worried it could at any time mutate into a form that does.

To assess this risk, researchers led by James Paulson of the Scripps Research Institute in California looked at mutations that could potentially take place in the genome of the H7N9 virus.

They focused on the H7 hemagglutanin, a protein on the flu virus surface that allows it to latch onto host cells.

The team’s findings, published in the journal PLoS Pathogens on Thursday, showed that in laboratory tests, mutations in three amino acids made the virus more able to bind to human cells — suggesting these changes are key to making the virus more dangerous to people.

Scientists not directly involved in this study said its findings were important, but should not cause immediate alarm.

“This study will help us to monitor the risk posed by bird flu in a more informed way, and increasing our knowledge of which changes in bird flu viruses could be potentially dangerous will be very useful in surveillance,” said Fiona Culley, an expert in respiratory immunology at Imperial College London.

She noted that while “some of the individual mutations have been seen naturally, … these combinations of mutations have not,” and added: “The chances of all three occurring together is relatively low.”

Wendy Barclay, a virologist and flu specialist also at Imperial, said the study’s findings were important in showing why H7N9 bird flu should be kept under intense surveillance.

“These studies keep H7N9 virus high on the list of viruses we should be concerned about,” she said. “The more people infected, the higher the chance that the lethal combination of mutations could occur.”

From: MeNeedIt

Kushner Company Drops Tax Break Request in New Jersey

The real estate firm owned by the family of Jared Kushner has withdrawn a request for a big tax break for one its buildings in Jersey City, New Jersey, the latest setback for the company in the area.

 

The Kushner Cos. sent a letter withdrawing its application for a 30-year break from city taxes for a planned two-tower project in the struggling Journal Square section of the city, Jersey City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said Wednesday. Opponents of the tax breaks marched downtown earlier this year and the city’s mayor recently came out against the Kushner request.

 

Jared Kushner was CEO of the family company before stepping down to become a senior adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

Committed to area

 

Kushner Cos. spokesman James Yolles said the company is committed to the “much-needed investment” in that area of the city.

 

The loss of the tax break is the latest blow for the company in a city where it is major real estate developer.

 

The 79-story building, One Journal Square, gained attention last month after Jared Kushner’s sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, mentioned her brother in a presentation in Beijing where she had hoped to attract Chinese investors in the building. Marketing material noted the “celebrity status” of her family.

 

Government ethics experts blasted the family for what they said was an attempt to profit off Jared Kushner’s position in Washington, and the Kushner Cos. canceled upcoming investor presentations in the country.

 

The company said Meyer wasn’t trying to use her White House ties to attract investors.

EB-5 visa program

 

The Kushner family is seeking 300 wealthy Chinese to invest a total of $150 million in One Journal Square. The family was trying to raise money through the EB-5 visa program that grants temporary U.S. residency to wealthy foreigners in exchange for investments of at least $500,000 in certain U.S. projects

 

The company also is in danger of losing another tax break for the building. The shared office space firm WeWork recently pulled out as anchor tenant. That has put in doubt a state tax break tied to WeWork.

 

Another project is off, too. The Kushner Cos. once considered bidding to develop a 95-acre industrial site along the Hackensack River in the city for housing, called Bayfront. Last month, it was revealed the family had withdrawn from those plans last year.

 

The Kusnher Cos. has said politics had nothing to do with its decision to withdraw from Bayfront, and that “economics of the deal” drove the move.

 

As for One Journal Square, company spokesman Yolles said the project will provide 4,000 construction jobs and $180 million in tax revenue for the city over 30 years.

Tax breaks an issue

 

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat, is running for re-election this fall, and tax breaks to developers have become a major issue.

 

Unlike neighboring Hoboken, Jersey City has granted dozens of tax breaks in recent years. Fulop had campaigned to reform the practice, but critics say he has done little.

 

Another Kushner property in the city overlooking the Hudson River got a five-year tax break soon after Fulop was elected mayor. That 50-story building has licensed the Trump name and is called Trump Bay Street. The building was also partly financed with EB-5 visa money from abroad.

 

The Kushner family owns or manages 20,000 apartments, 13 million square feet of office space and industrial properties in several states, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois. 

From: MeNeedIt

Kushner Company Drops Tax Break Request in New Jersey

The real estate firm owned by the family of Jared Kushner has withdrawn a request for a big tax break for one its buildings in Jersey City, New Jersey, the latest setback for the company in the area.

 

The Kushner Cos. sent a letter withdrawing its application for a 30-year break from city taxes for a planned two-tower project in the struggling Journal Square section of the city, Jersey City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said Wednesday. Opponents of the tax breaks marched downtown earlier this year and the city’s mayor recently came out against the Kushner request.

 

Jared Kushner was CEO of the family company before stepping down to become a senior adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

Committed to area

 

Kushner Cos. spokesman James Yolles said the company is committed to the “much-needed investment” in that area of the city.

 

The loss of the tax break is the latest blow for the company in a city where it is major real estate developer.

 

The 79-story building, One Journal Square, gained attention last month after Jared Kushner’s sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, mentioned her brother in a presentation in Beijing where she had hoped to attract Chinese investors in the building. Marketing material noted the “celebrity status” of her family.

 

Government ethics experts blasted the family for what they said was an attempt to profit off Jared Kushner’s position in Washington, and the Kushner Cos. canceled upcoming investor presentations in the country.

 

The company said Meyer wasn’t trying to use her White House ties to attract investors.

EB-5 visa program

 

The Kushner family is seeking 300 wealthy Chinese to invest a total of $150 million in One Journal Square. The family was trying to raise money through the EB-5 visa program that grants temporary U.S. residency to wealthy foreigners in exchange for investments of at least $500,000 in certain U.S. projects

 

The company also is in danger of losing another tax break for the building. The shared office space firm WeWork recently pulled out as anchor tenant. That has put in doubt a state tax break tied to WeWork.

 

Another project is off, too. The Kushner Cos. once considered bidding to develop a 95-acre industrial site along the Hackensack River in the city for housing, called Bayfront. Last month, it was revealed the family had withdrawn from those plans last year.

 

The Kusnher Cos. has said politics had nothing to do with its decision to withdraw from Bayfront, and that “economics of the deal” drove the move.

 

As for One Journal Square, company spokesman Yolles said the project will provide 4,000 construction jobs and $180 million in tax revenue for the city over 30 years.

Tax breaks an issue

 

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat, is running for re-election this fall, and tax breaks to developers have become a major issue.

 

Unlike neighboring Hoboken, Jersey City has granted dozens of tax breaks in recent years. Fulop had campaigned to reform the practice, but critics say he has done little.

 

Another Kushner property in the city overlooking the Hudson River got a five-year tax break soon after Fulop was elected mayor. That 50-story building has licensed the Trump name and is called Trump Bay Street. The building was also partly financed with EB-5 visa money from abroad.

 

The Kushner family owns or manages 20,000 apartments, 13 million square feet of office space and industrial properties in several states, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois. 

From: MeNeedIt

Russia’s Hosting FIFA Tournaments Reignites World Cup Hopes

Russia’s hosting of FIFA’s (International Federation of Association Football) Confederations Cup from June 17 to July 2 and the World Cup championship in 2018 is reigniting hopes in the country for football (soccer).

The last time Russia made the world’s top four was in 1966 when it was part of the Soviet Union.

Watch: Russia’s Hosting of FIFA Tournaments Reignites World Cup Hopes

 

Russian football gained global recognition during the 1966 World Cup when the Soviet Union defeated Italy, Chile, and Hungary to take fourth place.

Half-a-century later, the few living players from that championship have yet to see Russia return to the top four.

 

“When there was the world championship in England, the coach said, ‘Thank you guys, we won’t achieve such a success for the next 50 years.’ So, 50 years passed,” said Vladimir Ponomarev, USSR defender in the 1966 championship.

Fans have high hopes

 

Despite Russian football’s struggle since, die-hard fans have high hopes for the tournaments.

 

“That’s why we are faced with big problems when they show negative results,” said Lokomotiv Football Club’s Maksim “Loko” Shataylo. “Sometimes it may result in such extraordinary situations because the fans become too upset. They believe too much, they hope too much! I believe in the better. We’ll definitely be in the top eight,” adds Shataylo.

As host of the FIFA tournaments, Russia’s national team automatically qualifies to compete.

Russia’s star players say their goal is clear.

“Of course, it is to get to the final game, step by step,” said Spartak Moscow Football Club Captain Denis Glushakov in May comments to the press. “We’ll play the first and the second match and only then I may tell you whether we get to the final or not.”

Passion is lacking

Ponomarev says Russian football lacks the passion it had during Soviet times.

 

“But we’ll keep working and growing. We’ll keep training and that will allow us to get on the same level as great European teams,” said Ponomarev. “So far, we are not much valued. The Confederations Cup matches will show us the level of Russian football.”

The Confederations Cup will also test how well Russia itself is prepared for next year’s World Cup championship.

“As for the world championships and the idea that so much effort is put into winning them without a result, I think that after the world championship of 2018 there will be a breakthrough in football here,” says Shataylo. “It will become more popular. New stadiums, new infrastructure are under construction. It will be more convenient to move around the country to see the matches. The fans will love this country and football, and all will be well.”

Meanwhile, Ponomarev continues to support Russian football and the next generation of players by offering advice to amateur teams and coaches.

“We must start small. We must start with our small footballers who train here,” he said.

But as for hosting the upcoming FIFA tournaments, he adds optimistically, “For me it will be a success. Fifty years have passed. It’s time to get to fourth place. It would be superb for all Russian fans! They would be absolutely happy.”

Field is set

For the host Russian team, its Confederations Cup Group A opener will be played on Saturday (June 17) against New Zealand in St. Petersburg. Wednesday (June 21) the Russians play in Moscow against Portugal, and the hosts final group match is against Mexico in Kazan on June 24.

The other four teams in the tournament — Cameroon, Chile, Australia and Germany — are in Group B. After round-robin play, the first and second-place teams in each group advance to the semifinals, with the championship match in St. Petersburg July 2. The tournament winner will receive $5 million, and the runner-up $4.5 million.

 Olga Pavlova and Ricardo Marquina Montañana contributed to this report.

From: MeNeedIt

Russia’s Hosting FIFA Tournaments Reignites World Cup Hopes

Russia’s hosting of FIFA’s (International Federation of Association Football) Confederations Cup from June 17 to July 2 and the World Cup championship in 2018 is reigniting hopes in the country for football (soccer).

The last time Russia made the world’s top four was in 1966 when it was part of the Soviet Union.

Watch: Russia’s Hosting of FIFA Tournaments Reignites World Cup Hopes

 

Russian football gained global recognition during the 1966 World Cup when the Soviet Union defeated Italy, Chile, and Hungary to take fourth place.

Half-a-century later, the few living players from that championship have yet to see Russia return to the top four.

 

“When there was the world championship in England, the coach said, ‘Thank you guys, we won’t achieve such a success for the next 50 years.’ So, 50 years passed,” said Vladimir Ponomarev, USSR defender in the 1966 championship.

Fans have high hopes

 

Despite Russian football’s struggle since, die-hard fans have high hopes for the tournaments.

 

“That’s why we are faced with big problems when they show negative results,” said Lokomotiv Football Club’s Maksim “Loko” Shataylo. “Sometimes it may result in such extraordinary situations because the fans become too upset. They believe too much, they hope too much! I believe in the better. We’ll definitely be in the top eight,” adds Shataylo.

As host of the FIFA tournaments, Russia’s national team automatically qualifies to compete.

Russia’s star players say their goal is clear.

“Of course, it is to get to the final game, step by step,” said Spartak Moscow Football Club Captain Denis Glushakov in May comments to the press. “We’ll play the first and the second match and only then I may tell you whether we get to the final or not.”

Passion is lacking

Ponomarev says Russian football lacks the passion it had during Soviet times.

 

“But we’ll keep working and growing. We’ll keep training and that will allow us to get on the same level as great European teams,” said Ponomarev. “So far, we are not much valued. The Confederations Cup matches will show us the level of Russian football.”

The Confederations Cup will also test how well Russia itself is prepared for next year’s World Cup championship.

“As for the world championships and the idea that so much effort is put into winning them without a result, I think that after the world championship of 2018 there will be a breakthrough in football here,” says Shataylo. “It will become more popular. New stadiums, new infrastructure are under construction. It will be more convenient to move around the country to see the matches. The fans will love this country and football, and all will be well.”

Meanwhile, Ponomarev continues to support Russian football and the next generation of players by offering advice to amateur teams and coaches.

“We must start small. We must start with our small footballers who train here,” he said.

But as for hosting the upcoming FIFA tournaments, he adds optimistically, “For me it will be a success. Fifty years have passed. It’s time to get to fourth place. It would be superb for all Russian fans! They would be absolutely happy.”

Field is set

For the host Russian team, its Confederations Cup Group A opener will be played on Saturday (June 17) against New Zealand in St. Petersburg. Wednesday (June 21) the Russians play in Moscow against Portugal, and the hosts final group match is against Mexico in Kazan on June 24.

The other four teams in the tournament — Cameroon, Chile, Australia and Germany — are in Group B. After round-robin play, the first and second-place teams in each group advance to the semifinals, with the championship match in St. Petersburg July 2. The tournament winner will receive $5 million, and the runner-up $4.5 million.

 Olga Pavlova and Ricardo Marquina Montañana contributed to this report.

From: MeNeedIt

Russia’s Hosting of FIFA Tournaments Reignites World Cup Hopes

Russia’s role as host of FIFA’s (International Federation of Association Footballs’) Confederations Cup from June 17 to July 2 and the World Cup championship in 2018 is reigniting hopes for Russian football (soccer). The last time Russia made the world’s top four was 1966, when it was part of the Soviet Union. VOA’s Daniel Schearf spoke with one of the few living players from that game and has this report from Moscow.

From: MeNeedIt

Big Data gives China’s top 3 Internet Firms Big Leverage

China’s three big Internet-driven companies, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, are set to influence a vast section of the country’s business because they control data concerning the consumer and social behavior of millions of people. The awesome power comes from the government’s drive to develop a “big data” industry, which is thriving in China.

Several other players, including utilities like phone companies and retail chains, are also trying to dip into the newly discovered pot of money from buyers who need information to understand buying preferences of potential customers, and design their products and strategies in line with the data flows.

“It [big data] is an improvement to do [a] better job, but unfortunately your [consumer’s] lifeline is more and more dependent on these big three guys,” said Chiang Jeongwen, a professor of marketing at the China Europe International Business School.

Recent studies have shown that nearly 90 percent of China’s 731 million online users have made at least one online purchase, often involving the use of Baidu’s search facilities, e-commerce sites and third-party transactions using mobile phone apps.

Predicting trends

“People are buying things and using their third party payment systems. [That] information [is] also being captured by Tencent and Alibaba. That is huge because now they know both offline and online information of consumers,” said Chiang.

These companies own a wide range of businesses that makes it possible for them to gather both online and offline data that is generated when a customer uses a phone app to make payments at a physical shop.

Alibaba owns Alipay while Tencent runs the highly popular WeChat service which offers mobile payment options. Baidu is China’s biggest internet search engine and holds the kind of influence that Google does in other countries.

“They have diversified the services [that] they offer. Alibaba, they are big in e-commerce. The kind of data they generate comes from anything ranging from what you buy online to your bill payments, travel bookings you do with, for example, the Alipay app,” said Shazeda Ahmed, visiting academic in the technology and economics division of Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies.

“People use the same platforms to make purchases, so there is a sense of extreme power in this situation because you can do all of these on one platform,” she explained.

These companies have a very strong predictive power that comes from a vast store of historical data and real-time data that they are collecting from users of different services. “They kind of able to anticipate the next thing a user might want before the user himself is aware of it,” she said.

Trading in data

The expansion of big data has given rise to serious concerns about the privacy of millions of people, who reveal both their transaction information and facets of social behavior through social media.

China has seen the rise of a black market for data. Data sellers offer a wide range of data on a targeted person, business or community by cracking into official databases and privately run sites.

But Chinese officials insist the government has put in place strong safeguards.

“There is a very strong firewall built before the big data center was established,” Zhang Bin, a senior official of the main big data center established by the Chinese government in Guiyang city. “We also made strict policy to control the data leaks from the government, so these are the two ways to protect information not to be leaked to the private companies for illegal use.”

The government has established a big data exchange center in Guiyang to encourage private and state-run companies to trade in data in a transparent manner, and help the industry find out the real price of the information. The center has come in for some praise by foreign companies who visited it but some questions remain unanswered.

“Having a legitimate place to trade data is an idea, but how does an exchange ensure that the data controllers has to requisite rights to sell data and it’s not breach of privacy?” Gagan Sabharwal, director of the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India, said after a recent visit.

From: MeNeedIt

Big Data gives China’s top 3 Internet Firms Big Leverage

China’s three big Internet-driven companies, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, are set to influence a vast section of the country’s business because they control data concerning the consumer and social behavior of millions of people. The awesome power comes from the government’s drive to develop a “big data” industry, which is thriving in China.

Several other players, including utilities like phone companies and retail chains, are also trying to dip into the newly discovered pot of money from buyers who need information to understand buying preferences of potential customers, and design their products and strategies in line with the data flows.

“It [big data] is an improvement to do [a] better job, but unfortunately your [consumer’s] lifeline is more and more dependent on these big three guys,” said Chiang Jeongwen, a professor of marketing at the China Europe International Business School.

Recent studies have shown that nearly 90 percent of China’s 731 million online users have made at least one online purchase, often involving the use of Baidu’s search facilities, e-commerce sites and third-party transactions using mobile phone apps.

Predicting trends

“People are buying things and using their third party payment systems. [That] information [is] also being captured by Tencent and Alibaba. That is huge because now they know both offline and online information of consumers,” said Chiang.

These companies own a wide range of businesses that makes it possible for them to gather both online and offline data that is generated when a customer uses a phone app to make payments at a physical shop.

Alibaba owns Alipay while Tencent runs the highly popular WeChat service which offers mobile payment options. Baidu is China’s biggest internet search engine and holds the kind of influence that Google does in other countries.

“They have diversified the services [that] they offer. Alibaba, they are big in e-commerce. The kind of data they generate comes from anything ranging from what you buy online to your bill payments, travel bookings you do with, for example, the Alipay app,” said Shazeda Ahmed, visiting academic in the technology and economics division of Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies.

“People use the same platforms to make purchases, so there is a sense of extreme power in this situation because you can do all of these on one platform,” she explained.

These companies have a very strong predictive power that comes from a vast store of historical data and real-time data that they are collecting from users of different services. “They kind of able to anticipate the next thing a user might want before the user himself is aware of it,” she said.

Trading in data

The expansion of big data has given rise to serious concerns about the privacy of millions of people, who reveal both their transaction information and facets of social behavior through social media.

China has seen the rise of a black market for data. Data sellers offer a wide range of data on a targeted person, business or community by cracking into official databases and privately run sites.

But Chinese officials insist the government has put in place strong safeguards.

“There is a very strong firewall built before the big data center was established,” Zhang Bin, a senior official of the main big data center established by the Chinese government in Guiyang city. “We also made strict policy to control the data leaks from the government, so these are the two ways to protect information not to be leaked to the private companies for illegal use.”

The government has established a big data exchange center in Guiyang to encourage private and state-run companies to trade in data in a transparent manner, and help the industry find out the real price of the information. The center has come in for some praise by foreign companies who visited it but some questions remain unanswered.

“Having a legitimate place to trade data is an idea, but how does an exchange ensure that the data controllers has to requisite rights to sell data and it’s not breach of privacy?” Gagan Sabharwal, director of the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India, said after a recent visit.

From: MeNeedIt

3D Technology Moves Into the Music World

Musicians tend to talk about their instruments in terms of tone and sound as often as the brand. Electric guitarists are no different, and they can expound on the ‘bright’ sound of the Fender or the bass heavy Gibsons. But now there is a 3D-printed electric guitar, and that could just be the beginning for 3D-printed musical instruments. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

From: MeNeedIt