New Year’s in Havana?

Columnist

Getting the shutdown blues? Thinking it’s going to be a long, perilous slog with the stock market heading south?

Then you can do the same! Yes, before long it will be time to mambo in the new year in Havana, land of the Buena Vista Social Club, ancient Buicks and aging commies. Travel companies are organizing Cuba tours for the coming holiday season.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Loop fans may recall that the anti-Cuba lobby in Miami had protested that the “people-to-people” cultural exchange trips — which have to be approved by the Treasury Department — were becoming nothing more than thinly disguised tourism. So Treasury clamped down for a while to review matters.

But licenses have been issued “at a pretty steady clip” more recently, according to Insight Cuba’s Tom Popper, who noted that the cumbersome process still required a detailed, 632-page submission of itinerary details. The trips are filling up quickly.

There are some longer jaunts around the island from Christmas to New Year’s Day and shorter hops mostly around Havana to check out the sights. There’s even a four-day New Year’s weekend. “Nothing lives up to the feeling of singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with the Cubans in Cuba,” the promo says. (Well, we can think of some things, but . . . )

This year, of course, will be especially huge in Old Havana’s Cathedral Square: It’s the 55th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s troops entering the city and dictator Fulgencio Batista’s hasty predawn departure. (But don’t look for “Godfather II” sites or Al Pacino and Fredo photos. If memory serves, those scenes were filmed in the Dominican Republic.)

And please be careful. We’re advised that there’s a Cuban tradition of pouring water out the windows to wash away the old year and bring in the new. Best to be a bit toward the center of the square.

There’s another good reason to go now: This will be one of the last New Year’s holidays celebrated under the Castro regime. The U.S. embargo and TV Marti will surely succeed in driving them out of power within five years, tops.

Passing the time . . .

Furloughed federal workers aren’t sure when their next paychecks might arrive.

Those checks, it turns out, might not come from Uncle Sam: Some feds are picking up side gigs, and at least one agency is telling workers that it’s okay to accept jobs, including “positions with coffeehouses, book shops, clothing and department stores,” as long as they clear it with counsel first.

Can you say, “Would you like fries with that?”

According to guidance issued by the Energy Department, though, employees must use their personal e-mail accounts to contact the department’s legal staff (provided the lawyers aren’t furloughed).

Other permissible moneymaking activities include teaching (like yoga, or languages), creative writing (um, yeah, because there’s a lot of money to be made there), or telemarketing. Not cool are jobs with Energy Department contractors or others with business before the agency. The guidelines are the same as when there’s no shutdown at hand, though the halt in funding, in which 61 percent of the department’s workers have been furloughed, has certainly made the question more relevant.

Hey, there’s always bartending, like the job that one White House staffer has taken on during the furlough, and with the way things are going, we’d expect plenty of thirsty folks in town.

. . . one way or another

Speaking of which, it’s a sign of these shutdown times: Internet searches for the phrase “happy hour” are way up in Washington.

Maybe it’s all those furloughed federal workers with more time and less money to spend — or maybe it’s just that there’s just way more interest in drinking away shutdown stress. Whatever the reasons, Google analytics of trending search terms shows that “happy hour” is more on the minds — and fingertips — of Washingtonians than usual.

It’s interesting to note that, in general, the phrase is searched for more in Washington than it is nationally. Clearly, this is a city that likes its 25-cent wings.

The statistic comes courtesy of Google marketer Jesse Friedman, who also noted that the shutdown also seems to be making folks more altruistic in addition to less sober: searches for the word “volunteer” are also up in Washington.

An embassy vacancy

When last we checked in on our ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Jim Smith , he was in Riyadh, celebrating the Fourth of July in March. (Riyadh is brutally hot in July and the dust storms are not a lot of fun, hence the date change.)

Smith, a career Air Force officer and fighter pilot who retired in 2002 as a brigadier general and then worked for Raytheon, was appointed ambassador in 2009, having met President Obama during his first White House campaign. Smith recalls that he “met candidate Obama sitting on a hay bale at Mack’s Apples in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and I joined as a volunteer on the campaign in 2007.” (Must have been an impressive bale.)

He’s now joining the Cohen Group as a senior counselor, focusing on Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states, among other things.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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