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Hollywood says "hola" to Havana

HAVANA (Reuters) - Havana's famous seaside avenue, the Malecon, could be mistaken for Hollywood Boulevard this week as four high profile film stars come to the Cuban capital in the splashiest sign yet of warming U.S.-Cuba relations.

Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and James Caan arrived in Cuba on Wednesday, with del Toro in town to pick up an award and the other three working on a "research project," a spokesman for the group said on Thursday.

The spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said the stars were accompanied by other people in the movie industry, including producers he would not name.

Because of the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against communist-led Cuba, Americans have been forbidden, with some exceptions, from visiting the island 90 miles from Key West, Florida.

Hollywood stars such as Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Steven Spielberg have come to Cuba in the past but cultural exchanges slowed due to restrictions imposed by former U.S. President George W. Bush.

The spokesman said the group is traveling under a license granted by the U.S. Treasury Department.

U.S. President Barack Obama offered earlier this year to "recast" relations with Cuba, which have been sour since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.

Obama has lifted travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and restarted immigration talks with Cuba that were suspended under Bush.

Last week, the United States said a Bush-era news ticker on the U.S. Interests Section building in Havana, which the Cuban government viewed as an affront, had been turned off.

Del Toro won praise last year for his portrayal of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an Argentine who fought alongside Castro in the Cuban revolution, in the two-part biopic "Che" directed by American Steven Soderbergh.

The movie was shown to great acclaim in Cuba last December and on Thursday del Toro was given an award by Cuban artists and intellectuals.

(Reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Jeff Franks and Todd Eastham)

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