Cuba: Varadero

Tonight we have hot water, even though we are all bunked in suites with four people and a shared living room.  Everyone is gritty, but happy!

We have made it to Varadero, the Habaneros playa – a small town of 18000 with long running beaches that used to be the playground for people from Havana, but is now the main driving piston for the economic engine of Cuba – tourism.  There are now 50 different hotels we were informed by the provincial head of the CTC, the Central de Trabajeros de Cuba – the AFL-CIO of Cuba.  They are building 800 new hotel rooms per year currently.  That scale of development is small potatoes when compared to the number of rooms added each year in New Orleans (www.hotroc.org) or Las Vegas for that matter (www.culinaryunion226.org), but for Cuba this is the single largest economic sector now.  Tomorrow we will are supposed to get to meet tourism workers in one hotel that has joint ownership with European investors and one that is strictly a Cubano enterprise, so perhaps we will get a sense of what is different.

The dominance of the service sector by industrial tourism is a worldwide phenomena, which few developing countries are not trying to exploit, but it is also an area with a list of challenges and issues as long as your arm (an excellent source on these issues is the Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism – ECOT – in Hong Kong, who I met in Mumbai earlier this year – www.ecotonline.org) Here in egalitarian Cuban there is a certain apartheid as well that is partially caused by the dual monetary system of both dollars and pesos that was introduced by what is constantly referred to as “the special period.”  The “special period” is a euphemism for the total collapse of the Soviet Bloc, which left Cuba even more high and dry in deep water than they had been previously by totally eliminating a trading partner and import subsidy.  This economic and practical apartheid keeps Cubans from being guests in the “tourist” hotels around Varadero save one or two that are theirs exclusively.  There is a tollbooth coming in which regulates traffic between workers and tourists.  To some degree this is the worldwide system for high-end tourism, since there are few places where the workers and guests can consort anywhere, and in that sense Cuba is somewhat rare.  Our group reported that at a social several nights ago with a hot local Havana band, the hotel staff hit the dance floor along with the guests and union officials in a modern version of the old grand finale from the 50’s era recreation in the Catskills in Dirty Dancing.   Nonetheless, if you do not have dollars, this is not the zone for you!  In fact at a bus way station on the highway I watched one of our delegation making the mistake of trying to pay for some little nothing with pesos and being sternly informed that the store did not take anything like that, thank you.

Times have changed here.  I recently read Alma Guillermopriet’s  poignant memoir of her time here, Dancing with Cuba.   She beautifully captured the excitement and national purpose when she was here of the drive to harvest 20 million tons of sugar, when sugar drove the Cuban economy.  She also captured the tragedy of failure as the “handsome Fidel” in clear terms in Revolution Square reported that the drive had failed and the mistakes in planning and execution that were made.  She clearly writes that she seemed to believe the economic hopes of the revolution died right then, as the Commandante painted a picture of the impossibility of self-sufficiency.

Within that background the path and quasi-recovery of the Cuban economy is somewhat amazing.  Sugar is not what it was.  Fortunately, they discovered oil, which has been helpful – most of it is in this very area of Cuba.  And, they accelerated the position of tourism investment and growth.

Tourism is a short-term fix, that will permanently create a sub-standard economy, just as it has in Miami and New Orleans in the U.S. and many other places around the world.  But, it was better than the other choices between slim and none.

Furthermore, let’s tell the truth – the beaches seemed gorgeous – a least from a distance with pelicans flying over and the occasional frigate bird – and the Cuban people are exceptionally warm and friendly, and both of those will bring a lot of tourists to the island and keep them happy for many, many years.

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