Cuba: Tourism and transition

Ideas and Issues International

Veradero, Cuba: Today we met two different groups of workers in Matanzas Province.
We visited at length with mill workers producing cereal lines in Cardenas. We also visited hotel construction workers at the tip of the Veradaro peninsula involved in a joint venture with the French that was half completed. In all likelihood both groups, especially the tourism construction workers, came close to being part of the aristocracy of labor in Cuba.

The cereal was a form of what we would recognize in the States as cocoa puffs. It came off the line and was packed by a half-dozen women sitting at a table with no gloves, no hairnets, and no masks. One woman would hand glue the top of the box. Another would put the boxes into a larger box for shipping. The line was slow, almost casual in pace compared to something one would see in America. In the late 60’s I worked for six months for Luzianne Coffee Company, and for a stint drove the lift truck on the night shift at the end of the tea packing line. Those women 35 years ago were already dressed in white uniforms and aprons with all the accouterments that come with working with food, and the boxes would fly off the line. This mill was some form of partnership with Italians working the domestic market, but despite their obvious pride in their workmanship and product, this operation would seem almost quaint in anything but a closed market economy.

The hotel construction project was half done. About 400 rooms had been completed in record time and another complement of almost equal size was still being built by 1500 workers of whom 52 precisely were French. The manager was a reformed lawyer, and we stumbled around for quite a while on the question of exactly who was making the $52 million dollar investment in the project. It was clear from his presentation and from some of the answers that it was a largely, if not totally, French financed affair with a joint 50-50 participation in profits once it opened for business under a hotel management company. Yet some of our delegation wanted fully and earnestly to believe that somehow this was a Cuban financed project and the joint venture was coming later. The delegation of British trade unionists and others that accompanied us were clear with me that of course it was French financed without a doubt.

That is part of the whole point of what is constantly referred to as the “special period.” Among other things the government had to open the country up to foreign investment, if for no other reason that that Cuba did not have the hard currency itself to build the level of tourism infrastructure needed to fuel this 12% tourism growth rate which is now driving their overall economy. If they had had the money it would have been a whole different ballgame, but it would not have been a poor, broke-ass country like Cuba. The project in Veradaro seems to be to build somewhere around another 8000 hotel rooms until they have some 25000 rooms, which would be a good sized tourism market by any reckoning. That’s a lot of construction, a lot of dollars, and a lot of jobs for workers who – with incentives – are making almost twice what the average wage is in Cuba, and more than even the mill factory manager is making pushing cocoa puffs down the line.

This has to just kill the conservatives, if they think about it. The March 16th issue of The New Yorker ( had a fascinating article by William Finnigan on the Cuban piece in the Florida political equation shaping the U.S. national elections once again. I could not help thinking about the giant Cuban-American builder – and one of the richest men in Miami – Armando Codina, who was a partner with Jeb Bush in a number of real estate deals and a company, Codina Bush Group, that the Bush brother hawked for before becoming governor of Florida. Just like Midwestern farmers who are dying to push more corn into Cuba, and are doing so now (in fact the corn being processed into cocoa puffs came from the U.S. for the simple reason as explained by the manager that the U.S. companies were quoting a price almost 50% lower than what they could get from Argentina and Brazil, and that didn’t count the reduced transportation costs that came from our nearness), one can imagine Codina and so many just like him in Miami salivating at the billions that could be make in new tourism construction along the soft sand and beautiful beaches of Veradaro, much less the gigantic rehab job that is waiting for hard hats and deep pockets in Havana.

Once the embargo is finished this is a ripe market of almost 12 million people now being driven by tourism. In the world market economy one can already hear the mighty hot breath of America dying to get in here and do the job and make the big and fast dollar. Driving along the beach today one was passing a United Nations of investors – Spain, France, Canada, even Jamaican companies – with immense properties and golf courses.

One wonders why Fidel is letting all of this happen by chance without an orderly transition? New leadership being met by an end to the blockade will see a flood of dollars and an onslaught of the market economy – and the repatriation of a lot of hardliners from Miami with money in their guayabera pockets. The blockade and travel restrictions have kept needed raw materials, drugs, and other items out of Cuba, but it has also kept the hard core who hate Fidel and the communist regime on the other side of the water as well. Why would any leader or any government responsive to its people take the chance now that the window is open and money is already starting to pour in to take a chance and just see what happens come the deluge?