• This Magazine
  • January-February 2008

Last Resorts

Cuba’s socialist economy relies on tourism, which was ramped up out of necessity following the collapse of the U.S.S.R., but foreign dollars are creating a new class of Cubans

The faded photograph at Havana’s Museum of the Revolution shows a group of Americans in 1950s-style bathing suits relaxing on a white-sand beach. The picture illustrates, as the caption beneath informs visitors, “bourgeois tourists banished by the Revolution.” The sunbathers in the photograph could not have foreseen that the Cuba they knew, the Cuba of casinos and cabarets, of movie stars and mobsters, would soon be replaced by a drab Communist backwater. Beaches reclaimed and bourgeois tourists banished, Fidel Castro undertook his revolutionary project of building an egalitarian society.

But now the tourists are back, and they’re not American any more. According to the Cuban Office of National Statistics, Canadians comprise roughly 30 percent of all tourists to Cuba, the largest national group. More than 600,000 Canadians went to Cuba in 2006, out of a total of 2.2 million visitors. The tourists are back in force because the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived Cuba of its primary source of income—selling sugar to Moscow at inflated prices in exchange for discounted oil. The country adopted emergency measures—including big spending on tourism facilities—to address the crisis caused by the fall of the U.S.S.R. Tourism is now Cuba’s largest source of hard currency, bringing $2.1 billion into the country each year.

The vast majority of Canadian tourists who go to Cuba stay at all-inclusive resorts in places like Varadero, drawn by the low prices, the safe environment and sultry weather. But the way resorts are structured, as self-contained complexes with all meals and entertainment provided, makes it easy not to think about the impact of tourism on the people outside. This is of course true of resort tourism in general, but it is particularly ironic in a country with a credo of egalitarianism, a country that had a revolution against foreign domination and middle-class pursuits. Canadian leisure creates Cuban jobs, but it has also spawned a tremendous disparity between those who have access to tourist dollars and those who don’t.

Cuba has always attracted a certain kind of political tourist, one who is well aware of the island’s complicated history, who visits Cuba precisely because of this history. Canada shares with Cuba a proximity to the U.S. and a national identity that defines itself in opposition to the world’s only superpower. “People want to see this rather extraordinary experiment of a people who said ‘no’ to the United States and survived,” says Hal Klepak, a professor of history at Royal Military College. “I think it has a particular resonance with Canadians.”

Because of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, it is illegal for most Americans to travel there, although an exception is made for academics, journalists, humanitarian groups and Cuban-Americans. For the few Americans who do venture there, the experience can be disconcerting. “I was really surprised the first time I went to Cuba,” says Aviva Chomsky, a professor of history and Latin American studies at Salem State University and an editor of The Cuba Reader. “I had to jump through a million hoops to get permission to go there, and then go to Canada to fly there, and then I found myself on a flight with retired people who were going to the beach.”

But for most Canadians, a trip to Cuba is all about fun and sun. Robert Wright, a professor of history at Trent University and the author of Three Nights in Havana, recalls how one of his students, having returned from a beach vacation in Cuba, was surprised to learn the country is an island. “It’s easy to be a Canadian tourist in Cuba without having to turn your mind to the lives of Cubans,” says Wright. “And it’s easy for Canadians who don’t care about Cuban politics to use Cuba as a resort destination.”

To get to Cayo Santa Maria, visitors board an air-conditioned bus at the airport and journey across a 49-kilometre causeway linking a string of small islands with Cuba proper. The visitors are journalists from Toronto and Montreal. The purpose of the trip, paid for by Air Canada Vacations, is to publicize the airline’s new flight to Santa Clara and its all-inclusive package tours to three resorts in the area.

Air Canada Vacations is touting Cayo Santa Maria as the “hot new spot” in Cuba, one that provides an “authentic Cuban experience” because it is relatively new to tourism.

As the bus advances, a tour guide provides a running commentary. The bus goes through Caibarién, a fishing village that, along with Remedios, is home to most of the workers at the resorts, passing Cubans on bicycles and in horse-drawn carriages, hitchhikers standing by the road. The average hotel worker, according to the tour guide, spends a total of five hours commuting to and from work each day. Caibarién is also a frequent point of departure for balseros, rafters who attempt the perilous trip to the U.S. on makeshift crafts. The tour guide does not mention this.

The bus continues along the causeway, passing tiny islands covered with mangrove forests. When tourism was reintroduced in Cuba, Castro touted it as an “industry without smokestacks,” one that would not have the damaging impact on the environment that other industries do. The Cuban government has recognized that the area is a sensitive one and is conducting studies—including one funded by Environment Canada—on how to protect it. But the tourist economy has trumped the environment: a 1998 study showed that the causeway between Caibarién and Cayo Santa Maria, built to enable tourism, has caused a major increase in water salinity and could lead to the disappearance of 60 marine species.

The group arrives at the Sol Cayo Santa Maria, the oldest resort in the area. Built in 2001, the Sol is popular with the Quebec market; for this reason, many of the workers are trying to learn French. As the visitors get off the bus, they are greeted by a line of rumba dancers wearing traditional ruffled shirts.

In the parlance of the travel industry, Cuba is what is known as a “value” destination, an inexpensive getaway for the budget traveller. Packages typically go for around $1,000, plus taxes, but during the low season, last-minute deals on seven-day trips—including flight, hotel and food—can be as cheap as $300. But the resorts on the itinerary are decidedly upscale. The Occidental Royal Hideaway Ensenachos is the most luxurious of the lot, with marble floors in every room and private butlers for the royal suites.

The group heads to the marina at Las Brujas, a small key off Cuba’s north coast, for a snorkelling expedition. The visitors don snorkels, masks and flippers and plunge into the sea. One woman finds herself surrounded by a school of yellow striped fish. A starfish clings to a rock. Barracudas lurk along the coral reef.

The marina, the tour bus and the three resorts are all owned by Gaviota, the tourism arm of the Cuban air force. One of the oddities of Cuban tourism is that the military plays a major role, owning many hotels and providing workers and management expertise. This is not as sinister as it sounds: the Cuban military, unlike the those of many of Latin American countries, does not have a history of attacking its own people. “You get these curious situations of an air force pilot, now a reservist and working as a civilian but still under military discipline, flying tourists around,” says Klepak, who has done extensive research on the role of the military in Cuba.

But running luxury resorts and taking tourists on scuba-diving expeditions is perhaps not what Che Guevara, the original commander-in-chief of Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces, had in mind.

Before 1959, Havana existed as a casino and brothel for American tourists, a Sin City on the beach. In the 1920s, with Prohibition putting a damper on domestic tourism, and with transatlantic travel made difficult by the recent war, U.S. investors saw an opportunity to reinvent Havana as a Caribbean Riviera, complete with country clubs and golf courses. Later on, the prosperity of the 1950s gave middle- and working- class Americans the leisure and the disposable income to buy package tours. Americans flocked to casinos and bordellos controlled by the mob. This was the heyday of the Tropicana, the storied cabaret where Carmen Miranda once performed. Despite frequent political unrest, Cuba was pitched to Americans as a paradise of sex, sunshine and rum.

Following the 1959 Revolution, Castro bulldozed golf courses, padlocked casinos and “rehabilitated” prostitutes by retraining them as seamstresses. As a young rebel leader, Castro had railed against tourism, which he saw as a symptom of American imperialism. Once in power, he initially tried to promote tourism, but in a way that was compatible with the ideals of the Revolution. The boxing champion Joe Louis visited Cuba in 1960 and issued a statement afterward declaring: “There is no place in the world except Cuba where a negro can go in the wintertime with absolutely no discrimination.”

But tourism was doomed by the U.S. embargo, enacted in 1960 in retaliation for the expropriation of American-owned properties—and in support of the U.S. investors who owned the properties. The embargo was expanded in 1961 and 1962 when Castro declared he was a socialist and the Soviet Union placed missiles on the island, located 90 miles off the Florida coast. In 1963, Americans were barred from travelling to Cuba. Tourism did not disappear entirely, but Castro downplayed the industry because of its association with the “bourgeoisie,” allowing tourist facilities to fall into disrepair. Tourism fell from a high of 272,000 visitors in 1957 to a low of 15,000 in 1974. Most visitors during this period were “exemplary workers” from the Soviet Union, workers held up as an example to others by the Communist Party and sent to Cuba as a reward for hard work, but bargain-hunting Canadians and others also dotted the beaches.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost more than three-quarters of its income from foreign trade overnight. Castro made what he would later call a “pact with the devil,” expanding tourism and tolerating certain aspects of capitalism. He declared a “Special Period in Time of Peace” and imposed emergency measures such as legalizing the U.S. dollar (enabling Cubans with relatives abroad to receive remittances), allowing people to open small businesses such as restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, and courting foreign companies—including hotel chains—with investor-friendly laws.

Castro justified his measures by claiming they were necessary to “save the Revolution”; his detractors say that he did it to stay in power. Regardless of his motivation, he had little choice in terms of industry. In 1990, with the Soviet collapse imminent, Castro had already declared that tourism would be the leading industry. “Since we haven’t found those big oil deposits,” he says, in one of his famously long-winded speeches, “it is marvellous to have at our disposal these extraordinary deposits of natural resources for tourism.”

For Cubans, the Special Period was a time of extreme privation, bordering on starvation. For Canadian businesses, it was a time of exuberance. Because of Canada’s historically good relations with Cuba, Canadian businesses were among the first to take advantage of the investor-friendly climate. The Canadian business press, believing communism would fall in Cuba as it had in the former Soviet republics, ran stories exhorting businesses to “get in now, before the Americans do.”

In 1994, Delta Hotels became the first Canadian hotel chain to do business in Castro’s Cuba, landing a management contract with Cubanacán, a tourism company owned by the Cuban government. Delta mysteriously pulled out a few years later, citing a desire to focus on the Canadian market. In 1999, Transat took over Delta’s management contract for the Las Brisas Hotel in Guardalavaca and was promptly served notice by a Miami law firm that it was operating on land confiscated from a Cuban-American family, the Sanchez-Hills. In 1996, the U.S. had tightened its embargo by passing the Helms-Burton Act, enabling Americans to sue foreign companies that “traffic” in property expropriated from Americans. Although Canadian companies continue to operate in Cuba—a natural resources company, Sherritt International, is the largest single investor in the country—they tend to keep a low profile because of the Helms-Burton. Most hotels in Cuba are now managed by Spanish companies.

Jorge Rodríguez, who asked that his real name not be used, holds forth from the front of the tour bus, his didactic lecturing style reflecting his former occupation as a professor. The group is going on a day trip to Santa Clara, a historic city where Che Guevara achieved a decisive military victory and where he is now buried. A dark-skinned black man, Rodríguez is typical of workers in the tourism industry, many of whom abandoned professional careers for more lucrative employment in the tourism sector. He taught English for three years before becoming a tour guide. The son of a common labourer, he and his five siblings all attended university and became professionals, something he says would not have been possible without the Revolution. “At least in terms of education,” he says, “we are at the same level as the rich.”

Rodríguez is part of a new class of Cubans, one that has been made comparatively wealthy by the advent of tourism. He recalls the early years of the Special Period as being especially trying: “People were desperate. We saw no hope.” Now that he has a highly sought-after job in the tourism industry, things are looking up. “Salaries are a bit higher, and there is also the possibility of receiving tips,” says Rodríguez. “That helps a lot.” Rodríguez has a cell phone, a rare luxury in Cuba, although most consumer brands remain out of his reach. “You can forget about Adidas, Nike and Fila.” What he likes most about his job, he says, is the interchange of ideas with foreigners.

Castro encouraged tourism to save the Revolution by funding Cuba’s health and educational systems. And Cuba does have an admirable social welfare system, one that it would be hard pressed to maintain without tourist dollars. According to the United Nations, Cuba has a literacy rate of 99.8 percent and a life expectancy of 77.6 years, a remarkable record for such a poor country. In comparison, Canada has a literacy rate of 99 percent and a life expectancy of 80.2 years. Cuba has 591 doctors per 100,000 people; Canada has only 214.

For the 300,000 Cubans who work in the industry, tourism means a job that pays in dollars. The average Cuban makes between 250 to 300 pesos (CAD$10 to $12) a month. A hotel worker can make that much in a single day’s tips. Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban peso, which is worth little, and the “convertible” peso that can be exchanged for dollars. Cuban pesos are referred to colloquially as “pesos,” while convertible pesos are referred to as “dollars.” Non-essential items are available only in “dollar” stores or on the black market. “Cubans with access to the dollar economy are vastly wealthier than Cubans who are stuck in the peso economy,” says Wright. “The way to survive economically in Cuba is to get a piece of the dollar economy.”

The main problem with tourism is that it has created inequality between those who have dollars and those who don’t. This led to the phenomenon of Cubans with advanced degrees wanting to work in tourism, or in menial jobs with foreign employers, because those jobs provide access to dollars. James Macaulay, a professor of hospitality and tourism at Mt. St. Vincent University, recalls the Canadian trade commissioner’s search for a new housekeeper, a position that paid $90 per month. One of the applicants turned out to be an oncologist. This represents a curious inversion of the pay scale in Cuba, where reward has traditionally been tied to the social value of work. “Selling services to tourists may be lucrative, but it’s not useful to society in the way that being a teacher or a doctor is useful to society,” says Chomsky.

Most of the ills of tourism can be traced to the quest for dollars. Tourism saw the rise of jineteros, hustlers and scam artists who loiter outside hotels and call out to tourists, offering to sell them cigars or take them to a nightclub. Most jineteros are simply evincing native Cuban friendliness and ingenuity: Cubans who could never afford to buy a drink at a hotel will try to befriend tourists and have a drink on them.

Tourism has also introduced begging, with tour guides sometimes asking visitors not to give gifts to Cubans who gather outside historic sites. Because of the embargo, Canadians often feel they should take gifts, such as clothing or aspirin, to hand out during trips to Cuba. But according to Bob Biderman of Not Just Tourists Toronto, an organization that uses tourists to send donations of medical aid to Cuban hospitals, many gifts given in this way will end up on the black market. Not Just Tourists no longer donates medical supplies to individual doctors, as it used to do, for that reason.

In the mid-1990s, many publications (including This Magazine) began to run stories about Cuba as a sex tourism destination for Canadians. In 2004, George W. Bush accused Castro of using sex tourism to boost Cuba’s economy. It’s not uncommon to see middle-aged tourists escorted by much younger jineteras (female sex workers) or pingueros (male sex workers). They are usually not professional prostitutes, but ordinary Cubans wanting to exchange sex for a meal, a shopping trip or a night out. But prostitution is not as widespread now as it was in the mid-1990s, when Cuba was suffering from severe food shortages caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the late 1990s, sensational news stories began to appear in the U.S. media denouncing “tourism apartheid,” the practice of barring Cubans from hotels and sites frequented by tourists, although this term has never been used by the Canadian media. It is true that Cubans are often prevented by the police or by security personnel from harassing tourists, something that happens in virtually all poor countries that rely on mass tourism. “Cubans can’t buy Coca-Cola; only foreigners can buy it for them. And we can’t have Cubans swarming the hotel for Coca- Cola,” says Julia Sagebien, a Cuban-born professor of management at Dalhousie University who has herself been denied entrance to Cuban hotels.

Not surprisingly, many Cubans feel indignant at being excluded from tourist sites. The fact that Cuba has an official ethos of egalitarianism and that even the poorest Cubans have been educated to believe everyone is equal makes their indignation all the more acute. Ben Corbett, a U.S. journalist, argues in his 2002 book This Is Cuba that outrage at the exclusive nature of the tourist economy is a potentially explosive tendency in Cuban society.

An argument that’s sometimes made in favour of tourism, especially by critics of the Revolution, is that increased tourism will expose Cubans to the outside world, and that this exposure will help move Cubans further along the path to a U.S.-style democracy. Certainly there is repression in Cuba, with over 300 political prisoners currently in jail, and many Cubans, especially the younger generation, would welcome a more open political climate. But Cubans, given their history, do not equate democracy with a government imposed by the U.S.

One effect of contact with tourists has been to make Cubans aware of how much money foreigners have, thus increasing Cubans’ desire for things they don’t have. While Cuba does not have the abject poverty of other developing nations, contact with foreigners has made Cubans more materialistic. “Cuban workers know the average Canadian tourist that he or she is serving is carrying around in loose change the same amount of money that they would earn in a month, so it creates a desire to acquire more,” says John Kirk, a professor of Spanish at Dalhousie University.

Contact with foreigners has also created the impression, partly justified, that other countries are fabulously wealthy, and that leaving Cuba is the key to happiness. Some Cubans see tourists themselves as the way to get out. The Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba warns travellers that Cubans who try to strike up a relationship with them may not be entirely sincere in their affections.

An argument against tourism made by critics of the Revolution is that it provides economic support for a repressive regime. According to Ismael Sambra, president of the Cuban Canadian Foundation, tourists who are casual about excesses of the Cuban government while enjoying Cuba’s beaches are complicit with a dictatorial regime. “Most Canadians who go to Cuba don’t want to talk to the people. They shut themselves up in the hotels; what they want is to enjoy themselves. Most of them are indifferent to the pain of the Cuban people,” says Sambra. “It’s a shame that these Canadians who travel to Cuba don’t do anything so that the Cuban people can also enjoy the resorts, the hotels and the beaches that they are enjoying. They are directly and indirectly complicit with Castro.”

During the 1992 Cuban elections—Cuba has an elected parliament, although only the Communist Party can field candidates—Sambra, a broadcast journalist, published a pamphlet criticizing the lack of democracy. Accused by the Cuban government of working for the U.S. to disseminate anti-Cuban propaganda, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Sambra served five years before being released due to pressure from PEN Canada and the Canadian government. “Tourism helps to maintain the economy of a totalitarian regime,” says Sambra.

A more damning criticism would be that tourism has undermined the very revolution it was intended to support. “A really interesting question would be whether the Cubans have promoted tourism in a way that is sensible for Cubans, in a way that is most compatible with the Revolution,” says Wright. “It’s there that the government is open to criticism.”

Tourism is in decline in Cuba: according to figures provided by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism, the number of visitors fell from 2.3 million visitors in 2005 to 2.2 million in 2006. The drop was caused by competition from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, which offer better deals. But tourism is also becoming less important as Cuba is starting to diversify its economy with nickel, oil and gas. Toronto-based Sherritt International found the first offshore oil deposits; Cuba has started to treat Venezuelan health-care patients in an oil-forhealth deal that Castro made with Hugo Chávez; and another Canadian company, Choice Medical Services, offers health tourism packages to Cuba.

With Castro in ill health in recent years, there has been much speculation about what will happen to the country—and to tourism—once he dies. What Miami Cubans hope for, and what Castro supporters do not discount, is that there will be a regime change, and that a government friendly to the U.S. will be put in place. This would cause an end to the embargo and a flood of American investors, including U.S.-owned hotels. “That’s the kind of thing that would cause American tourists to flock to Cuba,” says Macaulay.

But most people think that very little will happen when Castro dies. The U.S. has said that it will not lift the embargo as long as a member of the Castro family is in power, and it is Fidel’s brother, Raúl, who will likely succeed him. But tourism will always be central to Cuba’s economy because its sun and its beaches are its most saleable assets. And the beleaguered island will continue to do things that developing countries that rely on tourism are forced to do.

Maria Amuchastegui is a freelance writer based in Toronto who specializes in Latin America.