Tourism was Cuba’s way out of lean times
It’s anybody’s guess how locals will handle changing relationship with US
Varadero beach, Matanzas province, Cuba. Former president Fidel Castro once said, Cuba has it all: bays, beaches, mountains, rich farmlands, music, dance, art. Photograph: Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images
Cuba’s new tourism was the child of despair.
For most Cubans, malnutrition is no distant memory. Its sugar economy went south overnight after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The loss of its Russian “sugar daddy” subsidy triggered years of shortages. Public transport was – and remains – elderly and groaning. Prostitution returned in force.
Things have loosened since Raul Castro took over in 2006, even over the last two years. But at the drop of a hat, Cubans tell you about the 1990s “Special Period,” when they starved. “I went to bed with a job but awoke with sugared water for food.”
Or “Luckily, I found a pig and ojalá, she had piglets.”
Without oil, horses were a rural family’s lifeline. They still dominate the roads as hardworking family retainers, sometimes in quirky hats.
Tourism was the only answer. As former president Fidel Castro once said, Cuba has it all: bays, beaches, mountains, rich farmlands, music, dance, art. But Cuba has been isolated by the US embargo. It is a place where things often don’t work – no spare parts, very little wifi – and where educated people earn €20 a month.
By partnering with Spanish Melia hotel group and other big chains, Cuba introduced sun, sand and salsa in “all-inclusive” luxury resorts in the Mafia’s old watering hole on Varadero. This is a peninsular cayo; Cubans were nervous about tourists mingling with locals. Worried about their staff’s inexperience and lack of customer relations savvy, they brought in Spanish and Austrian trainers.
‘Camp Fidel’Now 35,000 tourist beds are available, and host three million tourists annually, of whom two million are from Canada, Europe, and Latin America.
By the mid-1990s, Canadians were flocking to “Camp Fidel”, swapping snow for bottomless mojitos and the Buena Vista soundtrack. At 500 Canadian dollars (€350) for a weekend with all the rum you can swim in, it’s irresistibly win-win.
Cuban families holiday in Varadero as well, so it’s possible to chat and interact with them as they, eager to try out their English, are pleased to see you.
What do they talk about? The low wages of doctors and engineers and the difficulty of getting travel visas.
These days the highest earners are the bands serenading in the restaurants and bars with Chan Chan and Guantanamera, selling CDs and scoring tips. Artists earn in CUCs or tourist bucks.
Restrictions were relaxed as more visitors came to Cuba, and homestays with families (casas particulares) and home dining (paladares) became a cottage industry.
When my college anthropology class comes to Cuba, it’s under the “P to P” licence, or “people to people citizen ambassador” programme which was begun by Bill Clinton, then blocked by George W Bush, and later revived by Barack Obama.
This waiver was to encourage contact, giving American educators a chance to get around the US embargo.
Our last trip studied roots of Afro-Cuban religion, the syncretised mix of saints and old santeria gods of Africa.
We visited a babalawa or santeria priest again this time, and travelled 1,000km to study rural cultures. In remote El Guijito near Baracoa at the eastern tip of Cuba, we met resourceful villagers part-descended from Taíno indians and Haitian slaves.
Their water is from wells. Food is cassava or yukka and pigs or chickens running around the village, where historian Theresa Roger helps revive old-school French-influence dances. Theresa rediscovered the steps and songs from archives, and also helped fashion the smock-style 19th century dresses.
After they politely asked us to dance, Theresa’s village hosted a banquet in coconut shells. At another village, we went to see Tumba Pompadour, a dancing troop in their late 80s and over. Arriving late, we discovered they’d gone home to nap. “Come back again,” they said. “But soon.”
Sacred baseball shirtsMost Cubans are Catholic or santeros or both. At Virgin of Caridad del Cobre shrine, shirts of baseball heroes are kept sacred by the candles. An underweight baby in yellow with a tiny cross in her bonnet was being taken for intercession. We took nuggets of copper for sexual health. To a Cuban, this is not an odd confluence of prayer.
Our homestays were in Remedios, a sleepy town celebrating its 500th anniversary, where the usual horse-traps, pedicabs, Plymouths and Dodges in jelly-baby colours, bicycles and hysterical dogs lined up to greet us. Next day, a dozen gleaming new jeeps joined them.
At New Year’s Eve Mass in its newly restored church, we took in the blend of santeria and Christian icons. Then, with host mothers Imaida and Paloma, we went to nearby Sorgueta, where an enormous parranda fiesta or New Year’s Eve mock-battle was under way. Rival teams had built floats in secret, stockpiled fireworks, mustered drumming cabildos. The fiesta went on till late and we danced ourselves into a stupor.
This intimacy may change soon. Already Carnival and Princess cruise ships are poised and jostling to dock.
I gave two small boys a sandwich at a Pina Colada stall. They were about eight and six, and said “somos pobres” to me, eyeing my phone.
“To share,” I said, and they began splitting it carefully into three, handing me a piece. Lovely kids. Hungry kids. How will they handle the new changes?