Tourism was Cuba's way out of lean times
It's anybody's guess how locals will handle changing relationship with US
Sat, Jan 31, 2015, 01:00
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.
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
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
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
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
Sacred baseball shirts
Most 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
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
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