Fidel Castro banned it and then they had a change of heart.
By Jorge Gonzalez (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — In an attempt to attract high-end tourism, the Cuban government is building the biggest golf mega complex in Latin America, which means it’s the Communist regime’s most important push to develop facilities for a sport that Fidel Castro abolished 50 years ago because he considered it “bourgeois”.
The megaproject, called Punta Colorada Cuba Golf Marina, is located in Punta Colorada, in the province of Pinar del Rio, a place that has barely been developed in the tourism sector and is characterized by the poverty of its population.
According to official reports, the project is already in its first phase and will take 25 years to conclude. However, once it is up and running, it will put this “lost paradise in Pinar del Rio” on the global tourism map.
In its first stage, the project will span across 700 hectares and will have 1250 rooms spread out between three hotels and over 1700 residential units, including villas, apartments and bungalows.
It will also have a bay holding 300 berths and two 18-hole golf courses, one of which will become the first in the world to ever have a hole at sea which will definitely make it even more attractive.
This first phase is expected to take 7 years to complete and involves around one billion euros in investment.
What’s in it for ordinary Cubans?
Golf is a part of the regime’s strategy to focus on attracting luxury tourism, which spends more than middle class “sun and sea” tourists who visit the island.
The announcement of this great infrastructure project has triggered different comments on digital media platforms and social media. Some Internet users have expressed their hopes that Punta Colorada Cuba Golf Marina will be able to create jobs for the local population, which will contribute to improving their living standards.
Others have been more skeptical and doubt whether it’s really sustainable, as well as pointing out the fact that if this project is successful, it wouldn’t really affect the quality of Cuban people’s lives, who still receive low wages in spite of them working in sectors that generate great revenue on the island for the government such as tourism, for example.
Today, Cuba only has one 18-hole golf course, located in Varadero’s tourist resort. In spite of its privileged location, the course is almost a century old and doesn’t meet the United States Golf Association’s standards.
The Punta Colorada Cuba Golf Marina is one of the government’s 16 projects conceived to attract tourists with high buying power, which were approved in 2011. Plans include other resorts in El Salado, Mariel; Bellomonte, Playas del Este; Matanzas and Cienfuegos.
From being stigmatized to being resurrected
On paper, the Cuban government is aiming to build some 27 golf courses and is seeking to put Cuba on the list of the greatest international golf circuits, according to Granma newspaper.
Before these projects were drafted, golf was a “scorned” sport in Cuba, due to the fact that Fidel Castro stigmatized it as an elitist and bourgeois sport, a mere shadow of the capitalist society in Cuba before 1959, which the Communist leader made every effort to destroy.
Before Fidel Castro established communism in Cuba, there were at least 7 golf courses on the Caribbean island, which mainly rich US citizens and tourists used to frequent. But then, the dictator put these courses to different uses, as training grounds for specialist troops or gardens of an art school. Others were simply left abandoned.
The ban on golf courses came after Fidel and Che decided to poke fun of then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was very skilled in this sport, according to one of the versions of this story which place this event in 1959, shortly after Fidel took power.
This version maintains that Fidel and Che, dressed in their typical olive-green military dress and big boots, played a game while flicking through a US newspaper which mentioned Eisenhower’s knack for golf. This graphic testimony was captured by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda.
A message of peace for Kennedy
The story goes that Che won the game as Fidel had never played golf before, while the Argentinian guerrillero had worked as a caddie in his birth country while studying his Medicine degree.
Another version of this event, recounted by the British newspaper The Independent, tells us that this all happened in 1962, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Castro tried to send a message of peace to John F. Kennedy.
The British publication cited journalist Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, Fidel Castro’s former personal reporter, who passed away in Miami recently, and told The Wall Street Journal: “Castro told me that the following day’s headlines should read “President Castro challenges President Kennedy to a friendly match of golf.”
According to Lorenzo Fuentes, “Che played passionately” and therefore he felt he needed to tell the truth about what really happened, including the fact that Fidel had lost the game. As a result, this journalist was laid off.
Getting ready for a Cuba without a blockade
One of the greatest driving forces behind golf’s resurrection in Cuba is Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, who showed off his skills in this sport in 2013 at the Montecristo Cup Championships, which was held in Varadero.
When he won this tournament, Fidel Castro’s son revealed the hypocrisy of Castro rhetoric with regard to golf, because judging by the skills he displayed at this event, the son of the late former leader, as well as the few who make up the Communist bourgeois elite in power, always had access to a sport which his father publicly criticized.
Several international media platforms have denounced Antonio’s opulent lifestyle, an orthopedic doctor: his preference for staying at hotels that cost over 1000 euros per night, expensive holidays to Turkey, Greece, and his taste for Cuban cigars… Nothing to do with the Communist austerity his father proclaimed and subjected the Cuban population to.
This golf event in Varadero was a great marketing stunt to convince foreign investors that the Cuban government was serious about its plans to build golf courses and that the Castros had forgotten about their joke to Eisenhower or the challenge they made to Kennedy, and that they could have also left their abritrary ideological stance on golf in the past.
At that time, the US and Cuban governments were secretly negotiating how to reestablish bilateral ties and the Castro regime, as well as many international investors, were hopeful that then Democrat president Barack Obama would give an executive order to weaken the embargo, which he did.
Cuba’s golf fantasy
Golf courses would be a great attraction for the millions of US tourists who would begin traveling to the island without restrictions once the embargo is lifted.
And even though Obama’s efforts to make the embargo more flexible didn’t lead to it being eliminated, his successor, Republican Donald Trump has tried to reverse the former president’s steps forward. Foreign investors were convinced that Obama’s position towards Cuba had slightly loosened the deadlock relations both countries had, marked by nearly 60 years of being enemies.
They also trusted that in order to deal with an economy in ruins because of poor management and absurd Communist ideology, and without being able to rely on the USSR’s million-dollar subsidies ever since it collapsed, or more recently the loss of part of the Venezuelan oil subsidy, the Cuban government would have to take concrete steps to open up the economy to foreign capital, without bureaucratic hurdles which have delayed many projects and contributed to the failure of many others.
However, he was also pushing the pipe dream of a Cuba about to make a political transition at the same time. With something more to offer than golf courses for privileged tourists.