Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 14 — It’s already public that the Cuba government plans to allow foreigners to acquire properties in perpetuity in ultra-modern golf course communities. The ultimate goal seems to be the development of enormous residential-hotel-golf course enclaves for tourists and the future Cuban bourgeoisie.
ON YOUR MARK…GET SET…GO!
“They told us that this incursion has the highest priority for investment,” said Graham Cooke, a Canadian golf course architect and the designer of a project for the Guardalavaca Beach area, along the island’s north-eastern coast. The project, with an estimated value of more than $455 million, is being promoted by a consortium of Canadian Indian tribes whose officers supposedly entered into contract with the Cuban government this past August.
According to Cuba’s tourism minister, Manuel Marrero, the government negotiated with several foreign companies to set up the first joint-ventures that will construct these golf courses on the island, in addition to other “real estate developments” related to tourism.
The company Standing Feather International (SFI) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cuban government in late April, and on this past July 6 agreed to create — together with the Cuban state-owned company Palmares Grupo — the “Cuba-Kanata Golf Ltd” company. This joint-venture will be the first to begin construction activity, with work set to begin in September of next year. Despite the magnitude of this project, no information concerning it has appeared in the island’s broadcast media or written press.
It’s also known that the executive director of London’s Essence Group, who has helped sponsor international golf tournaments in Varadero, plans to develop a $300 million country club on the most famous beach in Cuba.
In late July, the British ambassador on the island, Dianna Melrose, announced at the Cuban Foreign Ministry that her country’s business community wants to invest in Cuba’s tourism sector, particularly in new hotel and golf course projects being started.
Mexico is another one of the countries that wants to “share” experiences with Cuba in the development of golf tourism, said Gloria Guevara Manzo, the head of the that country’s Federal Tourism Secretariat during the FITCUBA 2011 tourism fair this past May. Consultants with the Mexican firm “Piza: arquitectura de golf” are serving as advisors on the design and construction of the tourist complexes for Palmares, the company responsible for the development of golf facilities in terms of tourism.
According to statements by Mexican officials, their country is among the top ten trading partners with Cuba, citing commercial exchange for $325 million in 2010. They went on to state that Mexican investment in the island is approximately $730 million, adding that, “This positions us as one of the ranking Latin American investors on the island.”
In total, the four largest development projects total over $1.5 billion, while the New York Times says that the amount of profits coming into the Cuban government coffers will be about half.
Cuba now has three 18-hole golf courses: the Campo de Golf Capdevila and the Havana Golf Club (both in Havana), and the Varadero Golf Club, located at the popular tourist resort in Matanzas Province. This latter curse was built before 1959 by the Dupont family. The current perspective is to develop sixteen short and medium-term real estate projects that will include courses for this sport.
During the first parliamentary session of 2011, Cuba’s tourism minister claimed that the agreement had the approval of the Council of Ministers. The official noted that the four initial projects will be developed in the provinces of Holguin, Pinar del Rio, Havana and Matanzas.
In its eagerness for Cuba to become an exemplary and upscale destination in the Caribbean, the island’s government has decided to promote an elite sport like golf, apparently seeing it as a means of revitalizing the economy.
To this end, the government has shown no reservations about offering life leases on structures and land usufruct for 99 years. As the Canadian consortium disclosed to the El Universal newspaper, “We’re proud to announce that the titles on the luxury properties that buyers purchase aren’t the standard 99-year leases. Instead, residential properties are being sold with the owners having the right to own them in perpetuity.”
Such exceptions draw attention to how Cuban farmers, in accordance with Decree-Law 259, are given land in usufruct for a limited period of just ten years. Only recently did the government authorize the construction of houses on land rented to small farmers, but they didn’t allow the import into the country of machinery (such as tractors) donated from abroad.
Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of the National Association of Small Farmers, says the term of ten years of use “is a restriction and a contradiction.” The official defends the idea of ??permanent and inheritable land rights for agricultural workers.
On the other hand, the criticisms that have historically been made by Cuban leaders of golf courses are well known. Most of these facilities were converted to other uses after the 1959 revolution. Known as “the sport of the rich,” golf was discouraged in Cuba by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who both publicly ridiculed the sport as “bourgeois.”
More recently this notion was echoed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who has also made explicit criticisms of other excesses of the upper and upper-middle classes in his country. With the lack of housing that Venezuela is suffering, the South American president doesn’t see why these courses should be created on valuable land “so that only a small group of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois can go play golf.”
Among the news items that have appeared on this issue, none points to any priority being given by any of the ALBA countries to this type of tourism-related investment. Regional integration apparently must be developed in isolation from economic development priorities that the largest island in the Caribbean has designed for itself.
Nor does it seem that the possibility for participating in this sport will be open to average Cubans on the island. There are no known public statements by sports officials concerning this. In addition, the proposed designs are clearly focused on upmarket international tourism, not to mention the fact that access to such places, and the purchase of golf sports equipment itself, is well beyond the reach of most residents of the island.
In the margin of ideological debates, the Canadian Standing Feather International is committed to a standard of five or six-star facilities to compete with destinations such as the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas or Cancun. As a bonus, residents and homeowners in SFI’s “Loma Linda” golf resort community be allowed to import their vehicles and will be offered imported food products “exclusively” for purchase and delivery to their homes.
The area occupied by the complex will be declared a “Special Economic Development Zone,” according to statements by El Universal, and the Cuban government will issue the purchasers visas as “Resident Real Estate Owners” (Spanish: Residente Inmobiliario) that will allow these foreigners long-term residence.
All this movement of land and prospects for future prosperity entail the redevelopment of the land and the construction of communities associated with golf courses. Internationally, golf courses depend on real estate activities, which lead to increasing property values.
The real profit center is precisely in these housing developments associated with golf courses, which typically increase the value of these units by 50 percent. Usually these homes aren’t primary residences but are bought by wealthy investors in golf courses and by upper-middle class families who use them as second homes in “exotic places” such as this Caribbean island.
WATER DEMAND VS. CHRONIC DROUGHT
Golf courses are traditionally suspected of having negative environmental impacts. Each golf course uses the volume of water equivalent to the consumption of a town of 12,000 inhabitants, with their average daily consumption of one of these courses being close to 400,000 gallons. In addition, an average 18-holes golf course covers 100 to 150 acres.
It’s easy to predict the impact of these on Cuban life, as much of the country suffers from a drought that has no end in sight. In addition to the watering of their fairways, another requirement is that of small artificial lakes that are included in the designs of these courses. These surface waters have a bearing on water lost through evaporation and consequently result in increased water consumption.
The traditional misuse of chemical fertilizers causes major alterations in the quality of groundwater due to increased nitrogen and phosphorus compounds used in the revitalization of the roots of grass (these promote their growth and give them more color). Commonly used pesticides also cause a sharp deterioration in aquifers due to excessive use or use in irrigated areas with rapid absorption.
Negative impacts on ecosystems are also considerable during the construction phase of golf courses and accompanying housing developments. The need for irrigation, drainage, slope remodeling and design, require the moving of native soils and the use of heavy machinery that transform the substrate for the installation of series of irrigation channels. These are finally filled with gravel, sand and plant mulch, and grass is planted.
Moreover, the aesthetics of golf courses represent alien kinds of landscapes, as they were originally from other countries with different social and environmental conditions. The implementation of this sport involves radical transformations in native landscapes. From a visual point of view these may represent subjective aesthetic beauty, but they will always be foreign to the original environment.
As stated, golf courses need large areas, making their construction impossible in urban areas. This is why developers traditionally turn to undeveloped land and areas near natural settings. This is a means to externalize the impact.
Of course such costs don’t disappear, rather they take an infinite toll on ecosystems that lose in a few decades what it took centuries to build and accumulate. Of course since the consequences are not visible — as in the cases of earthquakes, landslides, spectacular collapses or with huge chimneys dumping toxic gases into the atmosphere — to the general public their impact is as if nothing has occurred.
After extinguishing the natural sources of freshwater and destroying aquifers, it’s necessary to redirect water from distant basins. Such management also externalizes the impact, exporting the “drought” problem to distant communities.
Of course obtaining environmental permits for such transformations isn’t difficult if the government wishes to substantiate the need for foreign currency entering the country. In extensive reports they can make promises to minimize the impacts; otherwise some paltry fine levied on millionaires can be paid to “correct” the situation.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if these properties served to foster the return of casinos, with card games and hard betting, slot machines and other more repugnant forms of “leisure travel,” as it has been called.
For now, such upscale tourism in Cuba has failed to be developed in all these years. Together with the extensive cultivation of transgenic soy and corn, and export of medical services, this now appears to be an important part of the government’s commitment to Cuba’s economic opening to global capitalism.