Food Imports for Cubans, Creole Cuisine for Tourists

Manuel Marrero Cruz and Maria del Carmen Orellana opening the Varadero event with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Ministry of Tourism) By

HAVANA TIMES – On September 12, Cuban prime minister Manuel Marrero opened the XII Varadero International Gourmet Festival, whose goal is to encourage foreign investment in the food service sector.

“Our Creole cuisine is one of our great strengths, a true gastronomy, which we have learned to fuse with our cocktail traditions. These services are in ever-growing demand,” said Marrrero in a speech that has outraged Cubans who are tired of having to deal with endless but now-worsening shortages at a time when their leaders are promoting fine dining.

And will there be bread?” asked one reader of Cubadebate, the government’s official online news daily. Several others left no doubt as to their opinions, which were at odds with that of the communist party newspaper Granma. “Given that tourism is the main source of foreign exchange, progress in this sector will accelerate the search for solutions to the many problems we as a country are facing,” the paper stated.

Cubadebate readers see it differently. “What we really need now are tourists, who at this point prefer the Dominican Republic,” writes one. “This is how it is: the hotel occupancy rate is currently around 14%. Meanwhile, we keep building new hotels instead of investing in energy, roads and agricultural infrastructure,” adds another.

“On Sunday, [electrical] service was disrupted for twenty-four hours due to a lack of generating capacity… We keep betting on the wrong horse, that’s for sure.” writes another. “The tourism and nickel industries are the only activities that earn enough to pay back foreign creditors. Everything else is an illusion. Or do you think agricultural and the sugar industry will do that?” counters someone else. “Believe me when I say that overseas medical services are a better bet. I am a doctor and I put my faith in that,” adds yet another.

At the event, which runs through Thursday, Marrero spoke to a room full of chefs, insisting that foreign investment is something “fundamental to the Cuban economy.” For this reason, and aware of the skepticism with which investors view Cuba given its long history of defaults, the prime minister admitted that the state has had problems paying producers but added that the government “is meeting its commitments down to the last penny.”

The Spanish news agency EFE reports that the event, held in a room at the Plaza America Convention Center, attracted only a few tourists. “We came to buy some things to take to the beach and saw all this almost by coincidence,” says Mark, a 35-year-old Canadian tourist vacationing with his girlfriend Amanda.

Marrero, who was minister of tourism for fifteen years and who never misses an opportunity to show that he carries more weight in this area than the current office holder, Juan Carlos Garcia Granda, urged workers in this sector to compete to make the country a high-end tourist destination.

“The present and the future of tourism means talking about quality. It’s what carries the most weight when tourists are making decisions and whether [they choose] to visit the same place again. We have the conditions to compete and the advantage of being able to rely on great professionals,” he said in reference to the need to master languages, innovate and improve the visitors’ experience.

Marrero, who in May had corrected the tourism minister, admitting that the sector would not see an improvement till 2013, reversed course on Monday and reiterated the official goal of 2.5 million visitors this year. Perhaps encouraged by the July’s figures, which indicated the number of foreign visitors grew by 23%, the prime minister once again expressed confidence in reaching that goal. But many difficulties remain. In the first seven months of this year saw 834,891 visitors. Only 1,665,000 left to go in the next five.

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