By Ramon Andujar
HAVANA TIMES, August 20 – “Well, tomorrow I’ll be going back to Cuba,” commented a Cuban tourist sarcastically to a cook at the Hotel Brisas in Guardalavaca, in Holguin Province, located on the east of the island.
The joke alluded to how it’s a privilege for any Cuban to stay in a hotel, even more so if that entails an all-inclusive package. This is especially true when it comes to food, which is plentiful at such resorts but scarce outside them.
This current summer, thousands of Cubans have had the opportunity to enjoy hotel facilities, those which at the beginning of the 1990s and for 10 subsequent years were accessible only to foreign tourists.
The prohibition was lifted after Raul Castro took office as president, as he took on the task of rescuing the national economy from the deep crisis into which it has fallen.
But can Cubans stay in these hotels? Sure! – Those that can pay for their stays in foreign currency, meaning those who have relatives living overseas. Within this category, a detailed classification could be made:
– Cubans who have emigrated to the United States or other countries and now return to the island on vacation.
– Citizens who live abroad as residents but have retained their civic privileges in Cuba. This status can be maintained if they left legally, got married to a foreigner, or because they have acquired a second nationality, such as in the case of Cubans with Spanish citizenship.
– Cubans who have relationships of a sexual nature with foreigners in exchange for benefits of a diverse nature.
In the search for alternatives to collect hard currency, companies in the tourism industry have made available to Cuban and foreigners alike deals that include, for example, transportation and a stay at a three-star hotel for one weekend for only 66 convertible Cuban pesos (about $75 USD) per person.
Nonetheless, this alternative is beyond the reach of most Cubans. The ordinary islander has to be satisfied with either staying at home during the vacation, going to the state-run campgrounds, or going to the beach for a day by truck or bus, which are almost always jam-packed with people.
Some Necessary History
About six years ago, I accompanied a Cuban rabbi onto the grounds of Hotel Solymar in Veradero, the largest tourist resort area in Cuba. The devotee had hired me to serve as his interpreter in the handling of a commercial religious matter with a Canadian business representative.
We could only go as far as the hotel lobby to ask for the business rep, and after we met him the meeting took place in the facility’s parking lot. At that time most Cubans were prohibited from entering that type of establishment, with the outstanding exception of a few “outstanding” workers and some privileged bosses.
In 2007, by pure chance I returned to the same hotel. This time, though, my purpose was not work, but romantic: I went on my honeymoon. The general prohibition against Cubans going into the hotels for foreigners was still in effect, but my wife was Catalan and that granted me certain privileges.
Although I’m only 37, I’ve heard from the lips of my parents and friends that during the 1970s and 80s it was normal for Cubans to lodge in tourist facilities at prices in domestic currency that today would cause astonishment.
“We spent our honeymoon at the Oasis Hotel, in Varadero,” said my mother with pride, as my father recounted that he stayed at the Havana Libre Hotel on business on more than one occasion.
But with the arrival of the 1990’s economic crisis – known on the island as the “Special Period,” in the aftermath of the disintegration of socialist camp and the worsening of the American blockade – the Cuban government opened the doors to foreign-owned investment and began looking at tourism from abroad as a source of hard currency.
“Industry without chimneys” was a term coined by Fidel Castro to describe this nascent branch of the economy from which large monetary benefits were expected.
The new reality brought with it new contradictions as Cubans – accustomed to equal rights and opportunities for over 40 years – who saw on their beaches the arrival of hordes of European and Canadian tourists separated from national vacationers by an invisible but very real line.
Prostitution – a phenomenon that was believed practically eliminated from the country – spread like wildfire, despite institutional efforts to contain and combat it.
Tourism demanded trained workers capable of offering visitors an image of a cultured and educated country. As a consequence, the educational sector suffered the first onslaught of that economic hurricane, whose guests sweep thousands of teachers from classrooms and into the kitchens, bars, laundry rooms and gardens of hotels.
It’s undeniable that the tips and gifts of tourists were helpful in mitigating some shortages, at least for the hotels workers. Nobody forgets that, in 1993, to take a bath with soap or to wash clothes with detergent was almost impossible for most Cubans.
During its first years of investment, international tourism experienced certain growth, though it was not immune to corrupt officials who sought to get rich or enjoy privileges unthinkable for most Cuban citizens.
However, possibly the hardest blow occurred after the tragic attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2000, which brought a decrease in the flow of tourists to the island.
For more than ten years, access to hotels was forbidden for the great majority of Cubans. However, with the ascent to the presidency of Raul Castro – to whom some attribute more effective economic thinking than that of his predecessor – the doors of the “industry without chimneys” opened up for national tourists, with the sole condition being that they too pay for services in foreign currency.
Other prohibitions were also eliminated, such as access to cell phones and the right to rent automobiles, which previously were only allowed to foreign visitors. All of these measures responded to the urgent need of the Cuban economy to collect currency that was accepted for trade on the international market.
Although I am unaware of the amount of revenue that is pumped into the economy by remittances received by families here from relatives living abroad, I suspect these have a notable weight in Cuba’s economy.
Just a few months ago the Obama administration lifted sanctions imposed on Cubans residing in the United States. Previously, limits had been placed on the frequency of visits they could make to the island, as well as the amount of remittances they could send to relatives. These new regulations have opened the valve for US dollars coming into Cuba and with them the possibility of some improvement to the quality of life on this island baked by the heat.
The greatest challenge to the Cuban hotel industry is the elimination of restrictions that prevent American citizens from freely traveling to Cuba.
Regarding such a possibility, which today seems increasingly at hand, authorities on the island affirm that Cuba now possesses the necessary capacities to accommodate a wave of tourists coming from the United States.
More than a few US citizens, both sympathizers and detractors of the Cuban Revolution are tempted to learn of and enjoy the virtues and mysteries of this island so deteriorated by hurricanes, crises, blockade and inertia – but rich in its people, culture and traditions.