By Pilar Montes
HAVANA TIMES — I was completely taken by surprise when two of my friends commented that the Varadero International Hotel had been demolished, in spite of the fact that the Cuban Architects and Engineers Association had denounced this measure.
First the Hotel Nacional built in 1930 and later, the Varadero International built in 1950, were both jewels on the Cuban hotel and national architecture.
In July 2016, the Varadero International, which it seems will carry on the original name, was in the stage of laying down the foundations of the structure, installing electrical, sewage, water and other services and buying materials for the vertical construction. According to Joel Mena Benitez, the assistant project manager, the hotel is expected to be ready sometime in 2018. He said reducing the high maintenance costs of the old hotel is among their objectives, although the new hotel will triple the old one’s capacity.
Mena assured that the building will keep the architectural style of the 1950s and the Cabaret Continental, specified in their contract, however, the cabins that surrounded the old International, which had been awarded a national architecture award, have disappeared.
The main reason for demolishing the old hotel was the claim that it was built on a sand dune on the beach, however, those who have seen the new construction works claim that the new structure lies at the same distance away from the seashore.
Over the last 70 years, many thousands of Cubans enjoyed the facilities at the old International, just like hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists.
Many Cuban guests, myself included, enjoyed the kindness and good service at this Varadero hotel instead of going to the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach, which was inaugurated 4 years later, resembling it in architectural style.
Those of us who love the International would have understood the reconstruction work, and even the expansion of the hotel. However, whoever sees the miniature model of the new hotel complex, will miss the original’s elegance.
Investment and construction workers
The hotel complex will have, in addition to the main building, a building for royal service, a beach palapa, sports club and a towel house, an acqua bar, sailing area, wedding marquee, entertainment theater, entrance gate, swimming pool and 924 rooms, which will make it one of the largest resorts in Cuba.
Investment has been made by the Tourism Real Estate company, with a total sum of over 151 million USD, and the project will be carried out by the ARCOS-BBI International Economic Association (Bouygues Batiment International) which belongs to the French group Carrefour, which is present in 80 countries.
The BBI’s Canadian Division has already built the Playa Cayo Santa Maria, Iberostar Ensenachos and the Melia Buenavista hotels on the island. The BBI is also responsible for building the “Manzana” hotel at the very central Manzana de Gomez, in front of Havana’s Central Park.
The investment is run by the ALMEST real estate agency (from the GAESA military consortium) which entrusted the construction project to the Military Construction Association (UCM) and the French BBI construction companies.
The French construction company decided to bring around 200 construction workers from India to build hotels in Cuba and one of these construction projects is precisely the hotel on Manzana de Gomez. Close sources to this project estimate that it won’t be completed by the end of the year, as had been foreseen.
On the other hand, the Cuban Ministry of Tourism has also announced that the French company Bouygues Batiment International and the ADP Group – before called Aeroports de Paris – will be the main companies responsible for the remodeling works at Havana’s Jose Marti International airport.
According to the website americaeconomica.com, since French president Francois Hollande visited the island last May, French companies seem to have won a privileged position in the Caribbean country.
We can also add that their privilege has extended to even employing foreign workers, the first time this has happened since 1959, in spite of Cuban construction workers being available to work on this project.
The construction projects I’ve mentioned here, which BBI is in charge of, are based on the first agreement of debt exchanges for investments which was signed this year in Paris back in February when Cuban president, Raul Castro, returned the visit his French equivalent had made.
Within this context, the fact that just now on September 9th, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade and the French Development Agency (AFD) have signed an agreement for funding these projects, especially infrastructure, appears to be more than mere coincidence.
Employee and tourist opinions
In October 2010, word was already going around about the possible demolition of the Varadero International hotel. A wave of rumors and controversies were unleashed in and outside the island.
Luanys Morales, the spokesperson for the Gran Caribe, the management group of the hotel, said: “It’s unfortunate that a rumor can influence the decision of so many tourists who have called us up, frightened by this news. The hotel is not going to be demolished and this is all part of a fabricated lie to fill headlines…”
Morales maybe wanted to revert the decision that had already been made. Maybe she isn’t even the spokesperson for the Gran Caribe anymore, because the new project has passed onto the Gaviota Group.
A month after denying this, a statement made by the Cuban section of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) signed by its president, the architect Jose E. Fornes, confirmed the rumors going around about the intentions to demolish the Hotel Varadero International and its Sun Cabins, buildings which were considered “part of modern Cuban and Caribbean heritage”, which marked a milestone in national architecture, for their advanced design and visual integration with the landscape and sea.
Armando Fernandez, a participant in an Internet forum about the topic, commented: “I agree that there are important investments that need to be made, but not at the expense of what is a symbol of our national identity.”