Ivan Garcia, 22 August 2016 — The breeze coming from the coast is a blast of hot air that barely cools things off. The sun reverberates and the tourists take refuge from the insufferable irradiation in a swimming pool in the form of a huge shell, split in two by a cement walkway.
Others escape from the heat wave by tossing down beer like British hooligans or drinking insipid mojitos one after another. The Russian and Serbian tourists continue doing their thing: drinking vodka with ice as if it were mineral water, leaning on the bar rail of the Memories Flamenco Beach Resort hotel, nestled into Cayo Coco, in the archipelago of the Jardines del Rey, north of Ciego de Ávila, a province some 360 miles to the east of Havana.
In the tiny shop, Mexican tourists ask where they can buy El Cuervo tequila. Close by, a group of Spaniards follow on television the performance of their compatriot, Mireia Belmonte, in the Olympic swimming finals in Rio 2016.
There are very few Cuban tourists. Even fewer black people. Past 2:00 in the afternoon, the Memories Flamenco hotel seems to be a plenary session in miniature of the United Nations: East and West Europeans, Mexicans, Hindus, Asians and Americans, who try not to call attention to their clandestine tourism at Cayo Coco.
“Traveling to Cuba isn’t a problem. You can justify it with any of the 12 categories authorized and, although it’s not permitted legally, no institution in the United States asks if we’re doing tourism when we travel to the island,” comments a North American of Peruvian origin on vacation with his wife and two kids.
The five-star hotel is located on the highway that connects Cayo Coco with Cayo Guillermo. It has 624 rooms; 12 are suites and 4 are adapted for the handicapped. At this moment, half of the rooms are empty. “We’re in the low season. And even though the number of visitors to Cuba continued growing in 2016, hotel occupancy isn’t more than 50 percent,” says a receptionist.
Like 70 percent of Cuban tourist installations, the Memories Flamenco hotel is administered by the Gaviota S.A. military emporium, a business that appeared in 1989 under the auspices of Fidel Castro, on the pretext of testing the profitability of the incipient tourist business.
“When the tourist boom began, since so much in Cuba is stolen, it wasn’t known for sure whether a hotel would generate profits. Gaviota reduced expenditures and raised productivity on the basis of low salaries and internal controls,” says an employee.
Another employee, driving an electric cart that transports the recent arrivals to their rooms, says with total frankness that “most of us workers don’t agree with the deal they give us. Gaviota contracts only with foreign businesses to administer their hotels. The salary is shit; I earn 500 pesos (almost 20 dollars) a month, and since it’s a hotel with ’everything included,’ tipping is scarce. The luggage handlers and the maids are the ones who get extra money. But it’s always better to work in a hotel than to be a policeman.”
Every day a maid cleans and prepares 12 rooms. Her base salary is 465 pesos/month and about 18 dollars as a stimulus. “When it’s not Juana, it’s her sister. The truth is that we never receive a salary that matches the number of tourists staying in the hotel. I get by, more or less, thanks to the guests who give me two or three CUCs as a tip, and leave me clothing and useful stuff when they go, although getting it out of the hotel is a problem,” confesses a maid.
According to a gardener, most of the Cubans who work in management changed their military uniforms for white or blue guayaberas and black shoes. “They arrive from military life thinking that a hotel is operated the same as a barracks. In addition to being rude to us, they’re arrogant. I don’t leave, because for better or for worse, working in a hotel is better than cutting cane.”
Most of the employees of the Memories Flamenco live in Morón, a town 50 minutes from Cayo Coco. “The work routine is very demanding. I work seven days and get three days off. The management is treated differently. In spite of the hotel’s good results, Gaviota doesn’t let our families enjoy the facilities. Even the food they give us workers is different. In general it’s very little, and poorly prepared,” confesses a bar worker.
In addition to Memories Flamenco, there are on Cayo Coco, among others, the hotels Memories Caribe Beach Resort, Meliá Cayo Coco, Meliá Jardines del Rey, Pullman Cayo Coco, Pestana Cayo Coco All Inclusive Beach Resort, Tryp Cayo Coco, Colonial Cayo Coco, Sol Cayo Coco, Playa Coco, Playa Coco Star, Iberostar Mojito, Iberostar Cayo Coco and NH Krystal Laguna Villas & Resort, with more than 6,700 rooms total.
The zone is designed to be an example of true tourist apartheid. At the entrance to the isle, a police official, guarded by several soldiers with red berets, checks the people and vehicles that enter and leave the Ciego de Avila key.
Almost all the hotels located on Cayo Coco are administered by Gaviota, which has plans to continue growing in the coming years. Several brigades are building three new hotels, which will increase room capacity even more.
Many tourists aren’t pleased with the strategy of being confined in installations far from towns and cities. “It’s annoying; it prevents you from interacting with people. When they put you in hotels in Havana you can chat with Cubans on the street, but it’s impossible in the rest of the tourist zones,” says Eusebio, an Andalusian who lives in Seville.
The same thing has happened with the construction of the Hotel Kempinski, in the heart of the capital. Gaviota’s management prefers to hire foreign chefs and directors before Cubans.
“It’s absurd to bring bricklayers from India or cooks from Spain. They pay them fair salaries, but not us. It seems that whoever directs Gaviota hates Cubans,” complains a kitchen assistant.
The dream of one of the tourist promoters is to hook up with a foreign woman and leave the country. “My goal is to work in Miami Beach, Cancun or Punta Cana,” he says, and he runs for cover from a drizzle that barely alleviates the leaden heat.
When night falls, the lobby bar fills up, and in an adjoining theater, the guests take their chairs to see the performance of Divan Sotelo, one of the Reggae musicians in style at the moment, who was born in Havana in 1996.
At this hour, one of the maids is waiting for the worker transport that will take her home. Today was a decent day. Four convertible pesos in tips and two half-filled bottles of shampoo that a couple of Japanese tourists gave her.
Now she is looking for a way to take them out of the hotel without calling attention to herself. Tomorrow, perhaps, she will have better luck.
Martí Noticias, August 19, 2016
Translated by Regina Anavy