Ivan Garcia, 2 September 2015 — After working two years in a remote part of Africa, Migdalia, a pediatrician, carefully considered the summer vacation packages available in Cuba. In the end she opted to stay three nights in a five-star hotel in Cayo Santa Maria, on the northern coast of Villa Clara, 460 kilometers east of Havana.
“Although I am a professional, I’ve never stayed in a first-class hotel. I used most of the money I saved in Africa to renovate my kitchen and repair the roof of my house. My family and I decided to spend the rest on a stay at a tourist resort, which turned out to be quite expensive. A three-night ’all-inclusive’ cost us 996 CUC, including transportation. That’s the equivalent of 25,000 pesos, as much as the cost of a plane ticket to Madrid,” she says smiling as she and her family wait for the bus that will take them to the hotel.
Since the spring of 2008, when General Raul Castro granted permission for Cubans to stay at resort hotels — something that at the time was only available to foreigners — there has been an increase in the number of domestic tourists every season.
The number of local tourists is expected to reach one million according to state tourist bureau forecasts. Their profiles are diverse.
Aimara, a housewife, spent four nights at a hotel in Cayo Coco accompanying her boyfriend — a man from the Venezuelan state of Falcon who works for a branch of PDVSA, his country’s state petroleum monopoly — in Cienfuegos province.
“Thanks to my boyfriend, my daughter and I have been able to enjoy a nice vacation. Before, our options would have been renting a cabin in the countryside or spending the weekend at the beach. The difference is striking if you take into account the air-conditioned hotel rooms, all there is to eat and drink, international TV channels and excellent service. It feels like being in another country,” she says.
This is the ninth time that Nuria, a hooker, has stayed in a hotel on the Cuban tourist circuit. “The first time was with a Canadian. Now I’ll be staying with an Italian in Cayo Guillermo. It’s true that prices are prohibitive for the vast majority of the population, but in my case I am not the one paying,” she says.
For three years Adela saved up her money for a three-night stay at a hotel on the keys north of Villa Clara. “I am a manicurist,” she says. “I have a small business where I scraped together enough pesos to pay for an ’all inclusive.’ It’s great. It’s a shame Cuban workers can’t enjoy this. In Cuba the differences between those who have hard currency and those who live just on their salaries or pensions keeps getting bigger.”
Although only ten percent of Cubans can enjoy a brief stay in an “all-inclusive” hotel, the amenities they enjoy, the amount of food they eat and beer they drink have become a topic of conversation among friends and neighbors.
In a nation without political freedoms or democracy, with a chaotic infrastructure and poverty-level wages, it is frivolities that capture the imagination of its citizens, who prefer to talk about consumer brands, football matches and vacations in luxury hotels than the civil rights denied them.
The behavior of some compatriots at resort hotels can on occasion be embarrassing. One seven-person family, including the children, were seen stuffing all the food they could into plastic shopping bags at the buffet table of the Melia Las Dunas Hotel in Cayo Santa Maria.
“We’ve seen less of this type of behavior in the last two or three years. As a Cuban I can understand it. If you never have beef, seafood, good quality fish, cheese or cold cuts at home, you get carried away when you are at a place like this,” says a buffet table cook. “As employees, we don’t say anything to them but the managers do. The employees take home all the food we can or sell it on the black market.”
As Selma, a manager at the military-run Gaviota travel chain, explains, “Many Cubans are able to stay at four or five-star hotels because of the overseas remittances they receive or because they are invited by family members living in the United States or Europe. But you cannot ignore that the fact that the number of Cubans with successful private businesses has grown dramatically and some of them stay up to three times a year at tourist resorts.”
Although a three-night stay is the equivalent of two-years’ salary for a doctor, Migdalia, who worked for twenty-four months in Africa, believes it is worth it.
“Since our salaries do not allow us to travel as tourists to other countries, some of us can have an oasis of abundance at the resorts in our own country. But I realize that most Cubans still have not benefitted from the economic reforms,” she says.
The government of Fidel Castro created a nation based on equality and collectivism. In exchange for a doctrinaire education and universal health coverage, he socialized poverty.
The state used to be the institution that rewarded or punished. Getting an apartment, a house on the beach or an Aurika washing machine depended on the degree of loyalty shown to the regime.
Now all that has changed. Public finances are in the red. Tourism in Cuba is an expensive luxury, to say nothing of tourism overseas. Only those with the deep pockets of the military bourgeoisie can afford such an option. Only guys like Antonio Castro and a handful him.