14ymedio, Havana, 29 November 2022 — Though the Fidel Castro Ruz Center celebrated its first anniversary on November 25, the museum has little to celebrate. Its website states that the facility, located on the corner of Paseo Avenue and 11th Street in Havana’s Vedado district, has received some 77,000 visitors from 140 countries in the 365 days that it has been open.
Government media outlets’ own numbers, however, are at odds with these figures. On Friday Escambray reported that the museum has seen 2,646 foreigners from more than 70 countries. Adding to the confusion, Prensa Latina quoted its director, René Gonzalez, saying that “more than 80,000 people” have visited the center.
Even assuming that the most optimistic figure of 80,000 is correct, it seems clear that the museum has not attracted a lot of interest, either from tourists or from Cubans. The lack of statistical transparency in Cuba prevents an adequate assessment of the contradictory numbers. But if the Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara is any guide, the late guerrilla leader is putting his former comandante to shame.
According to official figures, during its first twenty years of operation, more than five million people visited the memorial where the government claims the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara are buried. In 2019, the state-run press reported that, in the two decades following the inauguration of the sculptural complex dedicated to the late Argentinian revolutionary, it received an average of 684 visitors a day. In 2016, a year when four million tourists visited the island, official sources reported that the Villa Clara monument received 374,900 visitors, which translates to 1,024 people a day.
With respect to the Fidel Castro Ruz Center, if one assumes the highest official figure of 80,000 is correct, that means that 219 curious individuals a day would have visted Castro’s shrine. This presumably would include students visiting the center as part of their program of studies.
The figure pales in comparison to the Santiago de Cuba mausoleum where Castro’s remains lie. The official communist party newspaper Granma reported that, in the first two months after the former president’s ashes were interred in the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, 150,000 people — both Cubans and tourists — visited the site, an average of 2,500 people a day.
Although 2022 has so far proven to be a disastrous year for tourism, with barely 1,198,402 foreign visitors as of the end of October, the comparatively small number of those curious enough to visit Castro’s “cathedral,” as Escambray dubbed the museum a few days ago, is striking, especially considering that it is in the capital and admission is free. Moreover, given the fascination that the revolutionary leader holds for a large part of the world’s population, the small number of visitors must have come as a surprise.
The museum is located in a mansion built in the last decade of the 19th century for a captain who fought in the war of 1895. It is surrounded by a large garden which contains more than 11,000 plants from Cuba as well as other countries, such as Venezuela and Argentina, that were important to Castro. Its interior houses a large museum dedicated to the life of Fidel “from his childhood to his physical demise,” as one guide working there described it to 14ymedio.
Its walls display objects and images of Castro during the Revolution as well as interactive exhibits where visitors can read and listen to writings and long speeches by their leader as well as hear tributes to him from famous like-minded personalities.
But the big mystery is how much the museum cost and who paid for it. At its official opening, which was attended by the international press, the head of Documentary Heritage Preservation for the Palace of the Revolution, Alberto Albariño, refused to answer this question when one journalist posed it. The only thing he would say was that a substantial part of the costs were covered by “donations that were received from other [unnamed] countries” and that, therefore, it had not required a large expenditure of state funds.
A source at the Office of the Historian of Havana told 14ymedio that part of the money came from Saudi Arabia. “It was supposed to be used for housing but they took some of it for the center and also for the Capitol,” she says. In 2017, Cuba received a 26.6 million dollar loan from the Saudi Fund for Development to be used by the Rehabilitation and Construction of Social Works Program, from which funds for the pharaonic project were set aside.
The independent digital news platform Cubanet also reported that executives from the Iberostar and Meliá hotel chains provided generous donations to get the museum up and running. One official went so far as to say that Miguel Fluxá, the president of Iberostar, provided five million euros himself in one lump sum and even offered to ship materials to the island that were difficult to obtain due to the embargo. The company is reported to have put up roughly twelve million euros in total, a little more than Meliá (the size of whose donation was not specified) and much more than the French firm Accor, which put in another two million.
There is also the money contributed by ICAP (Institute of Friendship between Peoples), which Cubanet estimates could be roughly fifteen million dollars. The current return on investment must certainly be demoralizing.
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