Varadero is no longer a prohibited city, but… / Ivan Garcia

varadero9In a country such as Cuba not known for its middle class, few are the families who can give themselves the luxury of paying between 300 and 800 convertible pesos for a three or four night package in an “all included” hotel of Varadero.

Even though an employee at a Havana tourism bureau mechanically repeats a string of numbers and statistics, to reinforce the thesis of the increase in Cuban tourists in 4 and 5-star hotels, behind the numbers are different hidden matrices.

Nothing is black and white.  Less so in Cuba, where an average citizen receives a monthly salary in pesos equivalent to 15 or 25 dollars.  According to predictions of the Ministry of Tourism for 2013 almost 1.5 million Cubans could take a dip in Varadero.

This is good news.  But the fabulous beach and the comfort of its hotels are still not within the reach of the majority.  One and a half million Cubans represents 10% of the total population.

A not so gratifying percent for a government that shouts their heads off with populist discourse in favor of the poor.  Behind a series of nationalizations, decrees and expropriation of businesses, mansions and works of art of the Cubans who generated riches, the middle class suddenly disappeared.

Many felt obligated to flee to the South of Florida.  The number of doctors and engineers on the island dropped by more than half.  With a base of voluntarism and utopias, a frenzied Che Guevara buries the rules of the economy underground.

All the summer properties that upper and middle class people possessed in Varadero became the summer homes of the heavyweights in the revolutionary state.  Other homes swelled the real estate funds of the Workers Central Union of Cuba (CTC), in charge of giving a week of rest to the most loyal and dedicated workers.

The carelessness, lack of maintenance, looting and robbery of vacationers in the hotels and villas, caused the best beach in Cuba to enter a stage of destitution.  It was pitiful to see the splendid chalets destroyed by the salty air and state apathy. Sometime in the 80s, when the soviet paradise of workers and peasants cut the subsidies to the island, Fidel Castro decided to bet on capitalist tourism.

With the fall of the Berlin wall and the shabby Soviet communism, Castro maintained his anti-Yankee discourse and continued brandishing a sermon agreeable to the ears of the dispossessed.  But, in practice, they started dismantling the “benefactor state.”

The houses owned by the unions were expropriated and renovated by the State. They rented them in dollars, the money of Castro’s enemy.  But the generals, ministers, and functionaries maintained their residences and floated their yachts in Varadero.

The “dedicated compatriots” had no other choice than to spend their vacations in the country, swim in rivers and shores or beaches without conditions.  Varadero turned into a prohibited city.  Only the inhabitants and workers of the town had access.  A police control station was put up on a bridge entering the city.

Chubby Europeans or Canadians went arm in arm with male and female prostitutes who target tourists.  The families and friends of the “worms” and “scum” also had the green light.  Cuban-Americans who, thanks to their buying power, were now received by the regime with a red carpet.

It was an era of embarrassing apartheid. The Cubans could not dine in a restaurant of a hotel or enter the room of a foreigner. We were 3rd class citizens in our own country.

Raul Castro, appointed to the presidency by his brother, overturned the absurd anti-constitutional norms.  Since 2008 any Cuban with hard currency can enjoy a stay in tourist installations anywhere in the country.

However banned zones exist.  Exclusive.  Reserved areas to hunt wild boar, golf courses and villas designated for high officials.  But they are becoming fewer. From 2008 to the date, gradually, national tourism is growing.

Varadero is the preferred enclave for the majority of Havana’s residents, for its proximity to the capital–some 80 miles–its 52 hotels and dozens of private homes for rent.

Those with less money, for 70 or 80 pesos (3 dollars) a head, rent a bus and spend eight hours on the beach.  They bring water, food and cheap rum.  These tend to be day trips arranged under the table, and the bus driver and the transport boss of some company split the profits evenly.

There are families who save the whole year and in summer rent a private home. The costs are not within reach for the average Cuban: 40 CUC (the cheapest) and 100 CUC, daily.

And then there’s the “all included” option.  The preference of those with certain purchasing power.  First of all, they reserve and pay in one of the various tourist travel agencies (Cubatur, Cubanacan, Gaviota, Isa Azul or Gran Caribe).

Each agency has a variety of offers. Cubanacan, Gran Caribe and Gaviota are the most expensive. They offer rooms in 4 and 5-star hotels.  A 3 or 4-night stay costs around 600 convertible pesos.

Cubatur and Isla Azul are the most affordable.  For 300 CUC you can enjoy 4 days of sun and sea.  The difference in price marks the quality of service.  In the hotels grouped under Cubanacan, Gran Caribe and Gaviota you find the Spanish names Melia and Barcelo and the food is more varied and elaborate.

A brief survey of 30 Cubans, pertaining to this 10% who can spend a mini vacation in Varadero, found that 14 could enjoy this thanks to money sent by family in the United States or Europe.  Eight were discreet prostitutes.  Four, worked for themselves and saved the money.

The other four Cubans had been voluntary workers overseas and with savings, or certain under the table services, such as illegal abortions or plastic surgery, this allowed them to repair their house, acquire a car and enjoy a stay in Varadero.

In the “all included” hotels it is very difficult to find a professional or worker who can manage a vacation with their miserable salary of 15 to 25 dollars a month.

With this mess in the media, Cuba has fragmented into castes. And the hotels of Varadero have been converted into recreational sites for a few.

Ivan Garcia.

Photo:  Until 1976 the city or town of Varadero, where the most famous beach in Cuba is found, was a municipality.  But since 2010 it was reincorporated into Cardenas, one of the 13 municipalities that today form the province of Matanzas.

24 August 2013