This is one of my favorite places in Cuba, but I have received a lot of criticism for bringing groups here. Many knowledgeable Cuba fanatics feel this isn’t the “Real Cuba.” Is South Beach the “Real Florida?” Is the Kona Coast the “Real Hawaii?” I understand why I’m being criticized, and I to a certain degree I agree with what I think they are trying to say. If travelers want to come to this beautiful island, travel inland, and sleep with the local camposinos in the cane fields, that’s their right.
The goal of the expedition I designed is to enhance the people-to-people philosophy encouraged by the U.S. Government. I’ve considered what I would want my family or good friends to see and experience while on a first-time visit to Cuba. Keeping in mind the theme of health care in Cuba, I’m providing a variety of activities and visits that I hope present an accurate view of the people, culture, and geography of this island. We’ve seen a variety of places—from the capitol city of Havana to a mountainous national park, from small villages in the countryside to a seaside resort. And we’ve done this without making extensive journeys, stopping at different hotels every other night. There is a great variety of tours and trips to Cuba, especially now that the Department of Treasury has caught-up with the license renewal process. I hope my readers will investigate other programs relating to Cuba and find one they feel comfortable with. You can get started by clicking on “Other Tours” on my website.
Varadero is very important to understanding Cuba. After the U.S. took over control of Cuba from Spain in 1898, many wealthy Americans flocked to the beaches here. Al Capone built a seaside home, and used it as a headquarters to smuggle rum into the U.S. during Prohibition. (Too bad we can’t learn from the past. Many Americans understand that outlawing items wanted by large numbers of people always results in corruption, increased danger to society, and very wealthy, powerful criminals. Just ask the people of today’s Mexico how America’s War on Drugs is working out for them.)
From the 1920’s onward to the Cuban revolution, Varadero was considered to be one of the top beach resort areas in the world. Many Americans built vacation homes here, sailing or flying across the Florida Straits, sometimes just for the weekend. By the 1950’s Varadero had a casino and it became a favorite hangout for Hollywood stars and mobsters. After the revolution, tourism was de-emphasized, but in the 1990’s, after the Soviet Union vaporized and the Russians stopped supporting the economy, Cuba began a crash program to bring hard currency from tourists back to the island as a matter of economic and political survival.
Varadero today represents the single largest source of money for the Government. (Some people believe that even more money is brought and sent by relatives in Florida—possibly up to two billion USD annually—but that money is given directly to individuals. It circulates in the economy and makes its way to the government eventually.) Varadero has its own international airport. Because of the tourist industry here, the surrounding communities have a noticeable higher standard of living than in the rest of Cuba overall. I believe that tourist centers like Varadero, along with the Black Market, that help educate Cubans in market economics, supply-and-demand, etc. They are more than ready to embrace a “socialist” system like China’s: work hard, pay taxes, don’t criticize the government too much, and it will leave them alone. I believe Cuba would thrive under such a system, as individual effort would be rewarded rather than punished, and the government would hopefully become increasingly irrelevant. When that happens, perhaps they can send advisers to the U.S. to teach us how to fix our slumping economy. It’s slightly amusing to fantasize about a future where desperate Americans climb onto inner tubes and rafts, and launch themselves into the ocean off Miami Beach. They would paddle south towards Havana, with the hope of finding a job in a more vibrant economy! The Castros won’t live forever, and the young are VERY restless; most are totally fed-up with the current system.
Okay-okay—enough propaganda and indoctrination. Today we rode over to see Al Capone’s home, now known as Casa de Al Restaurant. We had coffee and drinks on his beachside patio, and tried to envision what it must have been like in the 1930’s with millions of dollars being pumped into the nearby community and its marina.
We stopped at a Western Union office so that two of our travelers could pick up extra money sent from California. The others visited nearby shops and walked around this beach town. We also spent time at the Du Pont Mansion, built in 1926 by American industrialist Irenee Du Pont. An adjacent guest house was converted by the Castro government—not converted to housing for the poor–but converted into the Clubhouse for the spectacular Varadero Country Club. The golf course follows the middle of this narrow peninsula for several miles, with views of Cardenas Bay to the south, and the Straits of Florida to the north. (This was yet another opportunity to remind ourselves that we were visiting a “communist” country.)
We rode out to the far end of the peninsula, where numerous cranes signaled hotel construction projects by companies from Spain, Canada, Brazil, and China. A third marina is also under construction. Of course American companies should have had their share of these multi-billion dollar projects, but the U.S. embargo just keeps getting in the way. I keep reminding myself that the goal of the embargo was to collapse the Cuban economy, and to drive the Castros from power. They’ve remained in control for over 50 years, so perhaps we shouldn’t rush to judgment. I’m fairly certain they will not be in power 50 years from now, so that will obviously prove the logic of the embargo. Then the State Department, the C.I.A., and the radical exiles in Miami will be able to “save face” and claim a victory in this battle of ideas.
The rest of today we just took it easy and met informally in discussion groups at the bar and on the beach. Overall our travelers seem really happy with their experiences so far. They continue to praise the services of our Cuban guide, who is very knowledgeable and speaks excellent English. (He is also fluent in French, Italian, and of course, Spanish.)
Tomorrow we will visit the local hospital, tour the facility, talk with the staff, and make our medical donations. We’re looking forward to this visit.