This morning we checked out of our hotel and boarded our bus to Varadero. We headed east along the north coast, past Cuba’s major onshore oil-drilling area, across its highest bridge over the Rio Bacunayagua, into Mantanzas Province. After less than a 2-hour drive we had reached Varadero, Cuba’s largest beach resort, with its slender, 15-mile long Hicacos Peninsula. Its sugary, white-sand beaches were the favorite of many world travelers in the 1920’s.
As we traveled east along the coast, two things kept coming to mind. First, the night before I read on the internet that the OFAC, Department of Treasury, was “cracking down” on “fun” tours to Cuba, and you couldn’t just come here and “lie on the beach in Varadero.” I’m fairly sure I know whom they are probably targeting—a fairly new company that advertises heavily online. Their ads seem to focus on touristical (Cuban word) travel, rather than travel with a serious purpose or theme. The main thing to keep in mind is that the Obama Administration is encouraging licensed, people-to-people travel to Cuba. OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) is implementing these policies, and seems to be doing a good job. From what I can determine, with regards to Cuba, OFAC has two distinct goals: To prevent money flowing from Americans to the Cuban government; and to facilitate money flowing from Americans to the Cuban government. They prevent money from flowing by enforcing laws restricting Americans visiting Cuba. They facilitate money flowing by issuing and overseeing licenses which allow Americans to legally visit Cuba. If this seems a bit strange, please remember that they didn’t make the laws; Congress did. (Need I say any more?) Like the IRS, OFAC shouldn’t be blamed for laws made by a pathologically dysfunctional group of mostly lawyers of both parties, who are despised by 90% of us (according to recent surveys), and with good reason.
The recent increase in Americans traveling to Cuba has led to more articles written by first-time visitors. Some of what I’ve read recently is misleading, incomplete, or simply incorrect. For example, there is nothing wrong with “having fun lying on the beach at Varadero,” providing you are on a licensed tour which happens to be booked at a beachside resort. Travelers are expected to stay in hotels, no matter where they are located), and they aren’t expected to spend 24 hours a day pursuing health care research or other themes. Just don’t have TOO much fun—that would apparently go against the spirit of the laws created by our wonderful Congress.
The other item that came to mind as we approached the peninsula was that I have received a number of critical comments from Cuba-watchers for deciding to spend three nights of our expedition in Varadero. I’ve received comments such as, “it’s not the REAL Cuba,” “the Cubans are kept away from the foreigners,” “it’s not fair that the surrounding cities and towns have a higher standard of living than the rest of Cuba because of all the tips from tourists,” etc. I’m not sure how to answer these comments, but I welcome them and I understand their points of view. On my first 6 or 7 trips with other groups, I remember often hearing comments like, “we’re in the Caribbean—where’s the beach?” Havana doesn’t really have any noteworthy beaches. It is bounded on the ocean mostly by the harbor and the Malecon walkway with a rocky ocean interface. About 15 miles to the east are the Playas del Este, which are nice, but not exceptional, and mostly local. Tourists can rent rooms there in bed-‘n-breakfast inns, and there are daily buses from Havana.
But after reading about Varadero and visiting there, I felt that it is important for Americans to understand this unique area. There is a lot of American history surrounding us. Al Capone built his beachfront home here, and used a nearby marina to run alcohol to the U.S. during the years of prohibition. The American munitions magnate Irénée Du Pont built his Mansion a few miles east along the beach. Many other wealthy Americans built beach homes nearby. Today, this area brings in the most hard currency to the Cuban government, and it is the favorite Caribbean destination of Canadians. It even has its own international airport. Cubans aren’t “kept away from tourists.” Visitors are simply required to stay in hotels, rather than in bed-‘n-breakfast inns. This was an economic decision. Guests can mingle with Cubans all they want at the hotels, in town, at the shops, in the bars, on the hiking trails, and at the beach. I feel it is important to know about Varadero to understand Cuba’s past and maybe predict its future. The second Marina is expanding, and more hotels are being built—not by Americans for Americans, but by Canadians and Chinese—mostly for future American tourists. How ironic that the Chinese are using their surplus dollars to invest in Cuban hotels so they can extract even more American dollars to send back to China. Earlier on this trip, we passed a former military academy about 20 miles outside of Havana. Our guide said it is now being used to train hundreds of visiting Chinese students in Spanish and Cuban culture.
We checked into our hotel, and later made a visit to the nearby International Clinic to hear a presentation by the medical director, go on a brief tour, and make donations. This evening, our activities included going to the beach, walking around town, listening to music, and simply relaxing while recovering from our bus ride. It’s been a long but very interesting day.