This morning—Saturday—we visited a street program for children in town. There was athletic competition, dancing, music, food, and lots of proud parents taking photos of their kids and grandkids. Once again, we were honored guests. Afterwards, we went for coffee and drinks at Al Capone’s beachside home. (It is now a restaurant: Casa de Al.) It is located on an especially beautiful part of the beach. There are no high rises in the area–just 2-story beach homes that were formerly owned mostly by wealthy Americans. Many of these homes can be rented by large families or for reunions or special celebrations. We watched the pelicans diving into the water to catch fish. Fishermen were net-pulling for baitfish. It was a lovely place to relax and enjoy the ocean.
We had some extra time to shop for gifts in a nearby street market. I reassured everybody that they could take anything they bought back to the U.S., in spite of much misinformation to the contrary.
We then rode down beach to the spectacular DuPont Mansion Xanadu. It was built in 1926 by the American millionaire Irenee Dupont. The location and structure showed us an example of what could be built in the roaring ’20’s with unlimited wealth and creativity. It is now a unique 3-story boutique luxury hotel with 6 rooms for rent. The beach in front is a favorite location for weddings for Canadians, as well as for locals. The former guest house is now the clubhouse for the nearby championship golf course. (This doesn’t sound like a pinko commie aarrangement, does it?)
We then rode our bus around the east part of the Hicacos Peninsula. We could see many cranes in place, helping build hotels financed by our best ally—Canada. Varadero is one of the most important economic zones in Cuba. It is the favorite area of Canadians, who built an international airport nearby. (They also built the new, modern international airport in Havana.) One of our travelers asked me what will happen when the Americans begin coming to Cuba in droves. My answer: “They will undoubtedly have a great time, meet some nice locals, and wonder why they and their friends didn’t understand how badly the US government had been screwing-over Cuba all these years.”
There seems to be this underlying concern among some US visitors that once Americans arrive in droves, everything will somehow get worse. They see all the hotels being built, and worry that “the island will be paved over.” When tourism was being pushed in the 1990’s (after the Russians could no longer afford to subsidize with billions of dollars in aid), Cuba made some blunders in the tourism industry. (An example is when they built upscale hotels west of Havana in what are essentially residential areas.) In recent years, they have learned about tourism from Canadian, Brazilian, and European professionals, and now seem to understand the industry much better. By building more hotels in Varadero, they have concentrated tourists in this semi-autonomous area. This way they won’t have to build a new high-rise on every one of Cuba’s remaining 400 beaches.
While attending social functions in Varadero, our group had a glimpse into Cuba’s near future. Because of all the wealth generated by tourism, locals live at a noticeably higher economic level than much of the rest of the country. Many seem to be functioning at a middle-class or even upper-middle class level. In contrast, Havana is in a different situation. It is a large city of about two million. The infrastructure and transportation systems will need massive updating. There is not much room for new hotels near the historic Old Havana district. Currently there are several large older buildings that are being converted to hotels with funding from the Chinese. But once Americans begin visiting in significant numbers, the prices in that area will skyrocket. The Cubans have been studying capitalism carefully, and they clearly understand the law of Supply and Demand. They are also encouraging the development of more casas particulares–private bed-and-breakfast inns–to handle the increased demand for lodging.
The rest of the afternoon we spent researching the immediate area around the hotel, especially the beach. I reminded our fellow travelers that Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio once commented that Americans are not supposed to visit Cuba “just to have fun at the beach.” I warned everybody to not have too much fun, or they might be in violation of several international travel regulations. I also re-assured them that after 8 days in Cuba, they know far more about the country and its current situation than anybody in a small group of disproportionately powerful, mean-spirited and vindictive Cuban-Americans. Rubio has NEVER even been to Cuba, yet he is often quoted as an “expert.” His very narrow perspective apparently comes from comments made by other equally mean-spirited and vindictive Cuban-Americans who may have left Cuba when they were just children. A couple years ago, Senator Rubio said that his parents “fled the terrible Castro Regime” to come to America. Then somebody checked, and discovered that his parents came to the US in 1957, when Castro was still hiding in the hills, and not widely perceived to be a threat. Oops!
After an afternoon and early evening filled with serious research, we met up again at 9pm at one of our hotel’s several restaurants: the Fuerteventura International. We listened to a string quartet as we enjoyed our fish, steak, and lobster. Thus ended another remarkable day in Cuba.