Five Nights in Cuba’s Tourist Apartheid
On a cloudy afternoon in early July, I went with my daughter to the reservation office in the basement of the Habana Libre hotel, to reserve for mid-August five nights in a hotel in Cayo Coco, in the north of Ciego Avila province, some 360 miles from the capital.
I started saving the money for it in September of last year. A tourism representative suggested the Memories Flamenco Beach Resort. The price was absolutely prohibitive for an ordinary Cuba: 1,188 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), which, when adding the cost of transportation, was nothing less than 1,290 CUC for five days of sun and beach.
On the day of departure, at four in the morning, we were there will two pieces of hand luggage and a briefcase, waiting for the bus that would take us to Cayo Coco. They told us to come to the parking lot of the Roman Fonst Sports hall, adjacent to the interprovincial bus terminal in the Plaza de la Revolution municipality.
In the dark, some twenty sleepy people ate a hurried breakfast before boarding the bus. With a punctuality rare in Cuba, the bus came to pick us up at five in the morning.
The driver, a skinny guy with a military-style haircut, recited the instructions like a prayer. “You cannot eat inside the bus. We will make two stops along the way. And those who want to urinate let me know, to stop the vehicle, as there is no bathroom on board.”
The man was in a bad mood or was simply a hurry. The bus, belonging to Gaviota, an emporium of military capitalism in Cuba, rolled down the national highway at the speed of a Formula One car.
“Sir, we want to live to enjoy our short vacation,” commented a pair of married doctors who had spent two years working in the intricate landscape of deepest Brazil.
At least for domestic tourism, or because they are cutting back, Gaviota doesn’t include a tour guide on the trip. “What for? It’s assumed Cubans should know by heart their own country,” said the assistant driver, shrugging his shoulders.
Looking out the windows from inside the bus, the landscape of the Cuban countryside is lamentable. Bony cattle wandering around hungry, the invasive marabou weed overrunning wastelands, and little islands planted in cane and bananas.
On the outskirts of Jagüey Grande the famous citric cultivation plan created by Fidel Castro no longer exists. Thousands of acres are covered in grass without a single orange grove to be seen.
“I’m not saying oranges have to cost two pesos a piece. Three years from now, given the chaos in agriculture, getting an orange will be has hard as it is not get a piece of beef,” commented Joel, owner of a small family restaurant who rented a room for three nights in Cayo Coco.
One of the mandatory stops was at a country estate owned by Guillermo Garcia, an illiterate peasant who, after the Revolution, came down from the Sierra Maestra with the rank of commander and is known for his temper tantrums and whims and who has accumulated more power than a minister, despite not having a professional education.
Former guerrilla Garcia is a kind of “socialist” landlord, cavalierly above following the country’s laws. He owns cockfight pits, dozens of thoroughbred horses and drinks Chivas Regal like it was a soft drink.
There is no information or transparency about how the founders of the olive-green Revolution manage the public money, including for the military enterprise Gaviota. Cuba is a gerontocracy of old cronies who took power at the point of a carbine and don’t believe they are accountable to the citizens.
Around three in the afternoon, the Gaviota bus arrived at the Memories Flamenco Hotel. On paper, it’s a five-star hotel. In practice, being condescending, it would be a three-star tourist center. The military authorities of the smokeless industry on the island has a few unearned stripes to their hotels in order to charge more.
Memories Flamenco is a beach resort with an architecture in tune with its surroundings and the abundant vegetation. The service, is ordinarily lousy. For Cuban tourists there is no welcoming cocktail and the strip of beachfront is full of stones and appallingly bad.
The food seems to be plastic. There isn’t much variety and the native fruits are incomprehensibly in short supply. The culinary staff tries their best, but their slowness in waiting on the table or serving water is breathtaking.
Don’t come to this spa to eat fish or seafood. The main menu item, sliced chicken, eggs in all its variation, mutton, pork and low quality beef drowning in sauces and fat.
Cuban tourists are no longer used to what it was like before, loaded down with bags of food and dishes of meat looking like five story buildings.
Of course, from the moment they get off the bus, there is a marathon of drinking beer, rum or whiskey. Although the foreigners aren’t far behind. Especially the Russians.
“There are opportunities to undertake scientific experiments. Breakfast alcohol, lunch alcohol and dinner alcohol. I don’t know where they put so much liquor,” says a bartender.
The hotel’s recreation activities are varied and attractive. The rooms comfortable and the chambermaids strive to be creative in making up the beds.
It is always healthy to rest after a year of work. But paying the equivalent of five years’ salary of a professional for a five-night stay is not within reach of too many Cubans.
That’s the bad news. The good is, on 13 August, Fidel Castro’s birthday, nobody in the hotel celebrated the date nor was there a media barrage recalling the ninety-year-old ex-guerrilla.
It’s something to consider. In tourist facilities that operate “all inclusive” there are not billboards in support of the government. Something that the Cuban guests appreciate.
Hispanopost, 18 August 2016