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7 June 1999

Buy girls and keep Castro in power

Cuba is the new tourist destination. But every visitor's dollar reinforces Fidel's dictatorship

By George Lucas

Even the most famous bars can tend the wounds. Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio is, Hemingway apart, one of the finest. Its deft corners and cramped intimacy are what the hungry Cuba pilgrim craves: a place to reflect, to be far away, to rekindle the soul, to let the suckling pig and red wine weave their well-crafted spells. Beyond its doors, decades of watchfulness have safeguarded the city’s unique cultural extravagance. While most edifices remain famously neglected, the calm, no-faking-it beauty and a sublime freedom from business bustle and advertising creates an air that is unfettered, keen, zestful. Not for nothing have significant splinters of the world’s elite forsaken Tuscany – so 1995 – and adopted the ageing Fidel Castro’s tiny fiefdom as their private hideaway.

But their gaff has been spectacularly, ballistically blown. Suddenly everyone knows about Cuba. Scarcely a week passes in Havana without another new multinational business venture being announced, another operator heralding another all-inclusive first-world-friendly holiday place. Last year more than a million foreign visitors arrived, including 186,000 Italians, 148,000 Germans, a gargantuan 215,000 Canadians – and 40,000 Brits. A whopping 80,000 of the latter are expected this year. Urban soiree chat will never be the same again.

Some take this badly. Have a heart. Everyone deserves some fun in the sun. What is more disturbing about Cuba’s movement from secret society to mass tourist status is the likely demolition of the positive feats – cultural and social – that Castro and Che Guevara’s revolution did achieve. The rush is on: such is the corporate frenzy surrounding Cuba this year that even Havana’s much-famed cultural tranquillity is under threat. The men from the world of construction are arriving, their shadows looming long over those famed, peerless tenements. Even the most dedicated officials cannot resist their financial seduction techniques for ever. In the streets the sharpest chat debates how to tease most cash the quickest from the new visitors. There and throughout the land the full blast of the artistic – and touchingly human – experience may soon be definitely over.

The Cubans deserve better. The switch to seaside garishness is not for love, but to escape back-splintering bankruptcy, born of, among other factors, continuing US sanctions and the implosion of former allies. Throughout the island, once-proud hospitals and schools have been long denuded of the rudest basics. Surgeons are periodically left with one bar of soap to survive a month. Items of stationery can be rarer in classrooms than renditions of the “Internationale” in Third Way think-tanks. The shell-shocked national finances have finally forced the country, like an aged, penniless actress who swore she’d never tread the boards again, back on the world’s tourist stage.

It’s effective. The marketing is premier-league class – and shameless, too. Not only do various operators – not necessarily encouraged by the Cubans, but not always drummed out of town for it either – make unambiguous promises of the most stunning girls on earth. Even the more respectable guidebooks are at it. It seems that few could resist “beautiful women who are proud of their ample hips . . .” or locals fond of “quick conversations spiked with sexual innuendo . . .” Full-page photos show the best Cuba offers, resplendent in loosely fitting top, denim shorts, smile on her face, ready, along with her ample hips, to meet you. Yes, you. Even you. Slightly more coy promoters simply offer “a very good cheap holiday” of infinite booze and almost infinite sun and clubbing.

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Once on Cuban soil, it is to the soaring towers of Varadero to which so many are drawn, not to Havana’s looks. In Varadero, safely deep inside an entire resort habitually barring entry to most locals, holidays are spent clutching plastic beer mugs without necessarily meeting any Cubans at all – apart from the staff, many of whom landed the job (with the all-important dollar tips) only through enormous, family-budget-breaking bribes.

For almost all concerned it is an intoxicatingly profitable business; even the Chinese have invested. The frequent power-cuts enforced by national penury are directed far away, towards places where the locals live. The lights stay on. The music keeps playing. As one man put it, “you could almost imagine you were not in Cuba at all”. If you ask nicely, they’ll organise your wedding as well.

The world economy at work, some might say. But it is rather worse than that. The first dark betrayal behind Castro’s dash for cash is that it returns Cuba precisely to the 1950s client status which enabled his revolution in the first place.

For it was under his predecessor Fulgencio Batista that Cuba became the world’s rich kids’ escape zone where everything – every casino, hotel, brothel and night-club – was run by Americans, for Americans. The young freshly minted Castro reaped every advantage he could, fanning every atom of local disgust to beat his rival. In power he promised the country would never again be a playground for the rich and beautiful. Some hope. Now the aim is two million visitors a year. Cuba has come full circle.

The second, even more unspeakable truth is that every tourist dollar helps bankroll the dictatorship through its dotage: Cuba is thus well under way to being trashed by the worst of both communism and capitalism combined. Dissidents are finding the going not easier, but tougher.

This has been no Velvet Revolution, no Berlin Wall demolition, not even a minor-league Prague Spring. This is a later, more sinister version of Marxist-Leninist mutation in which the regime stays put – while the golden arches of the burger brigades loom ever closer. The importation of paying guests swilling cocktails in beach shorts has enabled the state security machines to function even better. Hundreds of dissidents remain behind bars. Genuinely fair trials for political defendants remain rare. Betrayal, psychiatric incarceration, denunciation – all the staples of Soviet-patented political jack-booting – continue.

Even for those not politically suspect, life remains near impossible. Some cab drivers and restaurateurs – often highly skilled medics and technicians who couldn’t make ends meet – have done well, providing they have escaped harassment from kickback-hungry local officials. Castro has saved his apparatus from immediate bankruptcy, but for the majority the returns for their revolution’s creeping cancellation have been meagre. They remain, as A A Gill notes, still marooned in a land where opportunities remain infinitesimal except for the party-connected few. As the tourists pile in, many wish to do nothing more than pile out. Thousands still die each year either drowned, starved or eaten by sharks eager to taste their flesh as they topple from rafts aimed more in hope than conviction at the Florida coastline.

Repression. Bankruptcy. A utopia people risk excruciating death to escape. And now a bare-faced surrender to every gaudy bauble of capitalist consumerism. This, after four decades, leaves Castro fixed in history’s headlights as a foul mockery of the man who led arguably the most romanticised revolt of the century.

Some, such as his friend Gabriel GarcIa Marquez, are alert to his self-image as the hero “there to win”. No one “in this world could be a worse loser”.

But such iron now risks ridicule. True, even as ever more punters lean towards T-shirts of the “I drank the revolution” genre, for him the army fatigues remain a staple. But these, too, give way too often to the sober, investor-friendly business suit. He schmoozes. He crawls. This spring he invited none other than Milton Friedman to a conference on economic globalisation. It is a pathetic, abject spectacle.

This cannot be what the younger self dreamt his final years would bring. More fitting, surely, to have died in a guerrilla shoot-out, as the young self-proclaimed idealist should? What would his old comrade Che – who at least died young and was hailed by Sartre as “the most complete human being of our age” – say now? Far better at last to end this charade, which has brought so much misery, so much poverty, so much repression of the soul to so many. It is time for Fidel Castro to prove he is a bigger man than we ever imagined.

He should open the jails, organise fair elections, press for the end of sanctions. No other option exists. In the Marxist-Leninist 20th-century pantheon there are no more medals to win. If he waits to die or be forced out, the tidal wave of burgers and baseball caps will destroy everything he achieved. The much-vaunted social services will go. The more brutish of his foreign business partners will exploit his people without remorse. It is time to accept reality: never again will his troops act as liberators in the latest African civil war.

It is time to bid farewell to all of that: all the spying, the terrorisation, the torture. It is time even – dare he consider it – to trust his people to determine their own future. For in their good sense and expectations he can savour his most noble achievements, not least the best literacy rate in Latin America and a lower child mortality rate than the US.

Those he will leave behind him are in the main pretty cool, redoubtable, spirited sorts. They are no one’s fools. They are equipped to survive.

If he could have the wit to act, the repeal of sanctions would follow. It is resoundingly sought by American firms who, given sufficient proof of sincere intentions, could easily defeat the rump Cuban-exile lobby.