Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cubans Enjoy Luxury Resorts

After long ban, some Cubans sample tourism luxury

Fri Aug 14, 2009 By Esteban Israel

VARADERO, Cuba (Reuters) - Floating, cocktail drink in hand, in the pool of a five-star hotel in Cuba, Alexis basks in a holiday experience that for years was out of reach for him in his own homeland.

The pastel-colored hotel buildings, the well-ordered gardens, the turquoise waters and the perpetually smiling waiters -- all just 84 miles east of his home in Havana. So near, and yet for many years, so far away.

Until last year, Cuba's communist government prevented its citizens from entering hotels reserved for hard currency-paying foreign tourists. It argued that tourism was a strategic revenue sector and that widening access would create inequalities in a socialist society, where most earn inconvertible Cuban pesos.

The tourist hotels, whose services, shops and restaurants are a world away from the hardships and shortages experienced by most Cubans, remained largely out of bounds for ordinary citizens. This prohibition angered most Cubans, who considered it made them second-class citizens in their own homeland.

But when President Raul Castro took over from his ailing older brother Fidel Castro last year, one of his first acts was to end the ban and open all facilities to Cubans. The change was widely popular even though most islanders still can not afford to stay at the tourist hotels.

"Let me tell you, this is great," said Alexis, an employee of a state-run Havana hard currency store who declined to give his full name, as his girlfriend returned from the bar with more "mojito" cocktails -- a tropical mix of lime juice, Cuban rum, and mint leaves.

In the years immediately following the 1959 revolution, Cuban workers were allowed into the island's premier resorts, yet the need to earn much-needed hard currency led to the development again of a more exclusive foreign tourism sector, especially over the last 15 years.

But the global financial crisis has taken a big bite out of Cuba's international tourism, so the Cuban travel industry, seeking to boost occupation in half-empty hotels, has begun offering reduced-price package deals to Cubans.

At $70 a night for an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, Cuba's premier beach resort, prices are well below what foreigners pay, but still out of reach for most Cubans struggling to make ends meet on state salaries that average less than $20 a month.

According to Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, Cubans have accounted for 10 percent of occupancy at Cuba's high-end hotels this summer.


The opening of a domestic market is giving more visibility to an emerging class of wealthier Cubans who have hard currency in their pockets and are eager to sport the colored wristbands of the fancy all-inclusive hotels.

The new Cuban internal tourists are professionals, technicians working for foreign joint ventures and people receiving dollar remittances from relatives living abroad.

"Before a foreigner would ask us about Varadero and we did not know what to say," recalls Roberto Garcia, a 43-year-old engineer who arrived from Havana with his family of six.

"Now, if you have the money, you can do it."

Without precise official figures on revenue from internal Cuban tourism, it is difficult to gauge just how much of a boost this new access is giving to the cash-strapped economy.

But to the extent that Cuban tourist spending increases the flow of dollars to the island -- by, for example, family members in Miami financing a trip to Varadero for their Cuban relatives -- it is helpful, said Cuba expert Paolo Spadoni.

"Financing from abroad might also play quite an important role," said Spadoni, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University's Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.

Some Cubans interviewed on a recent trip to Varadero said expenses were paid by relatives visiting from the United States, a flow which is up 20 percent since U.S. President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions in April on Cuban-Americans visiting the island.

But Obama has made clear he will keep a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in place for the moment to press Cuban leaders to improve human rights and political freedoms. Havana, while agreeing to talks on migration and other issues, has said it will not make "concessions" for improved ties.

With the help of foreign investors, Cuba reluctantly developed its tourism industry in the mid-1990s in response to the deep economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief benefactor and ally for decades.

"All the money made here is for the people," proclaims a banner at the entrance to Varadero, a 12-mile-long peninsula of white-sand beaches lined with big hotels.

This slogan reflects the long-used government argument that tourism revenues are employed to benefit all of Cuba's people by helping to pay for free health care and education.

Cuba has some 55,000 hotel rooms managed by the state, many in association with foreign hotel heavyweights such as Sol Melia of Spain, the French firm Accor or Jamaica's Sandals Resorts.

Attracted by its beaches and enduring revolutionary mystique, 2.3 million foreign tourists, mostly from U.S. allies Canada and in Europe, visited Cuba last year, which brought the island $2.5 billion in revenues and made tourism one of Cuba's main sources of hard currency.

President Raul Castro said in a speech earlier this month that the number of international tourists is up, but revenues are down compared to last year.

Both numbers are expected to grow if the U.S. Congress approves a proposed bill that would allow all Americans to freely visit Cuba, currently prohibited by the U.S. embargo against the island 90 miles from Key West, Florida.

But for now, Cuba is looking to Cubans to keep its hotels humming, and people like Alexis are happy to help.

"This is just fantasy. Real life starts again on Monday when we get back to Havana," he said between sips of a last "mojito" as the sun set over Varadero.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Pascal Fletcher)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Anti-corruption Campaign

Cleaning House in Cuba

Posted By the editor On August 10, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

By Circles Robinson
Unity, Firmness & Victory is once again a battle cry, this time to fight corruption. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, August 10 - The Cuban government’s answer to the rampant theft and corruption problem plaguing the socialist economy is a new comptroller’s office, something that exists in many countries.

The lax administrative and accounting controls present in much of the country’s state-run economy are no secret to anyone, much less to the nation’s leaders.

With a major drive taking place to improve work efficiency and productivity and to cut imports at a time of international economic crisis, confronting a problem that has permeated all strata of Cuban society is an urgent but equally difficult task.

President Raul Castro sounded the alarm when he took office in February 2008, when he made it known that tolerance of misuse of state resources was on the out. Since then, little guys scraping to get by, on up to several of the country’s top ministers and political figures in much larger illicit operations, have fallen from grace after being accused of theft or corruption.

The president has made battling such un-revolutionary behavior a priority, while also recognizing that low salaries and a lack of incentives for greater initiative have affected job motivation and efficiency.

Trusting more in the businesses run by the military, Castro has put several former Army administrators in key positions in the civilian state economy.

Nonetheless, neither the military nor the civilian economy are held accountable to the public as neither the workers nor the general population are privy to the economic performance information that would make possible an educated evaluation of efficiency.

Instead, Cubans are accustomed to being told to blindly trust the judgment of their leaders and the administrators they in turn appoint to manage public resources.

The other catch-all factor has been the ever present “enemy to the north” with its blockade and other attempts to strangle the island’s economy, which serve corrupt officials as a shield.

The New Watch Dog

Last weekend the government announced that the Comptroller’s Office - conceived as a watch dog over the use of state funds and resources - would be a place where citizens can file complaints on such abuses and expect to get action. The office is headed by legislator Gladys Maria Brejerano Portela, just appointed a week ago.
Castro has put several former military administrators in key positions in the civilian state economy. Photo: Caridad

Castro has put several former military administrators in key positions in the civilian state economy. Photo: Caridad

Created by the legislature, the office will receive and follow up on complaints filed by citizens on the misuse of public resources and other illegalities and acts of corruption, said Jose Luis Toledo Santander, president of the parliament’s Constitutional and Juridical Affairs Committee.

Virtually every Cuban, foreign resident or visitor is in one way or another regularly taken in by the different income-supplement scams that have grown to become as normal as rice and beans for most people, whether they like it or not.

In everyday life, very few people even bother to complain about being overcharged or getting taken on the weight or quality of a product. Instead, they often show understanding or even sympathy toward whoever is doing the taking to make a sorely needed buck.

At the same time, many people speculate privately that for so much theft to take place so rampantly on the ground level, there have to be accomplices higher up - from supervisors to managers, to executives, on up to ministers.

Will people now take advantage of the opportunity to file a complaint that supposedly could bring some action? Or will they continue to avoid picking a fight with a boss or higher up that in the past has often had the cards stacked in their favor?

Article printed from Havana

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