Cuba: Waiting and Hoping for the Cruise Ships / Ivan Garcia
Iván García, 9 November 2015 — One warm evening in September, a scrapping brigade arrived from Habaguanex* and, in a little more than two hours, dismantled the aluminum tubes and awnings of three open-air bars on the Avenida del Puerto, where habaneros and tourists drank beer or ate fried chicken among the ambling musicians and prostitutes on the hunt.
The smell of fritanga** combined with the street-sellers’ cries and the nauseating odors from the contaminated Havana Bay. The spillage of waste matter was the pretext for the mandarins, who control the strongbox in the old part of the city, to disassemble the gastronomic shed, a couple of outhouses and, in passing, put some three dozen workers out of work. But the real reasons were something else.
Let’s call him “Mario,” a bureaucrat from the Habaguanex corporation, and he says: “The businesses adjacent to the port are controlled by military companies, who receive rent and fees from the old warehouse of San José, which has been converted into a handicraft market and even hostels, cafes, restaurants and shops. There is a master plan*** for converting the port into a tourist plaza that would offer recreation facilities and services for the cruise ships.”
In 2014, another old market in the port zone was transformed into a beer hall. And the inauguration of a maritime esplanade just in front of the Alameda de Paula is imminent.
They also have repaired and expanded sections of the road, planted palm trees and put up modern lighting on the street median. The area where the mobile bars were has been cleared to have more space for future tourists.
“They’re going to relocate them to other sites. They don’t want the view of the Bay entrance and the Christ of Casablanca to be obscured. By 2016 they hope to have more than 70,000 tourists from the cruise ships,” pointed out Mario.
The Regime is betting a lot on cruise-ship tourism in Cuba. President Obama, according to his roadmap, is interested in empowering private entrepreneurs and regular Cubans. But to the autocracy, only those businesses where the State is the manager are important.
Or to be more exact, the military businesses. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, Raúl Castro’s son-in-law (although some rumors indicate that he separated from Raúl’s daughter, Deborah), is a kind of tropical Martin Bormann, who handles the treasure of the business network of the Army, which controls the holding company GAESA****.
There is no way to probe into or know the volume of money they handle and how these funds are used: It’s a State secret. The generals, now converted into businessmen, have substituted white guayaberas for their uniforms. Eighty percent of the Council of State and the principal posts in the national economy are controlled by the Armed Forces.
After the U.S. Department of Treasury granted licenses to authorized cruise companies so they can go into Cuban ports, the falcons rubbed their hands together.
Raúl Castro is an expert at camouflaging his intentions. He also has been clever in dismantling, stone by stone, his brother’s pernicious voluntarism. He has changed the furniture, but he keeps up the décor.
Like Fidel Castro, he has boosted parallel mechanisms in the economy and the private reserves where the budgets are not discussed in the docile local parliament.
Castro the First was a staunch enemy of cruise ships, and he prohibited them in 2005. He argued that a horde of drunken tourists with little money would dirty up the Bay (even more than it is) with beer bottles and other garbage.
But Commando Raúl Castro thinks differently. The mid-term plan is for U.S. tourists to become an engine of growth that will catapult Cuba into the greatest tourist spot in the Caribbean.
But the present hotel infrastructure isn’t satisfying demand. “Every time a cruise ship comes into port, the beer, rum and mineral water disappear from the shops in Old Havana. We’re hallucinating if we think that four or five million Americans will come to the island, when we haven’t invested enough in lodging or services,” points out Fernando, a tourism officer.
December 17, 2015 — the day the United States and Cuba announced a resumption of relations — left in shreds Castro’s propaganda apparatus. For decades, it sold the narrative that the Revolution was of the people, by the people and for the people.
But a group of measures dictated by Raúl Castro put it into question. If anyone has been the big loser from the timid economic reforms of the last eight years it’s been the most poor, especially the elderly.
Without blushing, the olive-green autocracy has implemented unpopular measures that harm the population.
The Customs tax rates, the stratospheric assessments on commodities sold in the dollar stores and the favoring of cruise-ship tourism over ferry transport between Havana and Florida, which would permit a large transfer of assets and alleviate the poverty of many Cuban families, are evidence that the Regime governs only by thinking about its corporate benefits.
The White House has issued more than 15 “specific licenses” for passenger ferry service to Cuba, but they can’t operate immediately because of a lack of infrastructure on the island, sources from the Ministry of Transport confirmed at the beginning of October.
In a clear stalling tactic, the authorities allege that they need time to create an adequate infrastructure to receive ferries. José Ignacio, an expert in port services, thinks differently.
“It’s a contradiction that the Government says it doesn’t have the infrastructure to receive ferries and jumps for joy at the future arrival of cruise ships. The reality is simple: the cruise ships constantly leave behind dollars in cash. The ferries, to be more economical and transport up to 200 pounds per passenger, would boost trips for Cubans located in Miami, who would benefit their relatives with their packages. The official strategy is that they send all the money they want, so that people are obligated to buy in the State shops,” says José Ignacio.
Quietly, a State mercantilism is being built in Cuba, governed by silence and the lack of transparency. The worst possible capitalism.
Photo: Academic cruise ship M.V. Explorer from the United States. After a journey through 17 countries, the final destination for the 624 students coming from 248 U.S. universities was the Port of Havana. Taken from Martí News.
Translated by Regina Anavy