Resort is oasis of capitalist decadence in Castro's Cuba

VARADERO, CUBA — VARADERO, Cuba -- There is a slice of tourist paradise where a warm aqua ocean rolls gently onto soft, cotton-colored sand beaches, where streets lined with palm trees lead to luxury hotels, where the beer is cold, the breasts are bare and MTV plays 24 hours a day.

Call it Club Red, or socialism by the sea in Fidel Castro's Cuba.


Tourists from Canada, Germany and Italy lie on Varadero's near-empty beaches and sip daiquiris at poolside bars and huff and puff through in-pool aerobics classes during the day and dance in the discos at night. There is volleyball and tennis, and, yes, there is even a nine-hole golf course with plans to expand to 18.

Here, the American dollar is king, even though most American citizens are prohibited from entering the country because of restrictions on spending U.S. currency here. But there are plans, big plans, to turn the tiny peninsula that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean into ayear-round playground for the norteamericanos.


"The Cubans would treat the Americans better than anyone else," said Gerbasio Surita, a former soldier turned lifeguard. "When the market opens, travel will be somewhat like before the revolution. The Americans will come under different conditions. Before, the Americans even owned the beaches. But, now, they are ours. Americans should come here and see how we live, how we think. There is a lot of propaganda that we live badly. The truth is life is hard, but we can overcome the problems."

Cuba's faltering economy and the search for hard currency rekindled the country's tourist industry in the mid-1980s. More than 300,000 U.S. tourists visited Cuba annually during the 1950s. The industry was shut down by Mr. Castro, who said that tourism, with its emphasis on gambling, prostitution and political corruption, contributed to the need for the 1959 revolution.

But circumstances change. Chicago once had Conrad Hilton, and now Cuba has Comrade Castro. There are three first-class hotels in Varadero with plans to construct eight more. The 10-year project, a joint venture between Cuba and private firms in Spain, eventually will cost $500 million and will create 25,000 rooms by 1995.

"We are sure that Cuba deserves this and will have a huge future and will again be the pearl of the Caribbean," said Herminio Galvez Roque, the Spanish-born sales manager of Las Palmeras (the Palms Hotel). "We believe this is the ideal hotel for the American market. The Cuban side wishes the Americans will come. I believe the American hotel chains know they're losing time and time is running."

Already, thousands of foreigners fly directly from Europe, Mexico and Canada to an airport on the outskirts of Varadero. Two hours east by car from Havana, the trip here winds along the coast past rippling hills, oil wells and the cluttered industrial town of Matanzas.

The old Du Pont mansion, with its 12-foot, double-front doors, sweeping porches that overlook the Atlantic, marble fireplaces and bookcases filled with volumes of Mark Twain, Balzac and O. Henry, is the symbol of old Varadero. The construction crane is the symbol of the new town enjoying a building boom.

The tourist spots of Varadero are to Cuba what Disney World is to the United States, a cocoon where the grass is emerald green, the streets are swept clean and every day is a fantasy. Outside the gates, of course, life is a struggle.

For the tourists in Varadero, the great problems of the day are deciding when to go to the pool or when toeat. In a country where food is rationed, tourists feed at elaborate buffets stuffed with pasta, pork, chicken and salads, and topped off by make-your-own banana splits.


"We thought this would be a quiet place, boring, with nothing to do," said Sylvain Duquette, a 29-year-old optometrist from Montreal whose two-week trip, including hotel and airfare, cost $750. "But there is a lot here. We went to a reconstructed Indian village two hours from here and saw crocodiles and alligators. We went to Havana. It is better than the Dominican Republic."

The jewel of Varadero is Las Palmeras, a combination Hyatt and Marriott built along 1,600 meters of beachfront. The hotel has an atrium lobby, piano bar, tiled rooms with teak furniture, three outdoor bars covered by thatched roofs and log beams, and two restaurants. Three satellite dishes bring in CNN, ESPN, The Movie Channel and MTV.

Somehow, food is plentiful, televisions work and even light bulbs get changed. In the rest of Cuba, shopping for dinner is an everyday miracle.

"Even if they can't get things, theCubans, they have this magic wand," said Mr. Galvez Roque, the sales manager.

Eventually, the Las Palmeras project will mushroom from one 407-room hotel and 200 bungalows to a mammoth complex that includes two more hotels joined to a shopping mall with two discos and 26 boutiques.

Yes, there will be a Benetton in Varadero.


But there is a downside to all this splendor amid socialism. Cubans are prohibited from entering the tourist hotels -- except to work. If theywant to swim, they have to head west back toward Havana on a cluttered, rocky beach outside Matanzas.

"It is tourism apartheid," said Francisco J. Hernandez, president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. "It is like visiting South Africa."

Pay for workers is low -- about 200 pesos a month in a country where a television set costs 900 pesos -- and the hours are long.

But there are incentives. In a country where it is illegal for natives to have dollars, workers can turn in their tips and receive pesos. ++ Hotels also offer foreign trips to workers who receive high ratings from guests.

"It's like a giant theater -- the Cubans are all actors playing parts," said Amanda Ramos Mendez, an anthropologist and sociologist from Venezuela. "It's awful that Cubans can't go to these hotels."

Viriviana Pampis, a student worker at the Paradiso Tuxpan, said: There is some resentment by Cubans. But people don't understand that this is the best thing for the foreign economy. This is our only source of foreign currency."