Tourism Money Flows Into Cuba, Bringing Economic Hopes And Fears
Every morning, Manuel Landin Rodriguez walks past the luxurious state-owned Xanadu Mansion hotel and crosses its neatly trimmed golf course all the way to its edge. He camps out on the cliff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters that make the resort town of Varadero on Cuba's northern coast so famous.
Landin, a retired physical education teacher, comes to the spot to fish. When we meet him on the cliffs, he's trying to catch mojarras -- small silver fish that hang out in the shallow waters to avoid sharks — which he will use to feed his family of five.
"I was born in 1947, under capitalism," Landin says. "[Cuba] used to be a pot of crickets. It was the saddest place on earth."
He wants to be sure we understand how Cuba was before the revolution.
"Have you been to Haiti? That's what Cuba used to look like. A few people were rich, and everyone else was starving."
In fact we're talking to Landin on the grounds of what once was a symbol of that opulence — this used to be the Xanadu Mansion, which belonged to U.S. businessman Irenee du Pont.
Later, as we cool down with some fresh mango juice at the hotel clubhouse, the waitress tells us proudly that the mansion was nationalized shortly after the revolution. She tells us she's thrilled to work here. At Xanadu Mansion, she can make as much as $15 a day in tips. Compare that to the $30 or so some Cuban doctors make on average in a month.
Tourism is essential to the Cuban economy, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country's GDP in 2013, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. More than 2 million foreign tourists visit every year, and the Cuban Ministry of Tourism says the 2014 high season that just ended was the biggest on record — a 5 percent increase from the previous year.
The government is also hoping a possible lifting of the American embargo, which has economically squeezed the island for more than 50 years, would add to that growing revenue. Travel writer Christopher Barker says there is speculation that 1 million new American tourists would flood the country in the first year following the end of the embargo, and 2 to 3 million annually after that. Varadero, slightly more than 100 miles from Key West, Fla., is perfectly poised to absorb some of those tourist dollars.
But many wonder if the disparity between the pay for workers in the tourism industry — and the salaries for other professions on the island — might signal the return of the huge gap between the haves and have-nots that Landin, the former teacher, remembers with such displeasure.
To find out, we drive over to Cardenas, a dusty little town where many of the bartenders, maids and waiters at the fancy Varadero resorts live.
Cardenas is famous on the island for three things: lots of Cuban flags, bicycles and horse carts. We hop on one of those legendary buggies for a quick tour. This is a typical, quiet Caribbean small town: not much to see, rundown monuments, one or two nice new restaurants.
Yuyo Nandes, our horse cart driver, breaks down the Cardenas economy for us. People who work in nearby resorts at Varadero are bringing in some good cash, he says. According to him, that $15 in tips our waitress at Xanadu Mansion makes on a good night will get you "breakfast, lunch, dinner, pay the electricity, and buy a pair of shoes."
For Nandes, the booming business of tourism in Cuba is a sign of good things to come for everyone.
"You know I'm going to tell you one thing. We live off tourism. If there's no tourism, there's no life," he says. "Just look at the grocery stores here: They're empty because people have gone to other provinces."
He says the money generated by tourism will trickle back down: People working at the resorts will take his horse cart to get around town, he says.
Our next stop is a sugar cane town called Madruga, which literally means "wake up early." Inland Cuba is starkly different from the coastal towns: The luscious greenery often seems about to overtake the narrow roads, and there's no respite from the suffocating heat. Gone are the colorful oceanfront houses, the cute paladares, or restaurants.
We walk into a family's front yard to ask for a glass of water, or a place where we can get one. With customary Cuban warmth, the Cruz family invites us into their house for coffee.
Juanito Cruz tells us he's worked at the sugar mill for 31 years. In fact, the house was given to him by the mill. He's on a break now, since the mill doesn't operate this time of year. But he'll be back grinding the sugar in November, a job that lasts six or seven months, and requires about twelve hours of intensive labor every day.
Cruz makes about $40 a month. He shows us his government rations booklet, and tells us his sugar mill income, combined with his monthly rations of rice, beans, coffee and other staple foods, let him live comfortably in this three-bedroom house with his wife and five children.
It's not an easy living, though: He points to his new fridge and says he'd been saving for a very long time to buy it, since appliances are incredibly expensive in Cuba. Cruz is a sugar mill man, but he knows there's more money to be made in the tourism industry.
"You can make 10 or 15 [Cuban pesos, or roughly $10-$15] a night, and at the end of the month that adds up into a really nice income," he says.
One quick explanation. He said CUC, which is the Cuban convertible peso, one of two currencies in Cuba, and the one that was meant to replace U.S. dollars in the economy. They're exchanged at a near one-to-one ratio. It's all very confusing.
Looking around at the Cruz family's modest house, one can't help but think about the sprawling Xanadu Mansion, and the employees who have access to tourist tips. But Cruz says he doesn't resent those who make so much more than he does. He says he's actually excited about that money being reinvested in the economy, and he'll be benefiting from it soon enough. Plus, he adds, a Canadian company is investing in his sugar mill, and updating its technology, so he doesn't fear being left behind.
Cruz proudly shows us his backyard. It overlooks a sugarcane field and is home to a mango tree, which his son and daughter are climbing. As we finish our coffee, they hand us a bag — about 10 pounds of mangoes, a generous gift. We joke that under the embargo we can't take back any souvenirs, but they won't take no for an answer.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All this week, we've been reporting on our recent trip to Cuba. And we begin this morning in Varadero. It is an island that jets off the north coast, a couple hours east of Havana.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GREENE: The scene in Varadero could not be more spectacular. I'm actually sitting on the 18th green - just on the edge of the 18th green of a huge golf course. And as the green ends, it just drops off this cliff down into the ocean - gorgeous, turquoise blue waters. And, I mean, I look up and down this island, this strip of land - it's just one beautiful hotel resort after another. And the Cuban government really is trying to use Varadero as a place to draw in more and more tourists, which is really crucial to the economy. One reason we went to Cuba was to delve more deeply into the changes taking place on the island - to see what they mean for people's lives. There's an expectation of big changes sometime - the end of the Castro era or the end of the U.S. embargo. But for now, many people are trying to figure out their place in a country that seems both stuck in the past and venturing in fits and starts into the future. In Varadero, we found the new Cuba with the old one. Just off the 18th green of that stunning golf course was an elderly fisherman peering over the cliff, dangling fishing line from his hand into the ocean 40 feet below.
So what are you fishing for?
MANUEL LANDIN RODRIGUEZ: I'm fishing for the fish.
GREENE: Little ones?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, just for my family's supper today.
GREENE: Manuel Landin Rodriguez has the leathery look of a guy who loves the sun. He was a schoolteacher for years, then a custodian at a store here in Varadero. Now he's retired and he spends his days right here.
Oh, we got a fish.
RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken).
GREENE: It's little - maybe, six inches long?
RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken).
GREENE: Small, small, small? Oh, you threw it back?
Waiting for something bigger, I guess, which seems to be the going narrative in Cuba. Though, Rodriguez isn't complaining about life. He was born in 1947, the days of capitalism, he reminded me.
RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) This used to be a pot of crickets. It was the saddest place on earth. Have you been to Haiti? That's what Cuba used to be like. A few people were rich, and everyone else was starving.
GREENE: And there's no danger of that in today's Cuba, he said. Now, President Raul Castro is carrying out reforms he hopes will rescue a rocky economy. But he's promised to stay true to socialism. One of his priorities - building up resorts like Varadero. More hotels are on the way with an expectation that maybe the U.S. embargo will end someday, allowing them to fill with American tourists. Rodriguez said he knows what that will mean for people lucky enough to be working in these places.
RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Schools that prepare you for tourism - and part of that, is that just some people are good at tourism, and some people are not. But he says, also, the great thing about it is that, you know, the owner pays you, but then you get a tip.
GREENE: A tip that, in Cuba, could be as big as a week's or even a month's wage in a government job. I asked this proud socialist if the more tourism grows, the more there might be class division - those with access to foreign visitors and those without? He insisted that, by far, the most important thing is that the government will have more money in its coffers to fund social services.
RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) Nobody dies of hunger in Cuba. This is paradise.
GREENE: We let Rodriguez get back to the task at hand, and we wandered into the small hotel just off the golf course. The bartender inside, like so many employees in Varadero, would not let us use her name or bring out a microphone, which speaks to how precious these jobs are. No one wants to risk losing them. And you can understand why. The bartender said on a good night, she will make $15 in tips. That might not sound like much until you consider that the average wage in government jobs is about $30 a month. She said she'll often, quote, "tip her neighbors" - give them some of the money she comes home with - socialism in her own small way. And it made me wonder how far into Cuba these tourism dollars travel and matter. We drove 30 miles to Cardenas. Rodriguez, our fisherman, lives there - so do many of the people who have jobs at the big hotels in Varadero. It's a sleepy Caribbean town, known for that sound. We hitched a ride.
We are rolling through the streets of Cardenas on a - in a carriage pulled by a horse, which might sound strange - not here. This is the city of horse carts. It's how people get around. It's tradition here for years. And this place, even though it's just 20-30 minutes from Varadero - totally different world.
As we bounced along, our horse cart driver Yuyo Nandes, said many of the people who work in Varadero spend that tip money on rides with him.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He says that, you know - I'm going to tell you one thing. We live off of tourism. If there's no tourism, there's no life.
GREENE: Fifteen dollars go a long way in this town.
YUYO NANDES: (Spanish spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He says you can have breakfast, lunch, dinner - pay the electricity and buy a pair of shoes.
GREENE: We got back in our car, and we chose a smaller, bumpier road.
This is really the first time we can't see the sea anymore. We're going deeper into the interior part of Cuba. It's much more lush, green, bucolic. It's sort of plantations - not really populated at all. We're wondering if the tourism money touches this part of Cuba at all.
We reached the town of Madruga, built around a sugar mill that still operates, though only half the year. Sugar country is old Cuba - far from the shore. It's a place where people toil in sugar fields and sugar mills, working in an industry that was crippled in the 1990s, critics say, because of some bad policy choices by Fidel Castro. Juanito Cruz lives with his wife and children in a small cement house with a corrugated roof and mango trees out back. The place was given to him seven years ago by the mill where Cruz has worked for three decades. He makes about $40 a month. When the family buys groceries, they bring their government ration book along. It's the size of a wallet, and they keep it safely in a plastic bag in the middle of the kitchen table. On each page, boxes are checked when they buy staples subsidized by the government because they can only have so much - even sugar.
JUANITO CRUZ: (Through translator) So they can write - they buy white sugar or brown sugar. They buy grains, rice, coffee.
GREENE: I told Juanito where we were earlier in the day, and I asked if he has any resentment toward the people raking in those big tips on the coast?
CRUZ: No. No.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: No, no resentment. He says this is bringing millions into the country.
GREENE: Juanito's son Bruce, in his 20's, was sitting to my left at the table. I asked him if he could see himself working in one of those hotels someday. His father jumped in, saying he loves the idea.
CRUZ: (Through translator) At the end of the month, that adds up into a really nice income.
GREENE: In the old Cuba, sugar mills drove towns like this. In this new Cuba, Juanito said, the trickle down from tourism might be far more important to people living here. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.