Cuba has been invaded by an army of tourists looking for rum, sun, fun

October 04, 1992|By Rick Sylvain | Rick Sylvain,Knight-Ridder News Service

PLAYA GIRON, Cuba -- The Bay of Pigs sweeps wide, in a big open-arm caress of the Caribbean Sea.

As natural endowments go, Cuba has more alluring bays than Bahia de Cochinos and silkier beaches than Playa Giron.

Few are more historic, though.

If the Cuban revolution had its stirring in 1956 when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro clambered ashore from a leaky yacht called the Granma, it came of age here in 1961 when Mr. Castro's forces throttled an invasion by U.S.-trained mercenaries and exiled Cubans.

Today's invaders are the tourists who flock here to soak up sunshine, lunch in the shade of seagrape trees and drink Cuban beer unfazed by the fact that Mr. Castro's communist government runs the island.

"You're guaranteed good weather here -- sunshine we can't get at home," says Patrick Keyes of Dublin, Ireland. "I'm glad to be here now. Ten years from now, you'll have charter planes flying in 24 hours a day."

A mere 90 miles from Florida, the land of rum, sun and Ricky Ricardo is hot, hot, hot. To accommodate a surge in tourists, Cuba is building more beachfront hotels and training more Cubans as social directors, dance instructors, tour guides and desk clerks.

Tourism brings needed infusions of cash. Cuba expects to welcome 400,000 tourists in 1992 and predicts 1.5 million by 1995.

Although it is illegal for most Americans to visit here, on Sept. 17 a panel chaired by former Defense Secretary Elliott Richardson recommended that flights and civilian communications resume between the two countries.

Europeans have a growing awareness of Cuba. Italians, Spaniards, Germans, French and British are finding a vacationland less crowded and less expensive than back home.

Canadians come by the planeload, too.

All the touristic activities are here -- Spanish-flavored historic cities, good restaurants, museums, diving and snorkeling at the Isle of Pines, party boats, night life, a Sea World-style dolphin show and white sand beaches such as Varadero, considered one of the world's top 10.

For Americans, except for the late 1970s and early 1980s, when travel restrictions were relaxed, the door to Cuba has been virtually shut to U.S. tourists since Mr. Castro's revolution in 1959.

Some cheat and come through third countries.

Americans who do slip in find plenty that's American.

Like baseball. Cuba's team won the gold medal at the Summer Olympics. U.S. dollars are what tourists spend here. There's the big U.S. naval base at Guantanamo. And '50s-era American-made cars are everywhere -- repainted and renewed Chevys, Studebakers and De Sotos. Cubans get behind the wheel when they can get the gas.

More Americans would come if U.S. laws allowed it. Cruise lines, hotel chains and airlines are taking aim, hoping for the U.S. trade embargo to be lifted.

What will it take?

Can you say adios, Fidel?

As long as Mr. Castro stays in power, U.S. tourists will not be allowed, say Cuba-watchers. When and how the 65-year-old leader goes is anyone's guess, but Cuba's economy is abysmal, fuel and food are rationed and dissension is growing.

"It's only a matter of time before the Americans come in," one Londoner told me. "I like it the way it is now, not overdeveloped or expensive."

Before 1959, the world played here. In Havana, you can still see the house Hemingway lived in, where he ate, and Floridita, the dark-wood bar he drank daiquiris in.

In its heyday, Cuba was exotic, erotic. There were sexpot shows, gambling and lavish parties at villas the wealthy built along the sea.

Such capitalist debauchery isn't allowed in communist Cuba. Still, Cubans who can scrape up the pesos rent the mansions for holidays. Looking forlorn on the beach, these estates are tile-roofed touchstones to a grander time.

But tourists are living it up.

At a lovely oceanside house called Mi Casita, I had divine grilled shrimp while watching the sun drop into the Gulf of Mexico. Another night, it was plates of pasta piled high at Restaurant Polichinela.

The travelogue Cuba includes the horse-and-buggy taxis of Cardenas, grazing cattle along the Atlantic Coast, and lush fields of sugar cane, banana and tapioca plants to the south.

It's the smile of a youngster at a gift of gum, handsome Cuban men and women with their brandy-colored skin and 200 glistening bays and beaches.

A look around:

Havana: For an unforgettable view of Havana across the harbor, stand at the ramparts of Morro Castle (1589). Cuba's capital is squatter than I expected, and there's less of a din with the fuel shortfall.

The dreary asphalt of Revolution Square, where Mr. Castro addresses political rallies, is anchored by a statue of Jose Marti and ringed by government and Communist Party buildings. Behind are Mr. Castro's heavily guarded offices and living quarters.

Old Havana invites a stroll, especially along the wide, tree-shaded Prado.

A few blocks from the Malecon, the harbor-side drive, is the Museum of the Revolution, housed in the former presidential palace; alongside this is a park full of war toys.

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