Tourism lifting Cuban economy Cash: The need for hard currency is driving Cuba to welcome anew high-rolling foreigners.

January 19, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVANA -- The joke going around town these days is that Pope John Paul II is coming to Cuba this week to see three things: He wants to meet the devil, visit hell and witness a people living by a miracle.

The devil is 70-year-old President Fidel Castro. Hell is the condition of life for many people. And the miracle is that the place is holding together as well as it is.

The glue that is keeping the country together is tourism and the dollars it is bringing in, despite an ever-tightening U.S. trade embargo.

Cuba is undergoing a tourism boom not seen since the days before the revolution, when mob-run hotels with casinos, cheap rum, cigars and prostitutes attracted high-rollers from the United States and Europe. The hotels and resorts were taken over by the state, but with the need for hard currency, the government is wooing Canadians and Europeans, touting Cuba's colonial history, Afro-Cuban culture and miles of white-sand beaches.

And the women.

"A lot of Germans come on package tours because it is a good place to pick up girls," says Eric Witzke, 28, a blond, pony-tailed rock band roadie from Hamburg, Germany, as he sips a mojito, Ernest Hemingway's drink of choice, at the novelist's favorite Old Havana watering hole, La Bodeguita del Medio.

"Some who come want to learn something about one of the last socialist countries. And some just want to spend two weeks on the beach."

The place to do that is Varadero, a 12-mile-long peninsula about an hour east of Havana.

Luxury hotels line the beachfront, with new complexes, mostly joint ventures with Spanish and Canadian companies, sprouting up all the time.

In Vedado, the hotel and entertainment district of Havana, hotels like the opulent, Old World-style Nacional have undergone multimillion-dollar renovations. Discos with $20 cover charges -- twice the monthly salary of the average Cuban -- are filled each night with foreign tourists.

A foreigner walking out of the Habana Libre Hotel, which was once the Hilton, is surrounded by dozens of young Cuban women dressed in tight, provocative party dresses. Some of these jinoteras, Cuban slang for prostitute that literally means "jockey," are selling themselves for scarce and precious dollars, starting about $50 a night. Others are just looking for a good time, hoping a tourist will pay their cover charge at a disco and maybe buy them a few drinks.

Sugar was once king in the Cuban economy. But tourism brought in $1.35 billion in 1996 from more than 1 million tourists, compared to $970 million earned by sugar exports.

This economic recovery comes after Cuba spent the first part of the decade in destitution after the loss of foreign aid and trade due to the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European Communist regimes that were Castro's patrons. The tightened U.S. trade embargo made matters worse.

Between 1989 and 1993, the Cuban gross domestic product fell by more than one-third. In 1991, Castro ordered nationwide belt-tightening, but aroused dangerous discontent.

Since 1993, the government has allowed citizens to possess U.S. currency and has instituted some free-market elements into the economy.

Joint ventures between Cuban and foreign companies are being encouraged, particularly in tourism and the mining of nickel, another important Cuban resource.

Individual Cubans were allowed to start some home-based businesses, like opening restaurants in their living rooms or offering lodging to foreign tourists. Farmers, after meeting government quotas, are permitted to sell their products at market prices.

The gross domestic product, which rose just 0.7 percent in 1994, rose nearly 8 percent in 1996, and showed a more modest 2.5 percent gain last year.

In the Vedado district of Havana, Oscar Rodriguez stacks limes at a stall in a bustling "agromarket," where farmers can sell their produce. Rodriguez's stand is filled with green plantains, onions, tomatoes, turnips and black beans grown on his family's farm in La Ceibita, a town about 25 miles outside Havana.

"Before, life was difficult. We had the food, but we didn't have the money" because they had to sell the produce to the government at below-market prices.

"Now, people get what they need, and we get the money we need," he says. "Everybody benefits."

In the residential and relatively affluent neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, Tristan Ruiz has turned the front room of his home into a paladar, a 12-seat, in-home restaurant.

Ruiz, 41, a criminal defense attorney, opened Meson Tristan two years ago. "My salary isn't enough," he says. "I have a family: my mother, two kids and a new young and beautiful wife."

Ruiz estimates that after expenses, including an $800 operating license, he nets about $1,200 a month, which in the Cuban economy would provide a very comfortable living.

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