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Che, Chevys and Hemingway´s: Cuban tourism in a time of globalization

Che, Chevys, and Hemingway’s Daiquiris
commonplace to ask if tourism can help build a democratic and open society or whether
social conflict resulting from a two-tiered society divided into those with access to
tourist dollars and those without will carry the day (Ch avez, 2005; Sanchez and Adams,
2008). I want to suggest that we may view tourism as both ‘saving the revolution’
from collapse and as a catalyst for further social and political change – as well as for
engagement with the global market economy, in what has been called Cuba’s ‘hybrid
transition’ (Colantonio and Potter, 2006: 4–8).
Like others who have observed tourism’s growth during the past two decades, I have
noted the ambivalence of many Cubans in response to the surge in the island’s tourism,
which has brought both economic recovery and social divisions (Martin de Holan and
Phillips, 1997; Espino, 2000). At the same time, I have observed the fairly congenial way
that diverse tourism niches have developed and offered relief to the suffering political
economy. Thus, while my work agrees to some extent with analyses that emphasise
the tensions and contradictions in Cuban tourism, I depart from others by arguing
that just as Cuba has moved toward a more mixed economy that allows for increased
collaboration with capitalist states along with continued centralised state control, the
tourism sector has benefited from a similar development strategy. There is a decided
economic and cultural advantage to state and society in allowing pre-revolutionary
capitalist attractions to coexist with socialist revolutionary ones, even as social and
economic disparities become more apparent.
My interest lies in examining how Cuba presents this diverse tourism package and
makes ambivalent desires for pre-revolutionary and revolutionary times into a mar-
ketable commodity. Drawing on work coming out of anthropology and tourism studies,
I call for attention to what I have termed ‘the tourism encounter’ between travellers seek-
ing ‘exotic’ new destinations and countries seeking to market their cultural and national
heritage effectively to this clientele (see Rojek and Urry, 1997; MacCannell, 1999 [1976];
Hanna and Del Casino, 2003; Bruner, 2005). I should be clear that the desires I refer to
are expressed in different ways by Cubans on and off the island and by travellers making
their way to Cuba – they manifest as desires for the familiar or unfamiliar landscape, peo-
ple, music, food, and so on. Nostalgia for the way things were before as well as after the
revolution (and even, perhaps, after an awaited ‘transition’ in the future) has been a stock
in trade in Cuba, and this represents the biggest calling card for tourism development.
While nostalgia for the distant past would seem to be anathema to the revolutionary
project, the government nonetheless participates in re-imagining Cuba’s history in such a
way that the ‘bourgeois’ pre-revolutionary period may be viewed as the logical precursor
to the triumph of the revolution (on related Russian nostalgia in the post-Communist
era, see Boym, 2001). Thus, there is less contradiction than first meets the eye in offer-
ing up Hemingway bars, Tropicana nightclub showgirls, and Buena Vista Social Club
music along with revolutionary monuments for tourist consumption in present-day
During five research trips to Cuba between 1993 and 2009, I focused on the cultural
politics of tourism as part of a broader comparative project in the Latin American region.
In Nicaragua, I had observed the apparent erasure of the Sandinista revolution and, later,
the traces that still made an appearance on the developing tourism market (Babb, 2004).
I judged that it would be instructive to examine similar questions in Cuba, where the
revolution has held sway for half a century, albeit with some opening up of the market
to local entrepreneurs and foreign investors. Staying in Old Havana or nearby Vedado,
popular areas for tourists, I also travelled outside the capital to such tourist destinations
as Varadero Beach, the model eco-community of Las Terrazas west of Havana, the
2010 The Author. Bulletin of Latin American Research
2010 Society for Latin American Studies
Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 30, No. 1