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

Florence E. Babb
Vi nales valley in Pinar del Río, and the cities of Santa Clara and Trinidad. I took city
tours and day tours outside Havana for a first-hand view of what guides emphasise and
what tourists take away with them. When possible, I gave questionnaires to tourists to
fill out on the spot with information on their expectations, experiences, and reasons for
travel to Cuba, collecting a total of more than 75 from international visitors. In addition,
I interviewed tour operators in their off-hours and occasionally recorded them during
After a consideration of diverse forms of tourism and their success in today’s
Cuba, I show that there are nonetheless social costs that are experienced differentially
among the population. I go on to argue that the paradoxes and pleasures of pre-
revolutionary capitalist-identified tourism in one of the last bastions of socialism are
precisely what make Cuba a desired travel destination. With Havana as my principal
site for ethnographic research, I describe the packaged ‘City Tour’ as a microcosm of
how the capital presents itself to visitors, as an amalgam of colonial architecture and
traditional life; pre-revolutionary extravagance and nightlife; and socialist modernity
and revolutionary culture. In the concluding section, I show how these elements come
together to offer up a city and a state that is ready for foreign consumption. As Jose
Quiroga (2005: 103) so aptly describes, ‘what needed to be saved from the period
before the revolution’ is memorialised and then put up for sale on the global capitalist
Tourism in a Mixed Economy
In late 1990, the Cuban government’s call for a ‘Special Period’ was a way of introducing
a series of austerity measures and other initiatives to overcome the country’s deepening
economic crisis. In an assessment of this emergency period following the dismantling
of the Soviet Union and its trade with Cuba, Susan Eckstein (2003) showed that
Fidel Castro looked not only to socialist strategies but also to capitalist and indeed
pre-capitalist ones in order to rescue the economy. For example, to maintain the
food programme, socialist principles of collectivist development remained in place, but
agromercados (free markets) were also permitted, and urban subsistence gardens were
encouraged as a sort of pre-capitalist alternative for surviving the economic crisis. As
necessity became a virtue, it was desirable to save energy and to forage for needed
resources. Cuban lives were dramatically affected during gasoline and cooking oil
shortages, and while the state pursued a policy of self-sufficient food production. The
socialist programme of agricultural diversification and reduced energy consumption
was coupled with a ‘pre-capitalist’ reliance on bicycles and horse-drawn carriages
for transport as well as production of homemade soaps, herbal medicines and other
goods. And, at the same time, new capitalist relations of globalisation were introduced
to ‘save the revolution’, as Castro courted foreign investment and encouraged the
development of internationally competitive manufacturing and marketing (Ch avez,
2005: 1).
Just as Eckstein noted the multiple strategies for confronting the Cuban economic
crisis, I have found such diverse approaches in the area of tourism development.
Visitors remark on the contradictions of tourism on the island, on the one hand
offering the pleasures of high-end beach resorts and nightlife, luxury hotels in the
capital city and rich architectural history, and on the other hand promising to show
travellers a model of long-lasting revolutionary politics and culture. Nostalgia for
2010 The Author. Bulletin of Latin American Research
2010 Society for Latin American Studies
Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 30, No. 1