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

Che, Chevys, and Hemingway’s Daiquiris
both the idealised revolutionary past (before the Special Period) and the hedonistic
capitalist pre-revolutionary past in Cuba are evident on the tourist circuit. The peculiar
amalgamation of tourist attractions is precisely what accounts for Cuba’s global appeal
and its economic advantage. Travellers who pay homage to Che Guevara at the
Museum of the Revolution, later flock to the famed ‘Hemingway bars’ in Old Havana,
the Floridita and the Bodeguita del Medio, followed by an evening out at the Tropicana
nightclub to watch racy and extravagant shows that were downplayed during the early
years of the revolution (see Berger, 2006, on related tourism in Mexico).
As tourism has been re-established as a mainstay of the economy and a key component
of the strategy to make gains in the global market, it has also become a window on the
ironies and contradictions in Cuba today. Thus, we are struck by the inconsistencies
with socialist goals, such as the evident sex tourism and the socio-economic inequalities
in the form of tourism ‘apartheid’ whereby most Cubans do not have access to tourist
venues and revenues unless they work in the industry (Padilla and McElroy, 2007: 654).
With the transition of leadership from Fidel Castro to his brother Ra ul there has been
an official easing of restrictions on places Cubans can patronise, but the majority of
Cubans still do not have the resources to visit tourist hotels and restaurants. Although
the government has sought to showcase its enduring nationalist ideology to visitors,
sharp distinctions remain within the Cuban population.
Analysts generally agree that Cuba has accomplished much in education, health care,
social welfare, sports and the arts, yet they point to the differential consequences of
the Special Period for Cubans depending on their gender, race and socio-economic level
(Safa, 1995: 166; Holgado Fern andez, 2000). The Cuban government has suggested that
tourism development per se has not entailed a compromise of revolutionary principles,
and that any problems that have arisen are as a result of ‘antisocial’ elements in the
society. Hustlers and sex workers (jineteros) are said to be seeking personal gains at the
expense of the revolution, rather than responding to a difficult economic climate (Berg,
2004). Like some other analysts, I note the various aspects of tourism that seem to both
undermine and support this socialist state (Sanchez and Adams, 2008). However, in my
view the resulting tensions are part of the powerful attraction of tourism to what one
visitor described to me as ‘the last Marxist resort’.
Tourism’s Return in a Transnational Era
Tourism in Cuba has a long history, from the late nineteenth century and extending
through its mid-twentieth century heyday, when the United States supplied the majority
of visitors to the country (Schwartz, 1997; Perez, 1999). However, with the revolution in
1959 and the US embargo on trade and travel to Cuba in 1961, the Cuban government
halted tourism development as a vestige of the bourgeois past, when Havana was the
playground of US mobsters, media celebrities, and middle-class Americans. Hotels were
nationalised, clubs were closed and prostitutes were ‘re-educated’ to become morally
correct citizens of the new society. Ordinary Cubans were offered the chance to enjoy
the pleasures of the island that were formerly the exclusive province of the elite and
foreign visitors (Cabezas, 2009).
Following the revolution, travellers to the country were often activists coming in
brigades to cut sugar cane in solidarity with society in transformation. It took the
Special Period to bring mainstream tourism back, and its level has now surpassed
the earlier heyday. When I made my first trip to Cuba in 1993, the country was
2010 The Author. Bulletin of Latin American Research
2010 Society for Latin American Studies
Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 30, No. 1