Saturday, July 29, 2017

Tourism in Cuba

A Militant article by Andrea Morell describes the US visit of Cuban union leader Víctor Lemagne Sánchez. He is the secretary-general of Cuba's Hotel & Tourism union, and spoke in Berkeley, CA, on June 29th.

He paints a remarkably honest and unflattering picture of his country.

Mr. Lemagne hails from the Cuban city of Trinidad, "a popular tourist destination." I checked out Wikipedia, and here are two photos from Trinidad:

(Wikipedia: Dieter Mueller, 2003)

(Wikipedia: Jplavoie, 2006)

The first picture surely demonstrates why it's a tourist attraction. But the second makes it look like it's in a war zone! What's with all the ruined houses?

Of course we know. Cubans are guaranteed "free housing," but when it comes to housing you get what you pay for. Nobody maintains it, nobody has any money to maintain it, and every storm ruins yet more buildings.

Apparently storm cleanup in Cuba can't even clear away the rubble.

Cuba used to get money from the Soviet Union for it's role as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. That financing disappeared in 1991, leading to the "Special Period" of starvation and hardship.

Then along came Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who traded oil for medical services, leading to a shortage of doctors in Cuba. That pipeline is now also drying up: either Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro will be overthrown, and/or the entire oil industry will collapse. No more money there, either.

So Cuba is reduced to entertaining tourists for a living. The Obama-era regs allowed more Americans to visit, making them the second largest tourist group after Canadians. Other visitors come from Europe (esp. Spain), Mexico, and South America.

A few tourists are there to support the "revolution." That includes our Trotskyist friends, who will travel to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Che Guevara's death in October. I don't think Cuba especially encourages those visitors--they're much more likely to walk around, ask questions, and learn how people really live. That won't end well.

A second group are "commie tourists," i.e., visitors who want to see communism in its native state and experience what it's like to live under a totalitarian regime. For them it's "one and done"--a single trip to the island is all they will ever need. They may also wander around asking questions, but they're not opinion leaders like my former comrades. Though the government certainly wouldn't have admitted "commie tourist" Michael Totten had they recognized him as a journalist. His 2014 article, The Last Communist City, is a must read.

Finally, by far the largest group are just plain tourists--they want nice beaches, good hotels, excellent food, shopping opportunities, scenic & historical sights, and alcoholic beverages. Of course some other requirements are just taken for granted--available on every other Caribbean isle--fast internet access, good cell phone service, and liquid access to the local currency.

Cuba can't deliver on that list. Most tourists will never make a second trip to Cuba. Why go there when it's such a hassle?

Mr. Lemagne doesn't seem to understand much of this. As a union leader, he sees his job as protecting tourist workers from their customers.
Lemagne began with a slide show that documents the damage done to the Cuban people by Washington’s economic embargo. “Every attack against our revolution by the Empire is destined to fail,” he said. “Our response is to continue with the economic development of our country, our revolutionary process.” Workers in Cuba’s tourism industry see themselves as on the front lines of the struggle, Lemagne said.
Tourists are, first and foremost, an attack on the "revolutionary process." As indeed they are, possessing wealth unimaginable to the average Cuban. Nevertheless, reality does intrude. One has to earn a living somehow.
The industry has expanded rapidly, including a growing sector of self-employed nonstate workers. In 2012, he said, his union had only 345 members outside the state sector. Today they have 27,000.
He reports that Cuba last year had 3.52 million visitors. By comparison, New York City (similar population size) hosted 12.3 million international visitors in 2015, netting $42 billion in revenue, or nearly half of Cuba's entire 2015 GDP.

The "revolution" faces an irresolvable contradiction. On the one hand they need tourists in order to earn a living. On the other, they lack the domestic capital and skill set by which to attract them. Thus they are forced into joint projects with private foreign companies.
Many of the larger hotels are joint ventures, 51 percent owned by Cuba and 49 percent by foreign companies. Managers from abroad have to abide by Cuban labor law, he said, or they’re removed.
As tourism has mushroomed, with union membership rising alongside it, the union has fought to reduce workers’ workload to protect their bodies, he said. They work to limit the number of rooms cleaners in the hotels have to work per shift, to keep hours down, and for members to monitor safety on the job.
No wonder visitors often complain about surly service! After all, with the union doing all it can to prevent hard work, how can it be otherwise.

And protecting worker's bodies is a little rich coming from Mr. Lemagne. Surely he is aware of the rampant prostitution in Cuba. Indeed, cheap sex tourism is a major driver of the entire industry, what with Cuba not able to compete in any other way with other Caribbean islands. Odd that he doesn't mention that explicitly as an attack on the "revolution."

Mr. Totten reports that the average Cuban paycheck is only $20 per month. Yes, they supposedly get all sorts of "free" stuff: housing, food, transport, medical care, etc., though much on that list is of very poor quality or not available at all. Mr. Totten describes the cash pay as "a child's allowance." Seems right to me--like children Cubans allegedly have all their basic needs accounted for. And then they get a few extra pennies on the side just because they're cute.

But I think Mr. Totten's essay is out of date. He writes, in 2014,
Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chambermaids in hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the government lets them keep the additional money, so they’re “rich” compared with everyone else. In fact, they’re an elite class enjoying privileges—enough income to afford a cell phone, go out to restaurants and bars, log on to the Internet once in a while—that ordinary Cubans can’t even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in tips, partly so that I would know how much to leave on my dresser and also to get an idea of just how crazy Cuban economics are. Supposedly, the maids get about $1 per day for each room.
Mr. Lemagne sets us straight on how it works today.
He also said with pride that Cuban tourism workers donate whatever tips they get to cancer research and treatment, a total of $23 million to date.
Sorry scumbags. $20 per month is all you get!

If I ever visit Cuba under those rules, remind me never to leave a tip.

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