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Packaged VacationsTourism Development in the Spanish Caribbean$

Evan R. Ward

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780813032290

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813032290.001.0001

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Destination Cuba!

Destination Cuba!

(p.87) 6 Destination Cuba!
Packaged Vacations

Evan R. Ward

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

For all its propaganda, Mikhail Kalatovoz's film I Am Cuba (1964) teaches profound lessons about Cuban national identity during the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and in the immediate aftermath of Fidel Castro's coup. This chapter shows that during the 1950s, Batista's Godfatheresque tourism regime was not the only alternative for national tourism development—though it was the most prevalent. Foremost among the tourism reformers, Armando Maribona, the artist, journalist, and longtime promoter of Cuban tourism, proposed significant reforms that would have turned the focal point of Cuban tourism from casinos and private beaches to Cuban heritage and the island's stunning landscapes, flora, and fauna. Maribona's ideas were similar to the revolutionary tourism program espoused by the new Castro regime and its national institute of tourism, the Instituto Nacional de la Indústria Turística (INIT). In many ways, I Am Cuba served not only as a means of exposing the lack of Cuban nationality and values in the tourism of the Batista era but also, more importantly, as an entrée for Cuba's revolutionary tourism.

Keywords:   Mikhail Kalatovoz, I Am Cuba, tourism, Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro, Armando Maribona, casinos, private beaches, reforms

For all of its propaganda, Mikhail Kalatovoz's film I Am Cuba (1964) teaches profound lessons about Cuban national identity during the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and in the immediate aftermath of Castro's coup. Perhaps it is no surprise, given the ubiquity of casinos, nightclubs, and private beaches in Batista's Cuba, that Kalatovoz and the film's writers, Russian Yevgeney Yevtushenko and Cuban Enrique Pineda Barnet, chose travel and tourism as the initial point of departure for this moving cinematographic discussion of Cuban identity.

The film begins with twisting aerial shots above the Cuban coast; white foam surf laps gently at the coastline, its bays, and its lagoons. The moving camera pans forests of thick palm fronds, while the somber voices of a chorus collide like waves with the crashing sounds of the surf. The camera stops at the base of some palms trees near the coastline, suspended against the blue sky. Shortly thereafter, the scenery shifts from the idyllic coast to a platform high above the Capri Hotel in Vedado, modern Havana. Floor shots angle upward to a young guitar player and two musicians wearing dunce caps, capturing the frenetic pace of this tourist wonderland. High above the swimming pool, on an elevated platform, bathing beauties wearing high heels and floppy straw hats effortlessly twirl on a makeshift catwalk, as a sunglass-masked disc jockey urges the crowd on the pool platform below to applaud and support their favorite contestant. The menagerie of people in suits, dresses, and flowered shirts below clap frantically, as waiters armed with martinis try to dodge lawn furniture. All the while, less-engaged tourists (p.88) watch the Malecón below from glass enclosures suspended at the edge of the pool's platform. I Am Cuba's opening scene, one of several vignettes in the film, offers a significant critique of Cuban tourism during the Batista years. In perhaps the film's most lauded cinematographic sequence, tourists at the Capri Hotel go about their activities suspended above the Cuban landscape. All of these activities, which became associated with Cuban tourism, were in fact, in this stunning metaphor, not a part of Cuba at all. In effect, the director and writers of I Am Cuba use the opening frames of the film to separate Cuba from the activities that had come to define Cuba in the capitalist world.1

I Am Cuba may be the most dramatic contemporary critique of Cuban national identity through the lens of tourism that has been produced. Nevertheless, since the 1920s Cuban statesmen and businessmen, developmental agencies, and international corporations set forth competing visions of Cuban identity through the myriad tourism programs they suggested for the country. The purpose of this chapter, set against the backdrop of a long national history of tourism development, is to understand that during the 1950s, Batista's Godfatheresque tourism regime was not the only alternative for national tourism development—though it was the most prevalent. Foremost among the tourism reformers, Armando Maribona, the artist, journalist, and longtime promoter of Cuban tourism, proposed significant reforms that would have turned the focal point of Cuban tourism from casinos and private beaches to Cuban heritage and the island's stunning landscapes, flora, and fauna. The second part of this chapter suggests a similarity between Maribona's ideas and the revolutionary tourism program espoused by the new Castro regime and its national institute of tourism, the Instituto Nacional de la Indústria Turística (INIT). In addition to drawing similarities between Maribona's ideas and the revolutionary regime's nationalist tourist program, this chapter suggests that a packaged model for national tourism that truly reflected Cuban cultural, environmental, and social realities could only be created once the island's relationship with the United States had been severed. In many ways, then, I Am Cuba served not only as a means of exposing the lack of Cuban nationality and values in the tourism of the Batista era but, more important, also as an entrée for Cuba's revolutionary tourism—a development model that drew on existing ideas from Cuban tourism reformers.

For the years 1898 to 1960, Latin American scholars have provided a fairly well defined picture of the succession of developmental models for Cuban tourism. In On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture, for example, Louis Pérez Jr. illustrates how American hoteliers and service (p.89) providers quickly filled the needs of American tourists and soon-to-be Cuban residents in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. Additionally, Rosalie Schwartz's Pleasure Island: Tourism and Temptation in Cuba illustrates how local Cuban businessmen and politicians during the Machado regime tied their dreams for economic development to American hotel and real estate developers, such as John M. Bowman (Biltmore Hotels), in an effort to remake World War I and Prohibition Havana into a Caribbean Paris. For the 1950s, Pérez and Schwartz both explore the consequences of mass tourism (and its impact on conceptions of Cuban nationalism) developed by Batista and the American mob. Cuban authors have also supplemented our understanding of Batista's corrupt tourism program. For example, Enrique Cirules's The Empire of Havana dwells on Batista's willing dependence on the American mob, the U.S. government, and financial interests in the United States during his regime. Cirules highlights not only Batista's indiscretions but also the excesses of Meyer Lansky, the ringleader of this empire in Havana. In contrast, Evaristo Villalba Garrido's Cuba y el turismo offers a broader scholarly assessment of Cuban tourism from the years after the Spanish-American War through the early 1990s. Villalba Garrido's careful study includes a seemingly endless catalog of legislative and legal measures that supported tourism during the 1950s, as well as a more measured, but nonetheless scathing, critique of the excesses of Cuban tourism during the Batista period. His study differs from Cirules's and Schwartz's in that he includes a fairly exhaustive section regarding Cuban tourism following 1959. For Villalba Garrido, the lack of any alternatives to Batista's plan gives Castro's tourism measures a revolutionary veneer. This chapter challenges all of these studies by suggesting that there were nationalist alternatives to Batista's tourism program, and those alternatives may well have influenced Castro's tourism plans in the immediate aftermath of his triumph in 1959.2

Destination Cuba!

By the 1950s, Cuban tourism faced serious questions regarding its long-term viability. First and foremost, the legitimacy of the Batista regime and its tolerance of a tourism program allied with organized crime raised significant concerns. Second, a lack of public and private support for tourism since the repeal of Prohibition placed Cuba's initial role as a tourism leader in the Caribbean in question. The apparent financial success of Batista's plan, however, overshadowed reformist currents within Cuban tourism during the 1950s. These models set forth alternative visions of Cuban tourism development, which also suggested new projections of Cuban identity to visiting tourists. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (p.90) issued the first of these alternative models in 1951. Francis Adams Truslow's seventeen-member committee, in consultation with the Cuban government, published its findings in the Report on Cuba. Tourism was not the main concern of the committee's activities. Indeed, the chapter on tourism is stuffed back in the forty-first chapter of its ponderous report. Nevertheless, the members' remarks on the state of tourism in Cuba at the outset of the 1950s, and their prescriptive remedies as to how the Cuban government might best alter its tourism program, are revealing.3

The Truslow committee painted a less than flattering image of Cuban tourism at the midpoint of the twentieth century. In essence, Cuban tourism operators had attempted simply to perpetuate the island's reputation as a well-to-do watering hole, which it had developed during Prohibition, and the government and private industry had made few efforts to modernize the infrastructure and tourism program. “By comparison with other countries, such as Mexico,” the study noted, “which have done much to stimulate tourism, those in the tourist business feel that [Cuba] has not even begun.”4 The report was also quick to subtly prescribe the audience toward which Cuba's tourist programming should be directed, if the government were to maximize its economic opportunities through tourism development. “It is necessary to consider what Cuba is doing to meet increasing competition [from other Caribbean basin countries],” the report observed, “and to exploit to the full her advantages of climate and proximity to the United States.”5 This statement reflects upon the nature of reforms embodied in the Truslow report. As emissaries of a developmental agency based in the United States, the committee preferred programs that guaranteed continued links with the U.S. economy. This preference for strong U.S.-Cuban economic relations precluded a reformist overhaul of Cuban tourism that better matched Cuban identity, rather than one that simply catered to the preexisting perceptions of the tourists coming to Cuba.

In their assessment of Cuban tourism, the members of the committee commented on the island's basic attractions from the perspective of the American tourist. “From the American tourist's point of view,” the report noted, “Cuba offers a ‘foreign atmosphere,’ Cuban music and a freedom from certain restrictions—[including gambling]—which exist in certain parts of the United States.” Other key aspects of why Cuban tourism was attractive to American tourists had little to do with programming content, but instead with the island's proximity to the United States and the lack of “currency problems or troublesome formalities.”6

The committee found Cuba's hotel infrastructure and offerings to be below the expectations of American tourists: “A high proportion of the rooms (p.91) listed are not the kind likely to attract the average tourist.” “In a great many cases,” the report continued, “sanitary arrangements, cleanliness and food would not be acceptable in a sub-standard American hotel.” Not only might a tourist have to share a bathroom with another guest, as might be common in Europe or in the rest of Latin America, but the water was only potable in a few locations. In the report's final assessment, not more than two thousand of the more than six thousand hotel rooms on the islands were “of acceptable tourists standards.”7 In sum, the idea of asking tourists to adapt to local conditions stood squarely in the way of Cuba boosting its foreign exchange.8

The committee also sharply critiqued the lack of available attractions and the perceived low level of service offered to tourists. Not only were tourists—mainly Americans—suspicious that they had been conned and gouged by hotel, restaurant, and attraction operators, especially in the casinos, but the general level of “service” did not meet their standards. “One American convention of 700, for instance,” the report noted, “which had been booked to stay for only three days was so dissatisfied with prices and conditions that many members returned home even before the end of that period.” As a result, few Americans stayed very long in Cuba or bothered to return.9 Lack of appropriate amusements also hurt the island's competitive chances for American tourists:

In the whole of Cuba there is no public golf course and the only tennis courts available to the average tourist are those which some hotels provide. Public beaches are few and disappointing by comparisons with those in nearby Florida. An exception is Varadero Beach which is quite outstanding, but the accommodation is relatively limited. The best beaches and golf courses are those of private clubs to which the average visitor does not have the privilege of admission.10

These comments, couched within the context of developmental tourism aimed at strengthening ties to the United States, are highly ironic, given the fact that revolutionary tourism, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, would be responsible for opening up the beaches and many of the elitist activities to greater “public access.” The report also went on to recommend improved accessibility throughout Cuba by building additional roads, which would facilitate automobile tourism throughout the island. The only truly unique Cuban aspect the committee recommended was the transformation of mineral springs, most notably at San Diego de los Baños, into healing baths.11

To be fair, the Truslow report needs to be understood within its Cuban and organizational prerogatives. First, the report qualifies as a reformist (p.92) model of Cuban tourism in that it did not overtly promote and condone the Prohibitionist-era legacy of tourism culture that had been popularized in Cuba. In fact, the committee cast a suspicious eye on pension fund raiding schemes that the Batista government would take advantage of to build large hotels in late 1950s Havana, including the Habana Hilton. The report noted that the Sugar Workers' Retirement Fund invested $725,000 in a luxury hotel in Varadero, Cuba (probably the Hotel Internacional). In response, the report noted, “the Mission believes that it is highly doubtful whether such as investment is a proper one for a workers' retirement fund because of the risks inherent in the operation of a hotel.”12 Despite these wise prescriptions, the Report on Cuba imagined a new identity for Cuba through a reformed tourism policy, but did so within the context of Cuba's continued dependence on U.S. tourism and private investment from the exterior. The catalog of official recommendations illustrates the dependent relationship between the two nations, as if it were a sine qua non for national considerations of tourism policy. Those recommendations included an increase in the number of “English-speaking Tourist Police,” government encouragement for an auto ferry between Miami and Havana, and strict intolerance on the part of the Cuban government for any organized labor demands that “are detrimental to the development of the tourist industry.”13 Ironically, it would be the absence of American tourists and a lack of American investment that would bring about a definitive transformation in Cuban tourism.

The Truslow report had a significant impact on contemporary and historical debates about the nature of Cuban tourism in the 1950s. From the orthodox revolutionary historical tradition, Enrique Cirules views the Truslow report as a document that offered Cuba a blueprint for mixed agricultural and industrial development at a time when the United States dominated Cuban sugar production. Nevertheless, Cirules argues that the collaboration of the Cuban government with the Mafia, American financial institutions, and the U.S. government during the Batista regime doomed the island to continued dependence on sugar production and service industries (including tourism). He cites President Harry Truman's desire to visit Cuba as proof of this hegemonic effort to keep Cuba dependent on U.S. interests.14 In Cirules's mind, Batista's ascendancy to power in 1952, followed by his subsequent subordination to American political, economic, and criminal elements, is proof that the Truslow report was never intended to be implemented—except in the case of tourism. Soon after Batista's coup, Cirules notes, “the regime began remodeling for a dazzling Havana to provide the infrastructure for the most important business affairs of the Mafia families. This plan included roads connecting important tourist regions, grand avenues, the construction (p.93) of tunnels and highways, as well as a group of buildings for housing the administrative apparatus of a modern state.”15

From the same revolutionary perspective, Evaristo Villalba Garrido critiqued the Truslow report as a justification for shaping Cuban tourism according to the desires of American tourists and investors. To this point, Villalba Garrido argues that most of Cuba's administrations since the formation of the republic had “served as careful custodians … of the interests of American capital.” Furthermore, the report's critique of inadequate hotel accommodations and its identification of Cuba's lack of restrictions on tourists served to “deface and demerit the [hotel] worker and present him/her as an imposed obstacle to the ‘just’ access of the [North American] investor to the profits.”16

On the other hand, at the time the report was offered, one Cuban journalist, Armando Maribona, agreed with the essential critiques of Cuban tourism offered by the Truslow committee. Like the committee members, Maribona believed that Cuban tourism needed to promote decentralized tourism outside of Havana, promote more modern hotel facilities throughout the island, and offer tourists a fair product for the price demanded. Maribona's assent to the conclusions of the Truslow report would not be unusual had he not been an individual of such unusual talent. Maribona's position as a correspondent for the Diario de la Marina, Cuba's oldest and one of its most conservative newspapers, was only one of the many hats that this Cuban Renaissance man wore. To understand his background and myriad talents is also to understand how his lifelong assessment and critiques of Cuban tourism offered a substantially different model of tourism to that proposed by the Truslow report. Although they agreed essentially on some of the deficiencies of infrastructure and the capitalist context of tourism promotion and production, Maribona's deep love of Cuba led him to advocate a tourism program that better matched the ideas of Cuban nationalism, particularly in terms of cultural and natural tourism.

Born in Havana on June 23, 1894, Maribona showed early promise as an artist, studying in Havana, New York, and Paris, where he would also have exhibitions. Maribona's talents in the plastic arts were complemented by a passion for writing. He served as a correspondent for Cuban and Latin American newspapers throughout Europe, eventually finding a home at the Diario de la Marina, where he was a correspondent from 1930 to 1959. The author of numerous books—including books on Cuban tourism and art as well as original novels—Maribona became a fixture in Cuban art schools until retiring at the end of the 1950s. In addition to his artistic, literary, and academic activities, Maribona traveled widely, enjoyed urban planning, and (p.94) participated in the formulation of Cuban tourism policy throughout the majority of his adult life.

Since his early days as a correspondent at Diario de la Marina, Maribona advocated reforms in Cuban tourism that centered on nationalist themes. He published two substantial books on the development of Cuban tourism: Turismo y ciudadania (1943) and Turismo en Cuba (1959).17 Maribona did not delineate a codified tourism policy for Cuba; however, his justifications for tourism centered on the rights of citizens to be able to travel and to be able to see and learn about the world. Maribona's second book on tourism, Turismo en Cuba, is the most intriguing, given the context of its publication. The text was ready for publication in December 1958, but this was postponed, in all likelihood, by the events surrounding Batista's flight from power and Castro's triumphant entry into Havana. It would not be published until October 1959.

Maribona served as vice president of the Instituto del Turismo Cubano (ITC) from 1952, when the Batista government created it, until 1959. While Batista conducted most of his tourism development activities through unofficial channels and with mob bosses, the ITC served as an “official” agency geared toward tourism promotion and development. Villalba Garrido, for example, lambasted the ITC for doing little to improve the Cuban content of tourism during its tenure. He charged that the ITC “demonstrated to the visitor the negative aspects of a society dominated by corruption and the zeal for profits.”18 Instead of promoting Cuban culture, folklore, and architecture, Villalba Garrido observed, “gambling and the wide market for [prostitutes] were the central attractions of the sightseeing packages in planned trips from New York, Miami, Chicago, and other North American cities.”19 Villalba Garrido does not stop short of laying the blame for the warped Cuban perspective presented to tourists at the feet of the ITC. He charges: “Thus it was that the roulette table and the dice reached the height of the tourist attractions and especially for the tours organized from the United States, whose objective was the casino.”20 It appears, however, from Maribona's writings—both in the 1940s and 1950s—that Villalba Garrido imputed the ills created through Batista's channels for doing tourism business to a largely powerless ITC. Maribona outlines the extensive ways in which the government either did not act on ITC's recommendations or manipulated the organization's finances. Furthermore, the reputation of Maribona and the ITC could easily be called into question if Maribona had only written his second book in 1959 as a way to defend himself against the new regime. The nationalist ideas that he promotes for tourism in the late 1950s are simply reiterations of the same ideas—including showcasing Cuban landscapes, dancing, folklore, and (p.95) architecture—he outlines in his 1943 study, Turismo y ciudadania. In fact, many of his ideas in the 1943 study go back to the early 1930s, when he began his career as a correspondent for the Diario de la Marina.

For three decades, Maribona dedicated his tourism development efforts to cultured activities (in large measure a reflection his own avocational interests) that could be tailored to the middle classes. While Cuban governments and entrepreneurs had spent a great deal of money, particularly during Prohibition, to attract wealthy tourists to exotic attractions like casinos, nightclubs, and race tracks, Maribona argued that the most effective way to build Cuban tourism at midcentury would be to present Cuban attractions that would accent local culture and build a strong customer base for return visitors. “The error consists,” Maribona noted, “in imagining that by simply putting on an expensive tie we are then elegant and that with [brief] festivals, isolated details and attractions like the Marianao Beach, the Hippodrome, the Casino, and the Opera season, in an unorganized and unprepared city for tourism that it can develop itself and constitute a stable industry.”21

Despite his zeal for nationalist content in the tourism program, Maribona was well aware of the cultural and economic context within which Cuba would launch its activities aimed at tourists. With Cuban tourism on the decline between 1932 and 1954, Maribona watched as nearby Caribbean islands, including Bermuda and Jamaica, quickly rose to the fore as tourist destinations. Lacking the casinos, racetracks, and other “spirited” infrastructure that had given Cuba so much business, yet detracted from its reputation, these neighboring islands emphasized their natural landscapes, beaches, and environment to attract tourists for long stays—much like the spas of Europe or the northeastern United States. Maribona noted, at length:

Without casinos, without a race track, without jai-alai, without automobile racetracks, without “winter festivals,” Bermuda, Nassau, Jamaica and other islands receive vacationers, men, women, and children, who find trees and flowers, palm trees and pines, beaches, hotels of many categories, at prices in keeping with their luxury, but all very clean and attended by very friendly (amabilísimo) personnel. They go to enjoy the relaxation, to swim, to tan in the sun, to play golf, to fish … to be treated with exquisitely respectful courtesy, and no one molests them nor charges them abusive prices.22

In terms of his own island, Maribona was fascinated by the advantages that Cuba's landscapes, beaches, weather, and environment offered for augmenting tourism.

(p.96) Maribona believed Cuba, blessed with hundreds of miles of beaches and mineral springs, could attract a sizable middle-class tourism base to the island. He observed, “When international [tourists] know that in Cuba there are beaches and mountains of exceptional beauty and extraordinary natural attractions, where the [tourist] is able to practice his favorite sport, live comfortably, tan oneself all year long with our sun, whose rays and atmospheric conditions have excellent healing virtues, he/she will prefer to spend his/her summer or winter period of vacations in our country.”23 While Maribona clearly hoped to match the same types of activities offered to international tourists in Bermuda or Jamaica, he also sought to open the island—outside of Havana and Varadero—to international tourists. In that context, Cuba's flora and fauna would become an integral part of the “packaged vacation.”

To that end, Maribona believed that Cuba should modernize its beach tourism offerings, yet he also recognized the importance of Cuba's cultural and historical heritage. This stemmed not only from his love of Cuba but also from his desire to protect Cuba's heritage from the ravages of modernization. Maribona cited movies as one of the standardizing factors that accounted for the gradual homogenization of global culture. As a result, he lamented, “everything becomes monotonous, vulgar. Samurais wear tuxedos, motorboats are substituted for gondolas … and automobiles … are substituted for camels in the sandy deserts.”24 Modernization also impacted tourism. “First class hotels are the same all over the world,” he commented. And how did globalization affect Cuban culture? “The ‘daiquiri,’” he observed, “and other cocktails of Bacardi rum are [now] drunk universally.”25 Maribona's theory for limiting the impact of globalization on tourism was based upon the idea that tourists search for “exoticismo.”

As a result, Maribona suggested that the Cuban government and private groups give more attention to the value of historical structures, including homes, governmental buildings, and religious buildings. He lightly chastised Rotary and Lions clubs in Trinidad for not recognizing the colonial splendor of their city's architecture. After making mention of European heritage sites, he argued, “The nations that promote tourism, looking for prestige, conserve and promote attractions that, even when they are only of interest to refined and cultured visitors, allow them to worthily ‘sell hospitality.’” Maribona then turned to the Cuban reality in the 1940s to emphasize the importance of heritage tourism: “On the other hand, the cabarets, the hotels, the theatres of variety, the horse tracks, the roulette table, etc., are not sufficient in the list of attractions of a city or country that respects itself and pretends to conserve an honorable place in the concert of civilized nations.”26 Much of Maribona's zeal for developing heritage tourism derived (p.97) from feelings of guilt that arose while listening to the U.S. secretary of state, Cordell Hull, lecture neighboring states on the value of historical preservation in the late 1930s. Maribona subsequently observed, “We take a quick look at how much we have destroyed [architecturally] for business sake, for stupid idleness … for utilitarianism, for indifference towards the past; for lack of artistic concepts.”27

Toward the end of the Batista era, Maribona codified a list of attractions that the ITC should develop in order to amplify the island's offerings for tourists. Among these, Maribona not only listed museums, conferences, and opera but also historical and archaeological sites. “While it is true that Spanish colonization did not leave [Cuba] palaces and temples of the magnificence of Mexico and Peru, neither fortresses as great as that of Cartagena (Colombia), it did leave us interesting examples that, linked to their respective histories and legends, are tourist attractions.”28 Despite this tremendous legacy, Maribona warned, looters and lack of care had intervened to desecrate these sites. Modernization and the transformation of Cuba during the twentieth century had further hampered preservation. Havana's fortresses remained intact, but had not been properly cared for, with hundreds of cannons being sold to Americans as scrap metal. Historical houses had also been destroyed. “Each demolition is justified with the … phrase, ‘under the banner of progress,’ as if our territorial extension was so lacking that progress could not flourish parallel with conservation of that which we inherited from Spain.”29 Citing Trinidad, still unrenovated in 1958, as a nearly complete example of colonial architecture and design, Maribona argued for greater attention to the “national patrimony.” Finally, Maribona also cited the preservation of religious sites from the colonial period as an important element of national heritage, as well as a possible draw for religious festivals.30

Armando Maribona retired from the Diario de la Marina in 1960 and died four years later. There is no record of his interaction with the Castro regime in the wake of the Revolution's triumph. Nevertheless, the nature of Castro's tourism policies—and much of the Cuban Revolution itself—leads one to believe that his policies were gathered from existing material and fashioned to fit the needs and aims of the Revolution. In fact, Castro's tourism program depended less on revolutionary new ideas and programs and more on the ability to reorder the island and its possibilities in the image of a socialist state able to stand up to the United States. As far as his tourism program was concerned, there were three necessary elements: nationalistic tourism ideas, a tourism infrastructure, and a clean break from the United States—as an investor on the island and as a source of tourists.

Looking back, the break with the United States seems to have been the (p.98) most critical element in constructing national tourism. As Louis Pérez Jr. has illustrated throughout On Becoming Cuba, from 1898 until 1959 American films, commercials, products, and styles largely influenced Cuban identity. Hence, the relationship surely would have had a significant impact on Cuban identity as reflected through its tourism program. “In growing numbers Cubans were arriving at the realization,” Pérez has written, “that emulation could not produce authenticity, that North Americans could not deal with them on any terms other than instrumental ones … and that [the] meaning of ‘Cuban’ had come to imply submission and subservience. They were learning that ‘Cuban’ was defined simply as North Americans' exotic and tropical Other.”31 This was especially true in regards to tourism. While in consumer culture Cubans had mimicked U.S. styles and fashions, in tourism Cuba had projected to American tourists what they expected and desired to see as “Cuban.” As long as Cuban tourism was dependent on American tourists and responsive to the concept of Cuba as a place of “freedom” and lack of responsibility, there would be very little chance that an emphasis on Cuba's beautiful landscapes, history, and culture would command the attention of package tour operators and tourists. Maribona's ideas represented one strain of tourism reform that best reflected Cuban nationalism. Unless a reorientation of the economy, culture, and politics away from the United States could be effected, however, those ideas would have little currency. As a result, President Eisenhower's ban on trade with Cuba and the subsequent U.S. Treasury Department restrictions on spending money in Cuba brought the number of American tourists traveling to Cuba to a trickle.

With the break from the United States, Castro could then speed ahead with his plans to transform Cuban tourism into a sector reflective of Cuban identity. In reference to Cuban consumer culture, Pérez has noted that in the wake of the Revolution, “the proposition of Cuban resonated across the island. Once more consumption became a way to affirm nationality, but now the products were Cuban made. Advertisers stressed the virtues of locally produced merchandise.”32 Cuban tourism followed suit. There are two stages of tourism during the Castro regime. The first, lasting from 1959 until approximately 1981, can be designated as “revolutionary tourism.” Reflecting Castro's synthetic thought process, “revolutionary tourism” comprised a limited international aspect, which catered to the small number of international visitors still visiting the island, and a larger domestic tourism project. On both accounts, Castro's program was meant to showcase the achievements and talents of the Revolution, and the beauty and hospitality of Cuba, and to retain valuable foreign exchange on the island.

By 1961, the new Cuban government had nationalized foreign-owned (p.99) property in the tourist sector. However, Castro began laying out his new vision of Cuban tourism less than forty days after entering Havana. His program combined an effort to retain foreign exchange, either from tourists visiting Cuba or Cubans leaving the country, with an effort to showcase the Cuban environment through a massive domestic tourism program. On February 19, 1959, Castro discussed the topic of tourism within the context of the Revolution. During a four-hour television appearance, he stressed the importance of tourism to the national economy. He also emphasized that the nature of tourism, which had been dominated by gambling and catering to the elite, would have to be changed in order to stress the nation's natural beauty. Always the pragmatist, Castro noted that the gaming tables in the large hotels would remain open in order to keep full employment.33 In June 1959, the revolutionary government approved the creation of the Junta de Fomento Turístico, with Fidel Castro as its leader.

The Junta de Fomento Turístico initially worked through channels already established to plan and develop tourism: namely, the ITC, for which Armando Maribona had served as vice president since 1952. While there are no documents to corroborate the transfer of Maribona's plans for tourism development throughout Cuba, his ideas seem to pervade much of the new regime's tourism strategies. In September 1959, the new Cuban government began to promote its plan for tourism development, an ambitious program that would take three to four years to complete and would involve tourism infrastructure development throughout the island. Fifty million dollars was set aside for the first year of development, during which funds would be used to build roads to improve access throughout the island and to construct hotels in remote locations. While a new air-conditioned airport would be completed in Havana, most of the money would be used to “show the tourists that there is much more to see in Cuba than the capital.” The new director of the Cuban Institute of Tourism, Carlos F. Almoina, also announced the construction of a hotel near Viñales in rural Pinar del Río; reconstruction of a pool for the thermal waters at San Diego (noted by both the Truslow report and Armando Maribona); 150 beach cabanas at the beaches of El Megano, El Salado, and Arroyo; a dock for boats at Puerto Esperanza; motels at Jibacoa and La Rotilla; completion of the Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos; and a motel in Trinidad. In the eastern part of the country, which the director characterized as “the future of Cuba,” the government would build a hotel of 150 rooms at Santiago de Cuba; motels at the beaches of Siboney, Guarda la Barca, and Castillo Español; and a motel at Manzanillo. Almoina's remarks, carried in the New York Times and then reprinted in the Diario de la Marina (Maribona's newspaper), had a hint of Maribona's influence. Almoina noted (p.100) that the institute's “new” plan was to “present a wide and novel portrait of Cuba as a tourist attraction. The campaign of the Institute proposes that the tourist not only go to Habana, but also to the interior of the island, underscoring the historical interest of places like Trinidad.”34 Two weeks later, on September 23, 1959, the revolutionary government announced the dispersion of more funds for eastern Cuba, dedicated primarily to the construction of more public beaches and roads from the Sierra Maestra to eastern beaches.35

The following spring, Castro emphasized the national component of Cuba's new tourism program. “Cubans used to go to Paris, or Florida, and so on and spend huge sums abroad,” he noted. “The revolution is promoting a tourist trade here at home.” Castro outlined that workers would have paid vacations, but would enjoy them somewhere in Cuba. Envisioning the leisure empowerment of the working class, Castro mused, “The tourist trade will boom. Today the people who never before were able to travel are taking trips and seeing the marvels of our country.” The Revolution not only changed the geographical focus away from international travel but also highlighted its new activities. As a result, Castro declared, “almost all the tourists go to see the towns we are building, the new schools, the cooperatives. So there will be more and more things to see in Cuba.” Castro also hit on one of the new activities of tourism that would dovetail with the Revolution: a nascent form of ecotourism. Visiting the countryside or the beach offered an opportunity to contemplate the beauty of Cuba and to remember the struggles of the revolutionary forces against Batista. “When July 26 comes,” he stated, “we will organize tours to the Sierra Maestra region.”36

To this point, Castro's tourism program and its emphasis on opening up the private beaches for Cuban use have been explained from a class-based perspective. According to that analytical approach, the main reason for opening the beaches was to illustrate to the masses the democratizing effects of the Revolution. While that perspective is certainly valid, it overshadows Castro's own love affair with Cuban landscapes, whether on the beaches or in the mountains. Castro's own experience growing up goes a long way to explain the nationalist emphasis on the environment and outdoor activities in the new regime's tourism program.37

Destination Cuba!

By the beginning of the 1970s, as international tourists were beginning to trickle back into Cuba, INIT had integrated revolutionary tourism into its offerings for foreign travelers. The INIT publication El sol de Cuba: Panorama turístico offers a glance at the ways in which revolutionary nationalism (p.101) was packaged into suggested island attractions.38 The few advertisements throughout the booklet feature those attractions that had made Cuba famous over time, including the Tropicana (“a paradise under the stars”); the old Du Pont mansion in Varadero, Restaurante Las Américas (with the provocative invitation: “The Dupont [sic] family was accustomed to passing the summer here in this very luxurious mansion of Varadero. How would you like to eat here now?”); Havana Club (rum); and La Cueva del Pirata, a nightclub in Varadero (“Take drink with Morgan and Drake”). An ad for Cubana Airlines—with service to Havana from Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana, Mexico, Lima, Madrid, Berlin—promoted Cuba's 137 beaches.

These advertisements, geared toward international tourists—as much to convince them of Cuban sophistication as to invite them to its most popular attractions—provides a framework for discussing Cuba's tourism panorama. Overall, the Cuban tourism offering favored Cuba's history and natural setting. Sections on Cuba's flora, fauna, geography, museums, and folklore accompanied sections on tobacco, rum, and nightlife. The Revolution played a mediating role between pre-Castro activities (nightlife) and revolutionary tourism. While disavowing revolutionary achievements and activities as tourist attractions, the guide boasted that “a large number of visitors are highly interested in our social, cultural, and economic advances and are anxious to learn about them.” Visits to the Revolutionary Plaza served as a highlight for some tourists, as did visits to farms and recently constructed dams for others. “It is frequent to see many [visitors] ask for a … hat, some gloves, and [a blade] to also cut sugar cane,” the guide continued, “and treasure the memory of having given a symbolic hand to our first industry.”39 Interspersed throughout the rest of the thin guide are similar sections that serve to link Cuba's traditional tourist activities and more nationalist endeavors with the meaning of the Revolution. “Revolución y logros” (Revolution and accomplishments), for example, highlights the lack of illiteracy on the island. Cuba's lack of unemployment, high levels of hygienic cleanliness, and advanced medical practices are also underscored. This paradise in the Caribbean, the booklet further boasts, refuses to pay athletes for their efforts, nor does it charge admission to cultural events. Furthermore, “thanks to the growing economic development and without necessity of means of control, panhandling disappeared in Cuba, as well as prostitution, the use of drugs, criminal classes and other blemishes.”40

In 1973, the Cuban tourism organization, INIT, began a shift toward enticing international tourists to return to Cuba. This slow change also signaled a shift from “revolutionary tourism” to “postrevolutionary” tourism. Under the former, the nationalist content and socialist character of Cuban (p.102) tourism reinforced the validity of the revolutionary movement. However, as tourism increasingly became the economic engine of the state, both the nationalist content and revolutionary content of Cuban tourism were muted. Beginning in 1973, and culminating on May 16, 1981, the social ethic of Cuban tourism—and not necessarily the nationalist content of tourism—profoundly changed. On that day, Castro announced that Cuban citizens would enjoy their vacations at camping sites around the country. While this indeed reflected nationalistic values for domestic tourists, it also undermined the social concept of equality embodied in Article 42 of the 1976 constitution, which declares: “The state consecrates the right won by the Revolution of that its citizens, without distinction of race, color or national origin: … May live in whatever sector, zone or neighborhood of the cities and stay in any hotel; be waited on in all restaurants and other establishments of public service … enjoy the same swimming pools, beaches, parks, social circles and other centers of culture, sports, recreation, and rest.”41

Without enforcement of constitutional access by the general public to tourism facilities, the nationalist content of Cuban tourism was, in a sense, diluted to match the preferences of the global tourist. Today, small shrines to the Revolution in opulent international hotels—which everyone passes and few take too seriously—reflect the attenuation of revolutionary Cuban nationalism as a tourist offering.

Despite the decay of revolutionary tourism after 1981, Armando Maribona, were he alive today, would probably identify the bulk of his ideas as the centerpiece of postrevolutionary Cuban tourism. Beach tourism, ecotourism, and cultural heritage tourism remain the predominant offerings for international tourists in Cuba. Nevertheless, the economic imperatives of tourism, particularly in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, were accompanied by greater toleration of exclusive restaurant and hotel properties for international tourists, as well as a decline in beach tourism opportunities for Cubans. Perhaps no one better expressed the demise of revolutionary ethos of Cuban tourism better than musician Carlos Varela in his song, “Tropicollage,” which lambastes tourists who come to Cuba yet see very little of the country during their time holed up in tourist enclaves.42

Ironically, Cuban tourism has come full circle, with artists like Varela suggesting the need for reforms in what tourists should do and see in Cuba. Despite ideological and practical incongruities between revolutionary and postrevolutionary tourism, reformist (or nationalist) impulses continue to play a significant role in Cuba's tourism program. Beach tourism, of course, has been dominant, albeit in a less than open setting. Increased revenue streams from tourism, moreover, have allowed Cuba to undertake an ambitious (p.103) effort to restore its architectural heritage, particularly in Old Havana. The irony here rests on the fact that preservation of Cuba's architectural heritage has really only been possible within the context of global capitalism. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Cuba turned outward for help in renovating and refurbishing hotels and decaying colonial-era buildings.43

Destination Cuba!

In my own research, I have also made a mistake that the directors and writers of I Am Cuba exposed forty years earlier with their provocative film: I conflated global tourism in Cuba with Cuban tourism. The response to my faux pas reinforces the contemporary relevance of coming to terms with the emergence of nationalist tourism during the 1950s and 1960s. To a certain degree, this is a distinction—global tourism in Cuba versus Cuban tourism—that Cubans are quickest to catch, and in some small way they owe a debt to individuals like Armando Maribona.

In February 2004, I found myself in Havana attending a conference on higher education sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Included in this global conference was a segment devoted entirely to tourism and higher education. Between the sessions, I struck up a lively conversation with various Cubans, including one who headed a tourism studies program at a Cuban university. I told him that I was going to study “postrevolutionary” Cuban tourism in Varadero following the conference, with a focus on the hotel infrastructure. He shook his head and insisted that tourism at Varadero—now a thriving bastion for European and Asian (and some American) tourists—was not Cuban tourism. With other sessions upon us, he insisted he would tell me later what he meant. In a later communication he wrote:

In reference to Varadero, I wanted to effectively say that it is a very international [tourist pole], that was inherited, in terms of its conformity as a tourist destination, at a stage of development where the criteria of design, construction, and other [criteria] were very different. In Cuba there are other destinations with different characteristics, in which the community is better integrated [to the tourist pole], where the occupancy rates are lower, and which you should get to know. In my personal valuation, I like Varadero a lot; it is beautiful, but I prefer more natural and less built-up places.44

My friend's construction of Cuban tourism had as little to do with ideology as it did with the beauty of Cuban landscapes and the rural pace of life in central Cuba. Similarly, in coming to terms with the development of a nationalist (p.104) Cuban tourism program in the 1950s and 1960s, both reformist and revolutionary ideas served to shape the nationalist content of revolutionary and postrevolutionary Cuban tourism. Armando Maribona, for the extent of his writings and the breadth of his interests, stands as the figure of greatest interest in this complex process of unraveling the sources of influence for these programs. We still do not exactly know the extent of his influence on the ITC, INIT, or Castro himself, but his introduction to Turismo en Cuba may offer insight. After copiously listing his credentials and disavowing any political affiliations, he closed his introductory comments by noting: “The arrivistes abound. I have read articles and listened to talks in which almost to the letter concepts and comments previously spoken by me were repeated. And as a fact that among Cubans intellectual property does not exist, here my friends, ‘Fatten yourself from someone else's [work].’ And [this book] will demonstrate one more time that journalists, with a few exceptions, far from being ‘opportunists,’ … [have been] robbed of that which pertains to us: our ideas. It does not matter; my only purpose is that this book is useful to my country, to its administrators, and to my compatriots.”45 Despite these mysteries, suffice it to say that concepts of nationalist tourism in Cuba owe a great deal to creative, prerevolutionary tourism planners like Maribona.


(1.) I Am Cuba.

(2.) Pérez, On Becoming Cuban; Schwartz, Pleasure Island; Cirules, Empire of Havana; Villalba Garrido, Cuba y el turismo.

(3.) Truslow, Report on Cuba.

(4.) Ibid., 766.

(5.) Ibid., 767.

(6.) Ibid., 768.

(7.) Ibid., 769.

(8.) Ibid., 768.

(9.) Ibid., 770.

(10.) Ibid., 771.

(11.) Ibid., 772.

(12.) Ibid., 498.

(13.) Ibid., 776.

(14.) Cirules, Empire of Havana, 153.

(15.) Ibid., 154.

(16.) Villalba Garrido, Cuba y el turismo, 52.

(17.) Maribona, Turismo y ciudadania; Maribona, Turismo en Cuba.

(18.) Villalba Garrido, Cuba y el turismo, 57.

(19.) Ibid., 57–58.

(20.) Ibid., 58.

(21.) Maribona, Turismo y ciudadania, 85–86.

(22.) Maribona, Turismo en Cuba, 210.

(23.) Ibid., 66.

(24.) Maribona, Turismo y ciudadania, 137.

(26.) Ibid., 81.

(27.) Ibid., 82.

(28.) Maribona, Turismo en Cuba, 92.

(29.) Ibid., 93.

(30.) Ibid., 94.

(31.) Pérez, On Becoming Cuban, 492.

(32.) Ibid., 483.

(33.) FCR, “4 Hour TV Appearance.”

(34.) “Acomete Cuba plan de turismo.”

(35.) “Dedican 20 millones de pesos.”

(36.) FCR, “Castro in Interview Attacks Eisenhower.”

(37.) FCR, “President Fidel Castro's Children's Day Speech.”

(38.) INIT, El sol de Cuba.

(39.) Ibid., 4.

(40.) Ibid., 15.

(41.) Republic of Cuba, “Constitución política de la República de Cuba,” Chapter 6, Article 43.

(42.) Varela, “Tropicollage.”

(43.) For an overview of restoration efforts in Havana, see Rodríguez Alomá and Ochoa, Desafío de una utopia.

(44.) Author's e-mail communication with anonymous Cuban tourism official, February 19, 2004.

(45.) Maribona, Turismo en Cuba, 13.