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Market Focus : Castro Plays a Capitalist Card, Seeking More Tourist Dollars : It's a dangerous game because Cubans are barred from vacation facilities.

May 03, 1994|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VARADERO, Cuba — For most visitors, Cuba is the land of the Four S's--Sun, Sand, Sea and Sex. For Cuba itself, that all rolls into a single S: "Survival."

In a controversial effort to stem the disintegration of Cuba's economy, the island's Communist leaders have turned to tourism, a standard device elsewhere but one which Cuban ruler Fidel Castro once derided as the corrupt symbol of the capital order he overthrew 35 years ago.

Precisely, it was on April 21, 1959, that Castro banned private beaches and began opening former tourist facilities to Cubans, a practice that has been reversed again under the current approach.

"That is the most daring and dangerous part of all of this," said a diplomat from a country with strong financial links to Cuba. "Because Cubans don't have dollars they can't get in (to tourist attractions) and because they see what is available to the foreigners, the Cubans naturally are going to be resentful, particularly since for 30 years they have been taught there should be no discrimination."

That there is discrimination is obvious. Two Cubans, invited to drinks recently by a foreigner in the fancy Hotel Nacional, were refused entry not only to the hotel but to the grounds itself.

What the Cubans are gambling on, the diplomat said, "is that enough money can be generated in a short enough time" to ease the economic crisis and head off serious discontent stirred by discrimination.

Since the program began four years ago, there have been some successes in drawing in badly needed foreign currency, and the hotels and beaches are often full of pale Canadians and Europeans looking for sun.

But it isn't yet the Cuba that dominated Caribbean tourism from the 1920s until the 1959 revolution closed the Mafia's casinos and shut down the elaborate nightclubs that featured gorgeous strippers, both men and women, and explicit sex shows.

"Havana was Miami, Las Vegas and Sodom all rolled into one," said Luis Mendez, a Cuban-American who lived in Havana before going into exile in 1961. "There were things wrong with it," he said, "but it was fun."

Havana and Cuba still aren't that much fun, but the government is making changes from the post-1959 puritanical approach that left most tourist facilities, including grand hotels, tattered and moldering.

Financed by foreign capital, mostly Spanish and Canadian, Havana hotels have been restored and some new ones built. The island's beaches have been cleaned up and dozens of seaside hotels and villas renovated or built from the sand up.

Restaurants reserved exclusively for foreigners are doing business around the capital. Some feature an international cuisine; one specializes in Spanish cooking, another Italian dishes. There is even a restaurant that pretends to be Chinese, serving rice and soy sauce on otherwise unidentifiable food.

Nightclubs are presenting floor shows in the Vegas mode, with tall, leggy chorines wearing towering feathers and tiny bikinis, moving to the beat of big bands.

Even culture is being exploited, at least to the degree that it attracts foreign dollars. Old copies of books by and about Ernest Hemingway are available, and tours are arranged to the bars where he drank, the marina where he kept his boat and the house where he lived off and on.

Hemingway and the restaurants and nightclubs aside, the tourist magnets that the Cubans are counting on are the four S's, and here in Varadero they flourish.

With its 12 miles of sugar-fine, white sandy beaches only a two-hour drive east of Havana, Varadero rivals the best resorts of the Caribbean, the government boasts.

But just claiming that it's so is not enough in the Caribbean, where every beach is ecstatic, so Cuba has undertaken a program to make sure that foreigners, at least a certain class of them, are tempted.

The prices are a major draw. Ads in Canadian newspapers promise round-trip charter air fare, a week in a Varadero hotel and local transportation for just over $500. Throw in three meals a day and the price goes up to just over $600 for the package.

With few exceptions, Americans are restricted from traveling to Cuba, but for those willing to violate U.S. laws, a three-night stay with air fare to and from the Bahamas can cost as little as $220.

And then there is sex. There is nothing out of the ordinary in the ads placed in newspapers in Canada and Europe showing scantily clad young women gamboling in the waves or strutting down the beach, and as a tour of various beaches proves, it certainly isn't false advertising.

But there is another, less palatable part of that S.

To one degree or another all those new nightclubs and fancy hotels are centers of prostitution, mostly on the part of very young girls, the majority of them black, the poorest sector of Cuban society.

"The decline and fall of Cuba's economy and the turn to attracting foreigners has made it inevitable," said a diplomat here. "The only way for most of these kids to survive is to sell themselves."

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