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Cubans Find Tourism Is the Best Way to Make a Buck

Resort workers can earn more than doctors, and have a window on a foreign life of luxury.

September 06, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

CAYO COCO, Cuba — Communism failed to produce anything resembling a workers' paradise in the factories of the old Soviet Union or the rice paddies of Asia. But for those employed at Cuba's palm-fringed Caribbean resorts, work is relatively pleasant -- at least compared to the drab daily life in the rest of the country.

They spend their 40-hour workweek in the air-conditioned comfort of high-end hotels, tidying elegant rooms for foreign tourists, laying out lavish buffets and serving fruit-festooned rum drinks at poolside.

They are paid twice as much as the average Cuban laborer and earn dollar tips that give them much more buying power than blue-collar comrades -- or respected brethren in law, medicine and education.

The only real letdown for those working in luxury tourism is that they have to go home at the end of the day.

"It's very upsetting to see so much food being wasted when most people on the mainland don't have enough to eat," said one waiter at the five-star Melia Cayo Coco, located on this island just north of Cuba's main island, nervously watching over his shoulder to be sure no one overheard.

The contrast between the thriving tourism trade and the living standards of most Cubans appears to be eroding what little rank-and-file support remains for the ideals of Fidel Castro's revolution. Today's proletariat is mostly concerned with making money.

From the quartet of college-educated professionals serenading lunchtime diners clad in wet swimsuits to the bartenders mixing cocktails in their beachfront shacks, Cubans say they are attracted to the tourist trade by the chance to earn dollar tips.

Jesus Delgado, 30, who, like all Cayo Coco workers, commutes from the mainland by bus 70 minutes each way, grew up wanting to be a doctor. Instead, he waits on tables.

"Things are more expensive now, so money is more important," he said, adding that his wife and mother also depend on his $13 monthly income and as much as $10 a day in tips. As a doctor, he would earn only $15 to $20 a month.

In the dozen years since the Soviet Union collapsed and billions in aid and oil subsidies to Cuba disappeared, university enrollment has dropped by more than half and many state workers are moonlighting in industries that serve foreigners in order to earn dollars.

Castro signaled second thoughts in July on the growing "dollarization" of the economy, ordering all state-owned companies to turn over their dollars for convertible pesos. Some industry analysts saw the move as an expression of the Communist leader's concern that his ideals were being corrupted by hedonistic tourists and the obsession with making a buck.

"He sees what it is doing to the youth of the country. It's creating a class of dropouts because young people have no other hope for the future," said Art Padilla, a North Carolina State University professor of management who recently studied Cuba's tourism industry on a Fulbright scholarship.

Padilla said he believes Castro reluctantly allowed his government to resurrect tourism a decade ago, when the loss of Soviet aid left other industries a shambles.

"Some may see a contaminating effect, but long ago they made clear that it's a cost they're willing to accept," Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute, a scholar and frequent visitor, said of the official Cuban view of tourism.

Cuban officials say the average wage in the country amounts to about $10 a month. Every Cuban also receives food rations, which consist mostly of starches, free health care and education. But the rations cover less than half of an adult's daily caloric needs, and most food on the open market sells at close to U.S. prices. As much as $1 billion in family remittances sent by Cubans abroad tides over some of the population. Those without foreign beneficiaries are increasingly turning to the resort industry to make ends meet.

The Cuban business weekly Opciones estimates that the tourist industry accounted for 40% of Cuba's hard-currency earnings in 2001, up from 4% in 1990.

The government earns additional millions in visa fees and airport departure taxes -- a sum that consultant Maria Werlau of Chatham, N.J., said exceeded $50 million over the last three years.

Tourism has overtaken sugar, rum, tobacco, nickel and even foreign remittances as the No. 1 hard-currency earner. In late June, Cuba received its millionth tourist for the year, a month earlier than in any previous year. That puts Cuba on track to host a record 2 million tourists this year despite a crackdown on dissidents in March and the execution of three hijackers a month later that angered the sources of the most tourists: Canada, Mexico and the 15-nation European Union.

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