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A bit of Varadero history


Photo: Ernesto Perez Perez


Note that contrary to what is written in the text, Al Capone never stayed in Varadero (only in Havana).


"The fact that Varadero has always served and welcomed foreigners is overlooked in this dismissal of Varadero as 'not real Cuba.'" Five centuries ago, it was a place where Cubans extracted salt from a nearby lagoon and loaded it, with livestock, onto Spanish ships bound for Mexico or Spain The soil on the 14-mile-long peninsula is poor, but a few ranchers found it convenient to drive livestock there, and also convenient. to build haciendas on the peninsula's exceptionally beautiful beach It is not far-fetched to assume that these early residents of Varadero occasionally invited Spaniards from the ships they were supplying to come ashore for a little rest.


Over the next 300 years, this core of local service providers evolved into a village known as Varadero. Some built large wooden houses, and when a railroad was laid from Havana to Matanzas in the early 1800s, these large wooden houses, or their rooms, were often rented to vacationing Cubans. Habaneros reached Varadero by traveling the 100 kilometers to Matanzas by train and traveling the remaining 40 kilometers by horse or buggy. Visitors from other parts of the island came by steamboat, the Caridad, across Cárdenas Bay. This was the nature of Varadero's main industry (tourism) for about a hundred years.


In 1910, the wealthy and filthy Spanish Iturrioz family developed an estate on the grounds of what is now Varadero's Josone Park. It is said that the patriarch of the family valued his privacy so much that he had a tunnel built between his property and the beach about a block away, and when he wished to swim, he would send servants to chase everyone away. . He wanted privacy, just like other wealthy families who bought beach properties in and around Varadero. With at least 20 kilometers of pristine white sand beach, there was room for everyone to have privacy, even after 1931, when someone thought of building a hotel. Cuba's native bourgeoisie, as well as wealthy Americans (who then controlled most of the island's resources) continued to vacation in Varadero. Among those who built elegant residences on seaside properties were Irénée Du Pont who, during World War I, had earned a fortune manufacturing munitions; Al Capone who earned his in a less legal but equally reprehensible manner; and Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who combined the unsavory qualities of both men to acquire his wealth.


It was around this time that 400-year-old Varadero underwent a 30-year period that could fairly be described as "un-Cuban." Between 1929 and 1959, access was primarily limited to wealthier Cubans (although many middle-class Cubans continued to visit).


One of the first things the Castro government did when it took power in 1959 was to open all Cuban beaches to all Cubans. The rich fled and their properties were confiscated. Al Capone's "cottage" became a restaurant. Du Pont's Spanish Renaissance mansion, Xanadú, has become a six-room guesthouse with a restaurant, bar and adjacent golf course. Batista's compound, Cuatro Palmas, was first used by the revolutionary government to house young people training as teachers who would be sent to the countryside to eradicate illiteracy and later retrained as a seaside resort - one rare in town. Once again, Varadero had become entirely Cuban.


But not just for the rich, because under the new regime there were not supposed to be any rich Cubans. Vanguardias Nacionales (model workers) enjoyed government-paid vacations at Cuban resorts. The only foreigners encountered in Varadero at that time were a few white-bodied Russian advisers who had driven out of Havana in their Lada, a government problem. During my first visit to Varadero in 1997, I stayed not in a hotel but in a campismo (the Cuban version of a campsite). This beach, the most beautiful I had ever seen, was teeming with Cuban teenagers who had been bussed there by their school and housed, free of charge, in small A-frames on the beach.

During this transition period, many claimed that Varadero was no longer Cuban, but I never saw it that way. Certainly, fewer Vanguardias Nacionales got free vacations in Varadero - and almost none in the new resorts outside the city. These beds were needed for foreigners who could pay in desperately needed hard currency. And during this “special period,” few Habaneros could afford to take the bus to Varadero for a day. Public beaches were still there and still used by local residents and their guests, but outsiders often didn't notice. Visitors who only left their resort on an air-conditioned tour bus or on a boat tour could spend two weeks there without meeting a single Cuban who was not on hand to serve them.

Over the past two decades, the proliferation of mega-resorts has continued. From the town to the tip of the peninsula about twenty kilometers away, the sounds of surfing compete with the noise of construction. These complexes are joint ventures between the Cuban government and foreign partners. Construction workers are both Cuban and foreign. When the place opens, the staff, including managers, will be Cuban. And the guests?


There is no longer a policy against Cubans vacationing in the big new resorts. Today, only those who cannot afford to stay there are excluded. What this means in practice is that Cubans, being less wealthy overall than First Worlders, now occupy the cheapest hotels in Varadero, especially those in the city, while foreigners dominate the most expensive places. prices further down the beach.


It is not impossible that nowadays there are more visitors than locals. But not as numerous as a visiting foreigner might assume. Besides Cuban vacationers and day-trippers, there are local residents. Only Cubans are allowed to own a home, so every property in Varadero not owned by the Cuban government is owned by a Cuban citizen. This spring, I stayed not in a hotel but in a beachfront house owned by a Cuban lifeguard. Was he a new breed of Cuban renting a room in his house to a traveler looking for a little rest? Or was he no different from the local landlords who rented rooms in Habaneros who arrived by horse and buggy 180 years ago?


Given that Varadero's current population of 20,000 is double what it was in 1990, and there are at least 60 resorts, it's definitely not the sleepy little resort town that she once was. But that was then and now is a vibrant part of the “real Cuba.” Cubans work in its restaurants and eat there too; serve in its stores and do your shopping there. In the past, commercial enterprises would have been entirely owned by the Cuban government, but now private enterprise is visible throughout the city. Many Varadero residents sell arts, crafts and clothing right from their front yards – or rent the space to others for this purpose. You see few Cubans on the beach in winter, when they consider it too cold for swimming, but go there during spring break or summer and you will find them in large numbers. This Easter, while tourists paid extravagant prices to lunch on the terrace of the old Du Pont mansion, I watched what appeared to be happier (and certainly livelier) Cuban families picnicking on the grass shaded by palm trees below and frolicking in the waves. Some, I know, stayed in B&Bs owned by local families.


In short, Cubans live, work and play in Varadero as they always have. Saying it's not "the real Cuba" because its main industry is tourism rather than sugar cane is like saying Orlando isn't "the real Florida" because its economy is based on tourism rather than on oranges. Varadero is as Cuban today as it was 200 years ago, when locals provided lodging and other services to beach-hungry transients. Or what it was 80 years ago when the first hotel was built there. And it's even more Cuban today than 60 years ago, when the peninsula's 21 kilometers of best beaches were the exclusive domain of wealthy foreigners.


Just before the Revolution, most of the boats seen in Varadero belonged to foreigners. But it wasn't like that when the city was founded. The word varadero means dry dock where boats are repaired or built, and at the time most boats were owned by Cuban fishermen. Today, the boats seen on the beaches of Varadero belong to Cuban resorts. These boats, the men who man them, the sand and water around them are as real and Cuban as you will find anywhere on the island.

***

August 2014 This article was part of the August 2014 issue of What's On Havana The definitive monthly guide to travel and culture in Havana Download our current issue of What's On Havana , your definitive guide to travel, culture and entertainment for everything what's happening in Havana, the enigmatic and bustling capital of Cuba. We include articles from across Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French."


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