Posted on Thu, May. 29, 2008
End of Cuba's ‘tourist apartheid' leaves vast racial divide
By MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Edis is accustomed to getting chased off tourist beaches.
Looking to make money braiding tourists' hair on Varadero, she parks herself on a patch of sand between tourist hotels to avoid trespassing. Then she gives security guards a knowing nod that seals their illegal pact: For every $30 she earns, a guard will get six.
''They like to keep the Cubans and the tourists separate,'' Edis explains. ``I have been taken to jail four times. I don't consider myself to be a criminal. I am just struggling to live.''
Shortly after becoming Cuba's leader three months ago, Raúl Castro ruled that locals could stay at tourist hotels and visit exclusive beaches -- ending a long-standing policy that Cubans found inherently unfair, never mind unconstitutional. Heralded as the end of ''tourist apartheid,'' the measure was the first in a series of steps Castro took to address Cubans' biggest grievances.
While the island's 11.2 million residents are now free to blow their savings at exclusive resorts in Varadero -- a tourist mecca 60 miles east of Havana -- reality is more complicated. Hotel stays can cost $30 to $200 a night, and with salaries averaging $17 a month, few Cubans can take the government up on the opportunity.
So beaches here remain filled with Europeans and Canadians, and women like Edis walk the seashore in search of work, tips and handouts.
The result is a vast racial divide that stretches along the Cuban shoreline.
Mostly white foreigners are on hotel lounge chairs -- while mostly black Cuban women walk along the beach dodging security. They are professional panhandlers thinly veiled as hairstylists who come empty-handed each weekend and leave with bags of hotel shampoo, clothing donated by tourists and, if they are lucky, at least $24 for doing someone's hair.
''The security guard over there knows I'm here, and if he has not said anything to me, it's because he is waiting for the $6 he will get,'' said Edis, who rises at 5:30 a.m. for the three-hour journey from her home in central Matanzas. ``What I do on the beach is struggle. The lower-class people come here to talk to the tourists -- to ask for things -- because we have a lot of needs.''
Edis and others in the same predicament had hoped the new rules allowing Cubans to use the beach and hotels would compel security guards to let them do their work, even if earning dollars not sanctioned by the government remains prohibited.
For these women, the new permission that allows Cubans to cross the invisible barrier -- which has long separated the western end of Varadero where Cubans congregate from the resorts reserved for tourists -- is something of a joke.
''Supposedly we have the right to use the beach now,'' said Elisa, who was with her daughters seeking hair-braiding customers. ``As long as I stay here in the water -- that's true -- nobody bothers me. But the second I step my foot on the sand and approach the hotel, boom, the security guards will sweep down and kick me out of here.
''That's how it was last year, and that's how it is now,'' she said.
After taking office Feb. 24, Castro spent his first months on the job enacting consumer-related measures that permitted not just hotel stays, but also the sale of cellular telephones, DVD players, microwave ovens and computers.
A select class of Cubans who have tourist-industry jobs, run illegal businesses or have relatives in the United States who send remittances have flocked to stores to take advantage of the new purchase rules.
Even while consumer goods are flying off store shelves, most Cubans interviewed by The Miami Herald said a $150 hotel stay is a luxury that is hard to justify -- even if Castro scored political points.
''Cubans found the hotel prohibition offensive,'' said Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University. ``Lifting that prohibition is not going to change Cuba very much, but it removes the sense of feeling they are in a prison. Not living under those circumstances, it's hard to imagine how important that is.''
Other Cuba watchers agree that even though most Cubans are excluded from Castro's consumer reforms, he has succeeded in gaining political capital -- even if he risks later creating a racial and class divide.
''Being able to stay at hotels is symbolically and psychologically important,'' said Katrin Hansing, interim associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute. 'It has given Cubans a sense of `now we can.' People feel free -- it's the weirdest thing. This is something they wanted to do forever, and now they can.''
Hansing, who recently returned from living for about 10 years in Cuba, warned that Castro is taking a bit of a gamble.
''The rates are outrageous, so this is going to be a short-term euphoria,'' Hansing said. ``Who has money and who does not is going to become more visible. People who don't are often not white. This could get problematic.''
The measure to allow Cubans to stay at hotels also raises questions as to how the government will be able to control prostitution. Some Cuban women, dubbed jineteras, earn a living by finding foreign ''boyfriends'' who buy them gifts. Until now, those relationships were generally restricted to hotel lobbies.
In the past, Cuban guests were not allowed into a guest's room. Now, they can go up, but they must register with the front desk, even if the foreigner is paying the bill.
''Now the girls come in with the foreigners, and it's not my problem,'' said a Havana hotel doorman who said he was not authorized to give his name. 'You know what I say? `Have a nice evening.' I'm sure that later, when she pops up two or three times on hotel registries, it will be a problem. But not with me.''
Yadeli, a security guard at a Varadero hotel, said he has seen three Cubans stay at his luxury resort in the three months since Castro lifted the ban.
''That new law helps maybe four cats,'' he said, using the Spanish expression for ''very few people.'' ``As I do the math, I see I will never be one of those cats. I make $22 a month, and a room here is $150.''
So he spends his day on the beach in a necktie, stopping Cubans who try to enter his hotel.
''It's not that as Cubans you can't walk up and down this beach. You can walk up and down all you like,'' he said. ``I just want to know what you are doing, and I would stop you from coming inside if you are not a guest.''
Beatriz, 30, knows exactly what Yadeli means.
''They are letting more Cubans on the beach now. Look around; you'll see some,'' she said a few minutes after being questioned by a guard. ``But if security sees you talking to somebody, forget it. So we can be on the beach; we just have to keep walking.''
The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of some of the people quoted because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.