It’s a cliché to say that Varadero, (Cuba’s top resort area) is not the “real Cuba.” Overlooked is the fact that Varadero has always served and hosted foreigners. Five centuries ago Cubans extracted salt from a nearby lagoon and loaded it onto Spanish ships and it’s not much of a stretch to surmise that those first Varadero residents invited Spaniards from the ships to come ashore for a little R&R.
Over the next 300 years, the village of Varadero evolved. When a railway was laid from Havana to Matanzas in the early 1800s, villagers’ big wooden houses, or rooms in them, were rented to Cubans on holiday. Habaneros traveled 100 kilometers to Matanzas by train and the remaining 40 kilometres by horseback or buggy. Other visitors came by steamboat, the Caridad, across the bay of Cardenés.
In 1910, the filthy rich Iturrioz family developed an estate on the grounds of what today is Varadero’s Josone Park. It is said that the patriarch of the family so valued his privacy that he tunnel built a tunnel to the beach. With at least 20 kilometres of pristine white sand beach, there was room for many wealthy families plus wealthy Americans (who by then controlled most of the island’s resources) to have privacy, even after 1931 when someone thought to build a hotel. Cuba’s native bourgeoisie, continued to vacation in Varadero. Among those who built elegant residences on beachfront properties were: Irénée du Pont, Al Capone, and Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Between 1929 and 1959, Cubans were banned from Varadero unless they owned property or were servants or guests of someone who did. The Revolution, of course, put an end to that nonsense.
One of the first things the Castro government did in 1959 was to open all Cuban beaches to all Cubans. The wealthy fled and their properties were confiscated. Al Capone’s “cottage” became a restaurant. Du Pont’s Spanish Renaissance mansion, Xanadú, became a six-room guesthouse with restaurant, bar, and adjacent golf course. Batista’s compound, Cuatro Palmas, first used by the Revolutionary government to house young people being trained as teachers, was later recycled as a beachfront resort—one of the few right in town. Once again, Varadero was wholly Cuban.
La Vanguardia (model workers) were given government-paid vacations at the Cuban-owned resorts. The only foreigners in Varadero in those days were a few white-bodied Russian advisors from Havana.
I didn’t know it then, but my first visit to Varadero in 1997 was on the cusp of the peninsula’s transformation into yet another aspect of “real Cuba.” Not the Cuba of cane fields and colonial architecture (which Varadero had never been), but the most popular resort destination in the Caribbean.
During that transition period many claimed that Varadero was no longer Cuban. True, fewer of the vanguardia were given free vacations in Varadero and during that “Special Period” not many Habaneros could afford a day bus outing, but the public beaches were still there and still used by locals.
There are no longer policies against Cubans vacationing in the big new resorts; today only those who can’t afford to stay there are excluded. Cubans, being overall less affluent than First Worlders, now fill Varadero’s less expensive hotels, particularly those right in town.
Varadero’s present population of 20,000 is twice what it was in 1990, and there are at least 60 resorts. It is definitely no longer a sleepy little resort town. Private enterprise is visible all over town; many residents sell arts, crafts, and clothing right from their front yard. This spring I stayed in a beachfront home owned by a Cuban lifeguard, a new breed of Cuban renting out a room in his house to a traveler looking for a little R&R, little different from locals who rented rooms to Habaneros 180 years ago.
Cubans live, work, and play in Varadero just as they always have. To say that this is not “real Cuba” because it’s main industry is tourism rather than sugar cane is like saying Orlando is not “real Florida” because its economy is based on tourism rather than oranges.