Posted on Wed, May. 28, 2008
By MIAMI HERALD STAFF
VARADERO, Cuba --
Edis is accustomed to getting chased off tourist beaches.
For her to make money braiding tourists' hair on the popular Varadero
beach, she parks herself on a patch of sand between tourist hotels to
avoid trespassing on hotel property. Then she gives security guards a
knowing nod that seals their illegal pact: for every $30 she earns doing
braids, a guard will get $6.
''They like to keep the Cubans and the tourists separate,'' she
explains. ``I have been taken to jail four times. I don't consider
myself to be a delinquent. I am just struggling to live.''
One of the first decisions Raúl Castro made after becoming Cuba's leader
three months ago was to allow locals to stay at tourist hotels and visit
exclusive beaches. His move ended a long-standing policy that Cubans
found inherently unfair -- nevermind unconstitutional. The measure was
heralded as the end of ''tourist apartheid'' and the first in a series
of steps Castro took that addressed the grievances that most irked Cubans.
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 a bit more complicated. Few Cubans can take
the government up on the opportunity because rates remain high and
salaries are still too low. Hotels cost from $30 to $200 a night --
while salaries average $17 a month.
Even as Cubans are now technically allowed to frequent the resorts, the
beaches here are still filled with Europeans and Canadians, while women
like Edis walk up and down the seashore in search of work, tips and
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. They come
empty-handed every 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 when
he lets me do somebody's hair,'' said Edis, who wakes up 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, Silvia, Acarena, María, Beatriz and Elisa had hoped the new rules
allowing Cubans to use the beach and hotels would also mean security
would 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 in search of customers willing to have their hair
braided. ``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.
Raúl Castro took office Feb. 24, after his brother Fidel acknowledged
his long illness prevented him from keeping the post. He 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 purchases.
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.
But even as most people cannot pay for hotel stays, Castro scored
political points when he reversed the 1990s-era prohibition on staying
at hotels reserved for tourists.
''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 creating a racial and class divide later.
''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 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
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
''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.