HAVANA, April 4th You could still hear Russian on Varadero’s streets up until a few weeks back, but the Ukraine war has taken away those tourists that continued to come amidst a peak season that hasn’t managed to kick off. You can only see a few small groups of Canadians and Brits near the hotels. The rest looks like a ghost peninsula.
“Room for rent” signs can be seen on the front of almost every building and you can walk long stretches along the beach without running into somebody. Wooden lifeguard chairs are empty and none of the cafes that once used to sell to beachgoers in deckchairs, looking out at the waves, are open. The most famous Cuban beach is facing it’s third year of tough luck.
First, it was the pandemic that forced the country to close down its borders, it brought global tourism to a halt and condemned Varadero residents to take refuge in their homes to prevent catching the disease. When the island began to reopen on November 15, 2021, and the first commercial flights began to land, thousands of people set their hopes on the Hicacos peninsula reliving its glory days.
But as the days passed by, it became clear that it wasn’t only a matter of slogans, such as “Cuba: a safe destination”, or flights coming in. “When we closed down because of COVID-19, we had a dual-currency system. Now we’ve reopened, we’ve had a year of Economic Reforms and this is chaos because you can’t really find anything to buy in Cuban pesos,” Alexander, a horse-drawn cart driver, sadly says.
When a tourist asks Alexander what his animal is called, he always replies “Caramelo”, but that’s not true. This is the name that any of the people who, like him, make a living by transporting tourists from one side to the other of this narrow peninsula say. “It’s really a female and is called Roncha, but I tell tourists she’s called Caramelo because it sounds nicer.”
“I have three more horses: Chambelona, Piruli and Melcocha”, he jokes. “None of them are suitable for diabetics,” he says whilst the mare trots down a pretty much empty Avenida Primera at 11 AM. Alexander takes advantage of the journey to tell us what has happened and reveals his fears. “All of the stores here are in magnetic card currency called MLC (with USD prices), people with just Cuban pesos are in a really sad situation.”
The cart passes in front of a store that has refrigerators and freezers and other electrical appliances in the shop window. On the facade, you can read the popular name El Encanto, a reference to the department store that burned down on a corner in Havana, over 60 years ago. There is also a Floridita and Bodeguita del Medio, like in the Cuban capital, but there aren’t any customers.
“This is the land of world record champion Javier Sotomayor because he is from Limonar, Matanzas,” Alexander says, seemingly changing the conversation and moving onto the issue of sports, leaving the economy behind. “The Government believes that we are like him and every time, we manage to clear the bar, they put it higher for us. When the first rice cookers were sold in MLC, they cost just over 40 USD. They saw that we could pay this sum, and they put up the price to 60. Now, they cost over 70 USD.”
During the long minutes that Roncha travels towards Avenida Kawama, you can’t see a single pushcart seller, these figures had become an inseparable part of the urban landscape, selling their agricultural produce. Nor can you hear what has become a national announcement: “ice-cream sandwich”. Nor is there a single private cafe selling pizzas or the typical bread with something. Or a single stand selling the Weekly package of movies and series, or a single garage sale.
The horse stops in front of a large sign that welcomes you to La Casa de Al. Pitched against the blue sky, the stone mansion functions as a state-run restaurant that uses the image of US mafia boss Al Capone. But the king of distilled alcohol would roll in his grave if he asked for a mojito on the large terrace with sea views.
“This is a kid’s drink because it has very little alcohol in it,” a customer complains, choosing to pay for two extra shots of rum to add to the diluted cocktail he’s been served. The menu, with a very basic list of offers, has prices in Cuban pesos and a small dish of lobster costs as much as 350 pesos. At the time of payment, the employees explain that he can also pay the bill in euros and dollars, but at the official exchange rate of 1:24. (The dollar is currently trading at 105 x 1 on the street).
“This doesn’t make any sense and it’s one of the reasons Varadero is so empty. It’s not in tourists’ best interests to pay these prices,” Zenaida says, a pensioner who has gone to Varadero to take some photos with her grandchildren, who are visiting from Toronto. “When they went to pay with a card, they were told that they didn’t have a card machine to read it, so they’d have to pay for everything in cash.”
The sea, an intense blue and, like a plate, because there’s no wind, makes up for the outrage at least. “It’s worth coming here just to see this, but any private owner would better exploit this place, and make their customers happy too,” Zenaida notes. “I hadn’t been to Varadero in 13 years and I think it’ll be another 13 years before I come back, because everything is extremely expensive and there’s not very much on sale.”
The grandmother and two grandchildren decide to try their luck at another state-run restaurant, as there aren’t many private restaurants about, unlike in other parts of Cuba. “When we asked the people whose house we’re renting out, they told us that the Government has made the lives of private enterprises impossible and they all ended up shutting down.” Excessive taxes, constant inspections, and supply problems make it very hard for business on the peninsula.
The family then traveled to Castell Nuovo, an Italian restaurant, on another horse-drawn cart that, by chance, shares the nickname Caramelo. With a large door and sunshades in every color of this country’s flag, the restaurant seems to be the perfect place to take shelter from the intense late-afternoon sun, enjoy some pizzas and have a cold drink.
“What beer do you have?” Zenaida asks the waitress. The woman doesn’t say anything for a minute, turns around and goes into the kitchen. She comes back saying that “only a box of Mahou has come in and it isn’t cold.” A few minutes later, she appears with three glasses of ice and serves the drink to the guests’ surprise. They were lucky because other tables didn’t even get a can and began to complain to the waitress, who solemnly cut their complaints short with: “They didn’t bring us any more.”
Shortages of beer in the resort is the talk of the town. “We’ve had pretty much no supplies for three months. There isn’t even beer in the MLC (foreign currency) stores,” Walfrido says, a hotel security guard who has to explain to local tourists why he can’t let them into the bar even if they pay in dollars or with a foreign bank card.
“This in an all-inclusive place, we can only let customers stay herein. We have beer on tap now, but there’s only a limited amount so we can’t sell it to people who only come to drink at the bar. If they want to drink beer, they have to book at least a night’s stay,” he explains with a disapproving face.
“Who’s ever seen a tropical beach without something cold to drink?” a young man complains and walks along the shore asking people he finds along the way if they know where this product is being sold. But he only runs into long faces, heads that shake from side to side or similar stories to the ones he already knows: “Nowhere, yesterday we got the last two at that restaurant,” a woman says and points to a corner.
At the restaurant, where you can only pay with a foreign currency card, beer has been rationed to four for every main dish the guest asks for, but even this distribution strategy hasn’t stopped the product from running out just a few minutes after it appears. “Only a few boxes of Hollandia came in this week, and they didn’t even make it longer than lunch that first day.”
“This has to be deliberate,” Victor says, who drives an electric tricycle transporting goods from stores to rental homes. “It has to be something they’ve decided up at the top because it makes no sense whatsoever that people can’t drink a Cuban Cristal or Bucanero beer in the most touristic spot in the country. It makes absolutely no sense.”
Victor’s hypothesis indicates the Government has the intention to force tourists to only consume within hotels, but his explanation doesn’t fit well with the fact that the majority of restaurants are also state-run. “I think they want to stop homeowners from offering dinners to customers or filling the minibar with beer which also brings them in a profit.”
Varadero has the highest prices of basic essentials on the island, which has spurred on the belief among the general population that the Government has this inexplicable desire to make them dirt poor. Something that costs 50 pesos in Havana, can cost 100 here and “when you go outside, you have to carry big bills because everything here is counted in hundreds and thousands.”
The lack of stores selling in pesos also includes agricultural produce. A woman with an Argentinian accent asks a security guard at a hotel with two-story bungalows if he knows where the fruit is sold. “Fruit?” the man replies incredulously, who only figures to suggest a MLC store nearby where “they have cans of peaches in syrup.” The horse-drawn cart driver, who overhears the conversation, suggests taking the tourist to a square on 26th and 1st Streets.
The place is just a small doorway with a very limited number of products. There are tomatoes for 35 pesos per pound, some malanga and some small packets of spices, but no fruit. The Argentinian is shocked and asks again for bananas, pineapples, and guavas. “There aren’t any, only in buffet breakfasts at hotels,” the seller says.
Hotels definitely aren’t in shortage. Cranes don’t stop working at the resort’s entrance, where a large complex with hundreds of rooms is being built. Workers from India are working on the project and can be seen in some of Varadero’s WIFI spots on Sundays, talking to their families via video.
“Now, low season is coming when it’s too hot and not so many tourists come but, this year has already started off badly because the Russians won’t be coming anymore,” Mabiri says, the owner of a small hostel renting three rooms. “I’m going to have to go back to national customers because I don’t have any bookings for the next two months and this wasn’t normal before the pandemic.”
But Cuban tourists aren’t seeking out the same thing as foreigners. “Who’d be interested in coming here with these prices, without anything in Cuban peso stores and without beer?” Mabiri says. “I have neighbors who have thought about emigrating. It seems crazy, but people are even escaping from Varadero. From Varadero!”
A flag placed on the beach shore warns bathers that there are some waves, and advise caution. Nobody is around, only dozens of deckchairs piled on top of each other and a closed bar.