Informacion economica sobre Cuba

Cadres or caddies? Island looks to golf to drive its tourist economy

Four decades after Castro's defeat to Che Guevara, up to 10 new courses
are planned

This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday April 11 2008 on p19 of
the International section. It was last updated at 08:58 on April 11 2008.
Che Guevara attempts a putt as Fidel Castro stands behind him at Colina
Villareal in Havana

Che Guevara attempts a putt as Fidel Castro stands behind him at Colina
Villareal in Havana. Photograph: Reuters

Johan Vega knows the Havana Golf Club well. Too well. He has played
every bunker, green and fairway thousands of times and the course has
become monotonous. "It's like being on a carousel, round and round,
round and round. I can do it with my eyes shut." To demonstrate, Vega
drops a ball to his feet, closes his eyes and with an eight-iron makes a
neat chip towards the green.

Golfers like to tackle different courses but the club is Havana's sole
golf course and Vega, 37, is Havana's only golf instructor. He has
worked here for 15 years with an increasing sense of groundhog day. "I
could do with a change," he sighs.

He may get it. Half a century ago there were plenty of other courses but
Cuba's revolution annexed them on the grounds that they were capitalist,
leaving the nine-hole Havana Golf Club and an 18-hole course in
Varadero. The fact Fidel Castro famously lost a round to Che Guevara did
not help golf's case.

Now, however, the pendulum may be about to swing back. Fidel has
relinquished power and there is talk of new courses opening across the
island, including several in the capital.

The Cuban tourism minister, Manuel Marrero, has said up to 10 courses
may be built. The government is worried that the £1bn-a-year tourism
industry, a crucial foreign exchange earner, is slumping. High prices
and mediocre facilities are blamed for a 4.3% drop in visitor numbers in
2006 and another dip last year. A particular concern is that few
Britons, the most common visitor after Canadians, return for a second visit.

Enter golf. The sport has helped the nearby Dominican Republic boost
tourist numbers and President Raul Castro, who has succeeded his ailing
older brother, hopes it can do the same for the impoverished communist
island. "They know they need to get more money into here and they know
golf may be able to do that," said one western diplomat.

Investors are being encouraged to build courses while the government
plans a £90m upgrade to tourism infrastructure. A golf taskforce is said
to have been formed, though details are sketchy.

A Canadian firm is considering a 36-hole course in eastern Cuba and
European firms are investigating other sites. The London-based
architects Foster and Partners have plans for a resort on the west coast
while the French firm Bouygues Bâtiment is considering a marina-and-golf
project in Varadero.

But the plans have yet to leave the drawing board and sceptics dismiss
the sport's revival as wishful thinking, not least because the state
does not recognise the right to buy and sell property. Rumours that
investors will be granted 75-year leases remain rumours. Investors say
the regime's desire for golf dollars is genuine but bureaucracy and
ideology stymie basic business.

"I've stopped going to government press conferences about this," said
one Havana-based journalist. "They've been talking about golf for years.
I'll believe it's happening when somebody starts actually building a

Golf arrived in Cuba in the 1920s and was associated with the
Americanised elite. When the revolution triumphed in 1959, Havana had
three courses. Fidel, though not keen on the game, played Guevara in
1962 as a publicity stunt.

Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, a reporter who covered the event, said the two
revolutionaries were hyper-competitive. Fidel, a bad loser, resented
being beaten even though his deputy had more experience from caddying in
his youth in Argentina.

The course, Colinas de Villareal, was ripped up and converted into a
barracks. Another course, the Havana Biltmore Golf Club, was turned into
an arts school, leaving only the Havana Golf Club. Its grandeur has
faded. These days the bar is musty, tee-flags are missing and staff
spend idle moments knocking fruit from the trees. The £10 fee – the
average monthly state wage – means players tend to be diplomats and
Cubans who work for foreign firms.

"It can get pretty quiet here," said Vega, the instructor, who grew up
opposite the course and has worked there six days a week for 15 years.
The loneliness of the long distance runner is nothing compared to being
one of a kind in Havana. "It can feel pretty solitary."

Apart from Varadero, a two-hour drive away, Vega has never played
another course, nor travelled abroad.

"I know every inch of this place. It's nice but it gets boring." Despite
the odd visit by celebrities such as Diego Maradona there is little to
break the monotony. "I don't know whether new courses will be built or
not. If they are … " his voice trailed off, and he squinted down an
all-too familiar fairway, "that would be lovely."

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