Varadero's Architectural Charm Threatened by Tourism
By Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, Mar 2, 2011 (IPS) – Important architectural works from the
Modern movement in Cuba appear to be doomed as a result of the expansion
of massive hotel complexes, which threaten to take over the landscape in
Varadero, this country's most famous beach resort.
The alert was first sounded in 2010 when rumours began to spread about
the demolition of the Hotel Internacional and the Hotel Club Cabañas del
Sol, two 1950s structures located in a prime area of Varadero, which is
140 km east of Havana, in the province of Matanzas.
Two statements issued by the ICOMOS National Committee, the Cuban branch
of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, in May and November
have received no response, architect Jorge Fornés told IPS.
Fornés is chair of the National Committee of ICOMOS, an independent
international non-governmental organisation of professionals dedicated
to the conservation of the world's historic monuments and sites, which
works closely with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
"Independently of any decisions, I have no doubt as an architect that it
is not necessary to eliminate something valuable to build something
new," he said. "If there is interest in preserving a valuable piece of
heritage, there is always a way to do so," he added, citing cases like
the conservation of the colonial fortifications in Old Havana.
Nor have demands from intellectuals and academics, mainly circulated by
email, received an official public response from representatives of the
Tourism Ministry or coverage by the media. An employee at the Hotel
Internacional told IPS, "The decision has already been reached."
"There are contradictory versions," Roberto Fernández García, a poet who
lives in Varadero, said in an email message that sums up the results of
his inquiries and those of others interested in the case, posed to the
Tourism Ministry's provincial authorities.
Tourism Ministry officials in Matanzas said "The Hotel Internacional,
which opened on Dec. 24, 1950, is very old, small and old-fashioned,
with few rooms, and no longer meets the requirements of today's
tourism," according to Fernández García's message.
He said the 161-room hotel would be demolished to build, on the same
site, a modern 800-room structure. Cabañas del Sol, other tourist
installations from the first half of the 20th century — when architects
of the Modern movement were seeking a fresh expression of the Cuban
identity — and buildings in the old city in Varadero are also
apparently facing the same fate.
But the Matanzas office of the historian offered a different
explanation. According to a message circulated by the Cofradía de la
Negritud, a non-governmental association of black people, in this case
the response was that "The hotel's plumbing system is in a state of
collapse, so it is more economical to demolish it and build from
scratch, than to repair it."
But tourism authorities did not mention poor structural condition to the
hotel's employees. "They told us the hotel would be demolished because
of environmental regulations, and that it was useless to turn to Eusebio
Leal to save the hotel," one worker told IPS.
Supposedly Leal, a national lawmaker and the head of the ICOMOS National
Committee, would be unable to do anything to preserve a structure built
on a sand dune, like more than 100 other buildings and thousands of
metres of walls and fences that will have to be demolished, according to
Alfredo Cabrera, director of the office in charge of the management of
Varadero's beaches, had ensured IPS in 2007 that before a decision was
reached about a demolition, his office took into account "the cultural
heritage or historical value of the structure," and whether it served
"an important social function."
An employee at the Varahicacos ecological reserve, meanwhile, who a few
years ago experienced the "breakdown" of the management of that
protected area due to the construction of a mega-hotel, told IPS that in
the case of the Hotel Internacional, environmental and heritage
interests should be reconciled.
Sources close to the Tourism Ministry confirmed that the Hotel
Internacional has reached an agreement with another country to build a
modern hotel, similar to so many others built in Varadero in recent
years near the Internacional and Cabañas del Sol hotels.
Half of the over two million tourists who visit Cuba every year go to
Varadero, which has more than 18,000 rooms in 49 hotels on 22 kilometres
The municipality of 26,600 people, which includes Varadero and two
neighbouring towns, received a record of more than 31,000 visitors in
one day in February, in the context of the expansion of resort tourism
"This is a preview of what could be about to hit us on a much, much
larger scale, because the country needs money urgently," Mario Coyula,
winner of the National Architecture Prize in 2001, told IPS, without
directly mentioning the complicated economic situation the country has
been in since the early 1990s.
Above and beyond architectural questions, Coyula, an architect and urban
designer, pointed out that "for many people these two hotels are
distinctive features of the local landscape, which are fast disappearing
in Varadero, as is coexistence (between the tourists) and the local
population, which is increasingly marginalised and isolated."
Architects, artists, writers and journalists who have called for saving
what is left of the Varadero of the 1950s point to the enormous
potential for the promotion of cultural tourism, with an offer that
differs from "the standardised sun and sand tourism in all-inclusive
resorts" that can be found on any Caribbean island.
"I see this as a natural result of excessive centralisation, which
stands in the way of dealing with thousands of small and medium
investors who could generate more stable and balanced wealth," Coyula
said. "And the most important thing: small-scale investors cannot impose
their own conditions."