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Cuba's only 18-hole course -- so far...
Cuba's only 18-hole course -- so far...
Augusto Assia

HAVANA – Black-and-white images of Che Guevara and a clumsy Fidel Castro, dressed in military attire, leaning on his golf club a few feet away from the hole, gave way to many years of ostracism towards golf in Cuba.

Cubans still don’t know why golf courses were suddenly converted into public institutions. Was it because golf was considered a bourgeois game – a symbol of capitalism – or after the Cuban leader lost that game of golf against the Argentine revolutionary?

One of history’s ironies – 51 years later, Castro’s son Antonio is one of the best golf players on the island, and golf has become a central focus of expansion plans to attract more tourists to Cuba.

In 1962, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as a nod or a peace sign toward U.S. President JFK, Castro and el Che decided to play a game of golf. Lorenzo Fuentes, the journalist who covered the story at the time, had already picked his title for the article: “President Castro challenges President Kennedy in a friendly golf tournament.”

Since Castro had never played golf before, el Che, who had worked as a caddie during his youth in Argentina, gave him a quick lesson. In the end, Che won. On the par-72 course, el Che finished with 55+ and Castro with 78+.

Soon after that, Havana’s two golf courses were transformed into a military college and an art school. During the 1990s, with the end of the Soviet Union threatening Cuba’s economic survival, the island turned to tourism as an alternative -- the government decided to reclaim some of its courses.

Luxury tourism and “violent capitalism”

Today, as part of the reforms undertaken by the golf champion’s uncle, Raul Castro, 16 tourism projects have been approved, among which are the construction of infrastructures geared toward luxury tourism such as golf courses, homes and marinas. The Cuban government is doing all it can to attract more international visitors with an ambitious plan that includes increasing hotel capacity from 65,000 to 85,000 rooms.

In 2013, the government will open four new hotels in Los Cayos, Varadero and Trinidad. It also wants to increase accommodation capacity in cities such as Havana, where three new hotels will be inaugurated in the historical district, and the iconic Capri hotel will be reopened in the Vedado district. The private sector is also doing its bit with 6,115 hotel rooms and 950 private houses licensed to rent, as well as 2,242 restaurants that are not state-owned.

Cuba is also exploring novel tourism avenues, including a real-estate and golf course project, marinas, ecotourism, nature and adventure tourism and the promotion of their ten UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites, among others.

Last year, 2.8 million tourists visited the island, 4.5% up from 2011, and this year that number is expected to exceed the three million-visitor mark. This despite negative factors such as the international crisis and the decrease in international flights to Cuba.

In Cuba, there is talk about Antonio Castro being behind the projects, part of a plan to promote “violent capitalism” as Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe called it. But as Antonio admitted on his Twitter account, “Yes, I am Fidel Castro’s son, but so what?”

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