HAVANA, Cuba. – I don’t understand how they can do that. The situation here is dismal, there’s a pile of cases, a pile of deaths every day. To open our borders is insane, but these people (the government) only care about filling up the hotels and making money.” Those were the words Yasmani Jorge used to describe the Cuban government’s recent announcement about opening its borders this coming November 15. Once again, international tourism will return on the eve of the anniversary of the founding of the nation’s capital. It’s a “return to paradise” where, in addition to beaches and mojitos, vaccines will be made available.
That was the announcement made by Dr. Vicente Vérez in early 2021, when Soberana 02 and Abdala stood to not only protect the Cuban people, but most importantly, as a new exportable and attractive item through which to incentivize health tourism to the island. However, the triumphalism of the moment did not fare well in light of the sustained increase of positive Covid-19 cases, and the high number of deaths in a population of 11 million people.
In January, when the TeleSur network began promoting the tropical-paradise-cum– biotechnological-power combo, Cuba was recording more than 800 cases per day, an increase that resulted from the reopening of its borders in November 2020. A lack of control over incoming travelers who were not complying with the required period of quarantine, as well as a fear that the public health system could collapse, caused the inter-provincial shutdown in March of this year, although airport activity continued, but with a few limitations. Four months later, the number of positive cases had increased to more than 9,000, as well as the number of deaths which, as of August 4, set a record of 98 deaths in a single day.
The reason for the hike of positive Covid-19 cases was the arrival at Varadero and the northern keys of Ciego de Ávila of hundreds of Russian tourists this past April. This news was celebrated in the official media, which also assured the populace that all health protocols would be followed. In practice, the opposite was true: the isolation protocols were violated by the Russians. According to hotel workers and staff, the Russians refused to wear face masks and took to the streets of Varadero without protection.
The rest is history: the nightmarish reality in Matanzas province where all medical centers were at maximum capacity with patients agonizing due to oxygen shortages; the number of deaths way above the figures officially reported; and a people in mourning due to the negligence of a government that allowed entry to tourists from a country where only 10% of the population was fully vaccinated.
A similar scenario could develop with borders reopening next November 15. Cuba continues to report thousands of positive cases on a daily basis, although the number of deaths has diminished slightly. Conditions at hospitals where the Cuban population must seek healthcare have not improved, but the international clinics are certainly ready to welcome its most sought-after patients with every resource and pharmaceutical available, the same that Cuban nationals must purchase at abusive prices -which at times constitutes an entire month’s salary- in order to save a loved one.
According to Iliana Reyes –chief of sales at the Cuban company that markets medical services, CSMC, by its Spanish acronym- “the company is readying itself to welcome the largest number possible of patients and family members,” all of whom will be treated with deference in exchange for the money the dictatorship needs to stay afloat. It’s not surprising that the number of cases in Matanzas province have gone down so rapidly: Varadero is the most important tourism destination in the island, and generates substantial profits for the regime and its European partners.
The need to open up to tourism is so urgent that the Minister of Public Health, José Ángel Portal Miranda, has insisted in controlling the pandemic in Trinidad –another of Cuba’s most visited destinations- while the rest of Sancti Spíritus province endures a shortage of resources, the inability of health personnel to perform, and the incompetence of political authorities.
The pandemic has shown just how impoverished the infrastructure of the public health system really is on a national level, however, the paradox is more visible in those provinces that generate substantial earnings on account of tourism, and in whose hospitals even basic analgesics and bronchodilators are lacking. Trinidad, La Habana, Varadero and Holguín are the best examples that can be used to decry the falsehoods of the regime’s slogan that affirms that “all earnings from the tourism sector are for the people.”
“I think it’s very risky, but we have to open-up because the situation is at the verge of collapse. There is no money, no food, no work (…) Where there are tourists, at least there are possibilities, even if you don’t work directly with them, something good will always cling to you. The issue is that it (the economy) has to move a bit,” is Aniel Reyes’ opinion. Reyes hasn’t had work for more than a year, has spent all his savings and, like so many other Cubans, makes a living standing on market waiting-lines to buy products most of which he will then resell.
Official media has also stated that the domestic tourism market will open gradually as well, paying close attention to the epidemiological indicators in each province. It is a reasonable plan, but previous experiences have shown that reality turns out much more complicated than originally planned. Starting in November, each Cuban national, vaccinated or not, will be facing on his/her own whatever foreign winds bring, whether it be new variants of the virus, asymptomatic positives, or travelers willing to bribe their way out of skipping the health protocols. The debacle caused by Russian tourism made evident that it is useless to demand discipline from guests who are coming to enjoy the pleasures of the house -beaches, rum, dark-skinned women, music, vintage cars- which their hosts are happy to provide them.
The Cuban vaccine could serve as aggregate value for foreigners who have had no access to any of the vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO); but Cuba will sell the usual, and the regime bets on being able to do just that in order to generate a few million dollars more straight into its dilapidated saddlebags. As for Cuban nationals? Let them fend for themselves. After all, the regime would rather see them ten feet under than demonstrating in the streets.
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