HAVANA, Cuba. – According to a Sancti Spíritus Radio employee’s Facebook post, around 10:00 pm on the evening of September 30, 2020, two adjacent houses on Cespedes and Bartolome Maso streets collapsed. The deteriorated conditions of the buildings caused this disaster in which, luckily, there were no fatalities.
Around that time, maybe on that same evening and also in Sancti Spíritus, but in the Ancon Peninsula, construction brigades from the Cuban-Italian Asociacion Economica Internacional Construcciones Trinidad (AEI Trinidad), we on the last stretch of pouring approximately 1000 cubic yards of cast concrete in situ that the perimeter fence required for what shall be the largest hotel in the province, the Meliá Trinidad Playa, which is scheduled for inauguration as soon as the final stages of construction are completed.
The collapse of the two houses is not an exception in Sancti Spíritus, neither is the priority that hotel investments receive in detriment of the preservation and expansion of the housing inventory.
Long before this happened, on February 7th, 2020, the official newspaper Escambray in Trinidad province, published an article about the need to “eliminate sloppiness in the construction of housing.” During a regional construction meeting, according to the article, “it is evident that the lack of stability of existing resources persists in the Commerce (Ministry) stores, such as sand, hydraulic modules, bathroom fixtures and carpentry supplies.”
More recently, on May 8th, 2021, that same newspaper published a report titled “Perilous neighborhoods: the city’s chiaroscuros” describing s reality of “haphazardly constructed housing using inadequate materials and not-meeting urbanization requirements,” in severe contrast with the investment effervescence of the hotel industry in Cuba, where apparently there are no limits when it comes to building another five-star hotel.
Without digging into the true causes of this phenomenon in order to expose it, the aforementioned report also states that there are today in Sancti Spíritus 15 neighborhoods and 14 perilous squatter grounds, that together total more than 15,000 houses in deteriorated structural condition.
Quoting Ciro Rodriguez, deputy director of the province’s Department of Physical Planning, the report also states that there are areas of extreme poverty, like La Ford, Camino de los Hornos and La Guanabana “where many of the ‘houses’ and rooms have been built piecemeal forming what is now an amalgam of inhabitable and non-inhabitable parapets erected into four walls with all kinds of materials (…) Housing that results from the efforts of their residents but that lack all or most urban requirements, urban infrastructure like electricity, running water, sanitation, and the required basic social services.”
Thus, due to a lack of construction materials, the impossibility of securing them through trade networks, the difficulties of receiving a subsidy or government assistance for repairs, the housing deficit that affects almost one million Cubans throughout the island, the inventory of unsolved problems grows every year. This is the harsh reality that lingers as the other side of the construction frenzy vis a vis international tourism.
During the months of pandemic-related global economic crisis and of domestic shortages caused by the Communist Party’s inhuman handling of the economy, construction of new hotels has not stopped. On the contrary, construction has intensified even though the authorities know that the millions of U.S. tourists projected to visit Cuba as a result of thawing U.S.-Cuba relations under Barack Obama will never come. There is even talk about the leisure industry plummeting as the global crisis extends beyond 2021.
That notwithstanding, the completion of the new Meliá Trinidad Playa hotel is on high speed mode. Trinidad Playa, also promoted by hotel chain and tour operators alike as the Meliá Trinidad Peninsula, plans to launch the high tourism season in Cuba on time, a season which spans the months of November through March.
With 401 guest rooms distributed among seven building –one of them described as “luxury”- the new hotel occupies 17.3 acres, only a few feet from Maria Aguilar beach and only ten minutes from Trinidad’s historic downtown. Finished and ready for use in the complex -an “all included” type of hotel- are the 11 swimming pools that form an interior lake; the commercial area; the gyms; conference rooms; restaurant; and bars. These are high-quality services that qualify the facility as a four-star hotel (at the start it was conceived as that), although the promo pages of Meliá Hotels International it is being promoted as a four-star plus and even a five-star installation.
Although the construction of Meliá Trinidad Playa started officially on April 9th, 2018, actual groundbreaking began in late 2017, under a verbal agreement that would be formalized one year later in Havana during the XII Construction Fair (FECCNS 2018).
Since at the time there wasn’t an adequate specialized labor force in Sancti Spíritus to undertake the task, the firm AEI Construcciones Trinidad was founded in 2017. This was another joint venture that involved TOSCUBA S.A., a consortium where Group T.O.M.A. participates. It served as an umbrella organization for several northern Italian companies (previously known as Mosaico S.A.) linked to DINVAI Construcciones which belongs to Cuba’s Construction Ministry. The Cuban side committed to finding workers in Sancti Spíritus and in other provinces, while the Italian side committed to total financing; the technological infrastructure regarding climate control and refrigeration (Tonoimpianti s.r.l. would be in charge of that); full design details of guest rooms (under the auspices of the important furniture and interior design company TONON); and the importing of high quality finishing materials (by Oberosler and MAEG Costruzioni).
A director for the Italian side recently informed CubaNet that, to date, disbursement of the investment projected for 2020 exceeded the 150 million Euros originally earmarked, and that an additional 60 million Euros were pending in keeping with a similar agreement signed in 2002. This agreement never materialized, in spite of the fact that these funds were released to the Cubanacán S.A.-owned hotel chain Horizontes Hoteles. Both Horizontes and Meliá were supposed to handle the administration jointly.
On condition of anonymity, the same director added: “Work at the Meliá Trinidad Playa were never stopped, even though with border closing both here and in Italy during the past months, delayed completion by one year: original delivery was set for mid 2020. Such setback has served to do things better, with greater care; the hotel will open this year (2021). This is a project that was originally agreed to in 2018, but the initial agreements date back to 2001 and 2002, and were for a hotel with fewer guest rooms and lesser quality, on the same site. Its management will be a joint effort between Cubanacán and Meliá. However, terrible things happened at the Tourism Ministry, and the project was frozen, some 60 million Euros were “lost”. Thanks to the efforts of other Italian friends who live here, the Cuban side agreed to restore that money before the end of 2030, as per an agreement between us and the Cuban government through CICI (Comitato Imprenditoriale Cuba Italia).”
According to press reports published in June 2002, the joint-venture company Toscuba S.A. was to build a hotel on Maria Aguilar beach at the Ancon Peninsula in Sancti Spíritus. This hotel was to be completed by 2004 and delivered, under a management contract, to Meliá and Cubanacán (associates of the German tour operator TUI); it was to have a four-star rating, 292 guest rooms, and would be the first foreign capital project undertaken by the Cuban hotel group Horizontes.
That is how Cubanacán S.A. intended to outdo the military-owned Gaviota S.A. (which belongs to GAESA): by incorporating 2000 hotel rooms between 2006 and 2010. But the sudden removal of Tourism Minister, Ibrahim Ferradás. in 2004, presumably on charges of corruption, and the appointment of Manuel Marrero Cruz, a former member of the military –also, a former GAESA investor and Cuba’s prime minister since 2019- ruined not only Cubanacán’s plans, but also any possibility for a Meliá hotel to be established at the Ancon Peninsula in Trinidad, one of Cuba’s main tourist attractions since being named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.
Fifteen years had to elapse and numerous conversations had to take place between the Italian businessmen and the Cuban regime, before the project was once again approved and its execution given the green light, with one condition: that the Italians agree to include GAESA’s participation along with Cubanacán S.A. in the project. Notwithstanding, GAESA would not lend any of its workforce to the endeavor, especially not the UCM (Unidad de Construcciones Militares / Military Construction Unit) which was engaged at the time in the completion of other more important projects in Havana and Varadero.
For now, the opening of Meliá Trinidad Playa means that 400 additional guest rooms will be added to the Cuban tourism portfolio. The regime’s objective is to increase its hotel rooms inventory above the 100,000-mark for 2030, even when housing repair and construction plans, both state and regional, are not met, nor are solid and continuous strategies designed or implemented related to economic development or social welfare.
Official data from government institutions indicates that there are more than 27,000 housing units already classified as “in bad condition”. This data probably does not reflect the real magnitude of the situation.
The country faces an insufficient output of construction materials. Thirty-four percent of the Ministry of Domestic Commerce’s sales plans remain unmet, because of “insufficient production of bricks due to the deterioration of kilns (…), lack of window frames, boards, wash basins, foundation blocks and concrete enclosures, as well as water tanks.” Which is why the construction of houses falls almost entirely on what is euphemistically referred to as “one’s own effort”, which is nothing more than families abandoned to their fate.