Golf clubs don’t have an edifying connection to Cuba. In April 1959, three months after the establishment of revolutionary power, Fidel Castro traveled to the United States as a guest of the American Society of News Editors, which was understood as an act of “singular bad behavior” in a meeting of the National Security Council for not having consulted it with the Department of State.
President Eisenhower, who seriously considered denying the visa to the unpredictable and heretic bearded young man, finally decided to not receive him and instead put him to speak with Vice President Richard Nixon. The story started off badly from the beginning. Eisenhower had decided to go golfing.
A short time later golf would function like a sort of boomerang when Fidel himself, Che Guevara and Antonio Núñez Jiménez played a game in the fields of the Colinas Villarreal, to the east of Havana, but not dressed with the traditional attire of shorts or white slacks, golf shoes and dark glasses, but rather with their respective olive green uniforms and black boots. The unprecedented event was captured by the lens of Korda, the photographer that would go down in history for shooting one of the world’s most famous images. Anyone would have said that the three guerrilla leaders were applying a classical and very effective republican institution: an act of jesting, something that no one would ever do to a president, much less to a U.S. one.
Golf was not only the expression of an aristocratic and elitist sport but also a symbol of the U.S. presence in Cuba, associated among other things to the mafia, casinos, prostitution and alienation. For good reasons, revolutions frequently function like pendulums, which explains the decadence of almost all the courses in a short while.
Before 1959 Cuba was one of the Caribbean countries with the most installations for this sport of Scottish origin (a total of eight, four in Havana). One of them, in the Country Club, gave way to an art school, emblematic not just for its architecture but also for receiving girls and boys of several social origins, but especially those who never would have been able to enter the very exclusive club. In the end only three remained: one in Capdevila, close to the Rancho Boyeros highway; another in Jaimanitas – the former Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, currently the Club Habana; and another in Varadero, built on the grounds of the Dupont family.
In the 1990s, when tourism was the locomotive that pulled the economy – according to the horrifying metaphor with a futuristic flavor – the development of golf courses was not among the priorities. However, starting 2010, with the updating of the Cuban model, one more step was taken trying to attract a certain type of visitor, more elite, and therefore less related to packages and upstarts. High consumption tourism, according to the technicians.
The Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and the Revolution, approved in April 2011, establish in their point number 289 “considering the creation of specialized enterprises of national reach in the functions of the projects and construction for programs like: golf courses, dolphinariums, marinas, Spas, theme and water parks, which are closely linked to the infrastructure of tourism and other sectors that require them.”
Negotiations for the golf courses began through something that did come from that decade: the joint ventures. And with an unprecedented element, in addition to a new Law on Foreign Investment (April 2014): the modification of the Civil Code that establishes the right over land area for up to 99 years, previously limited to a maximum of 50 (Law 59, 1988). Also the right over land area in perpetuity for the construction of housing or apartments for tourism.
“This year golf is becoming a reality in Cuba. The key moment was a change in the Cuban property law…to make much more attractive foreign property,” a British executive involved in one of these projects said.
Until a short time ago, two were the most famous entities in terms of golf clubs and real estate: the first, the British Esencia Hotels & Resorts, associated to the Palmares Non-Hotel Business Group to build a golf course, 650 apartments, a hotel, tennis courts, a shopping mall, a spa and a nautical club a few kilometers from Varadero beach resort, on an area of 170 hectares. The Carbonera Golf and Country Club joint venture was created for this purpose in early 2014, with an investment of some 350 million dollars. The main British investment on the island, according to former ambassador Tim Cole.
“We’ve been working on this for seven years,” said Andrew McDonald, executive of Esencia Hotels & Resorts, to the CNN chain. “This new golf course will meet all the technical requirements…and will serve to explore the golf players segment that today we are not in conditions to promote, and which would bring in more income to the country,” said Ivis Fernández, delegate of the Ministry of Tourism in Matanzas.
The second is not western but Asian: the Beijing Enterprises Holdings Limited also got on the bandwagon with the Palmares Group to build another 18-hole course with marina, condominiums and hotels in the zone of Bellomonte, Guanabo, to the east of Havana. This was announced during the visit to Cuba by Wang Dang, president of the aforementioned corporation, in May 2015, a year after Chinese President Xi Jiping’s stay in the capital of all Cubans. It is already being executed.
In addition, projects like that of Punta Colorada, in Pinar del Río, which was announced in the last Tourism Fair in Holguín, stand out on the map. This course involves the Spanish firm La Playa Golf & Resorts SL in association with Palmares and includes a golf academy, a marina, seven golf courses, there boutique hotels and a considerable number of real estate properties between apartments, houses and deluxe villas. It will be located close to the National Park by the same name, a world biosphere reserve. An area with 30 kilometers of virgin coast, of which 16 are covered in beaches.
Two destinations have also been announced for Cienfuegos, on the southern coast: Rancho Luna-Pasacaballos and Playa Inglés-La Tatagua. In the first, some 20 kilometers from the provincial capital, six 18-hole golf courses will be built and more than 16,000 facilities between hotels, apartments and villas. In the second, 60 kilometers from the same site, three golf courses with more than 5,000 rooms. A total of nine.
There hasn’t been too much public information about some of them. In Guardalavaca, Holguín, one promoted by a consortium of Canadian indigenous people was being negotiated. Graham Cooke, a golf course architect, said in 2011: “We were told that this incursion has topmost priority in investment.” Others were located in Santa Lucía beach, to the north of Camagüey; in Covarrubias, Las Tunas; in Cojímar, Havana; in Bacunayagua (Mayabeque-Havana border); in El Salado (Artemisa, close to Mariel); in Jibacoa (Santa Cruz del Norte, Mayabeque). And one on the island below: the Colony.
In early May, during FITCuba 2017, held in the Playa Pesquero Hotel, Holguín, it was announced that the Cubagolf SA enterprise, until now barely known but surely made up by the same officials and experts of the Palmares Group, had signed letters of intent with two companies from China and Germany following the rhyme of real estate companies, golf courses and marinas.
A project in Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos, was announced with the German CON-IMPEX Touristik, which in its first stage will have 500 apartments, a marina with 300 mooring spaces and a 300-room five-star hotel. And a not specified number of holes. With the Chinese one, the Yantai Golden Mountain Limited, another hotel-housing complex will be built in Loma Linda, Guardalavaca, presumably the same of the already mentioned Canadians, which for some reason of the kingdom of this world did not prosper. Specific data about this one have not been given.
During the Havana Fair, the newspaper Juventud Rebelde aseptically published that the golf courses were “one of the alternatives with a view to diversifying the country’s tourist options.” More recently, during the First Cuba-Mexico Tourist Business Forum, Minister of Tourism Manuel Marrero insisted that the prioritized activities of his sector included the operation of hotels and real estate developments with golf courses. But in the Cuban press the lack of opinion articles about this subject pervades.
A report available on the web identifies one of the fundamental problems of these projects: water. A golf course consumes 2.3 million liters a day, the equivalent of 244 million liters a year. If the intended amount of golf courses – 18 – materializes, that would mean a consumption of between 13,993 and 20,991 million liters a year.
Evidently, the phrase attributed to General Máximo Gómez – “The Cubans or don’t arrive or pass by” – again rides. There are several master questions involved in this fact. The first is if the return of the clubs will leave us begging for water on an island that would have too many holes, on top and bottom. The previously mentioned report points out that there is an 80 percent risk that Havana, Varadero and Holguín will have a great shortage of water in 2025. And NASA concluded that we are being left without water on a global level.
The second is how to manage effectively those globalizing mammoth complexes in a country affected by problems like droughts – right now one is hitting the country, and hard -, and climate change, the deterioration of the soils and the decrease of the aquifer reserves. To mention the least important, the image of Tiger Woods in Guanabo, with its golf clubs in one hand and a bucket of water on the other, is still in my mind.
The experts and executives of Cubagolf then have the last word.