The Real Varadero Cuba

Given that Varadero’s present population of 20,000 is twice what it was in 1990, and there are at least 60 resorts, it is definitely not the sleepy little resort town it was in earlier times.

In 1910, the filthy rich Iturrioz family developed an estate on the grounds of what today is Varadero’s Josone Park. It is said that the patriarch of the family so valued his privacy that he had a tunnel built from his property to the beach about a block away, and when he wished to swim, sent servants ahead to shoo everyone else away. He wanted privacy and so did other wealthy families who bought beach properties in and around Varadero. With at least 20 kilometres of pristine white sand beach, there was room for all of them to have privacy, even after 1931 when someone thought to build a hotel. Cuba’s native bourgeoisie, plus wealthy Americans (who by then controlled most of the island’s resources) continued to vacation in Varadero. Among those who built elegant residences on beachfront properties were: Irenee Dupont who during World War I had earned a fortune by the manufacture of munitions; Al Capone who earned his in a less legal but equally reprehensible way; and Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista, who combined the unsavoury qualities of both those men to acquire his wealth.
It was about then that 400-year-old Varadero underwent a 30-year period that could fairly be called un-Cuban. Between 1929 and 1959, Cubans were banned from Varadero unless they owned property on the peninsula or were servants or guests of someone who did. The Revolution, of course, put an end to that nonsense.

One of the first things the Castro government did when it took power in 1959 was to open all Cuban beaches to all Cubans. The wealthy fled and their properties were confiscated. Al Capone’s “cottage” became a restaurant. Dupont’s Spanish Renaissance mansion, Xanadú, became a six-room guest house with restaurant, bar, and adjacent golf course. Batista’s compound, Cuatro Palmas, was first used to by the Revolutionary government to house young people being trained as teachers to be sent into the countryside to eradicate illiteracy and later recycled as a beachfront resort—one of the few right in town. Once again Varadero had become wholly Cuban.
But not for the rich alone because under the new regime there weren’t supposed to be any rich Cubans. La Vanguardia (model workers) were given government-paid vacations at the Cuban-owned resorts. About the only foreigners one saw in Varadero in those days were a few white-bodied Russian advisors who had driven from Havana in their government-issue Lada. On my first visit to Varadero in 1997, I stayed not in a hotel but in a campismo (Cuba’s version of a campground). That beach, as beautiful as any I have ever seen, swarmed with Cuban teenagers who had been bussed there by their school and were lodged, for free, in little on-the-beach A-frames.

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