Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Castro Courts International Visitors CUBA: TOWARD FREE ENTERPRISE

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Castro Courts International Visitors CUBA: TOWARD FREE ENTERPRISE

Article excerpt

MORE than three decades after guiding Cuba into the communist bloc, Fidel Castro is quietly flirting with capitalism in an effort to revive his nation's battered economy.

As President Castro publicly condemns Soviet perestroika (restructuring), he is privately courting Western investors in hopes of turning Cuba into one of the Caribbean's premier tourist destinations.

Cuban planners even speak wistfully of a rapprochement with the United States that would permit American tourists and investors to infuse the island with dollars.

"We have to think like capitalists but continue being socialists," says Georgina Cepero Hernandez, director of promotions and international relations for the National Institute of Tourism. "It's difficult, but we manage to do it. It's a fast way to develop the country. We don't care about ideology. We're in tourism."

But as Mr. Castro experiments with capitalism, he must deal with serious obstacles, including an inefficient work force and Washington's refusal to lift a 30-year economic embargo.

The new-found pragmatism is driven in part by the prospect of losing $4.5 billion annually in Soviet economic assistance. Although the subsidy continues, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has made it clear that it is a burden he would like to shed.

Castro also faces a population anxious for material benefits that the revolution has failed to provide. (See story at left.)

Tourism offers a quick means of attracting Western currency. To accomplish that end, Castro said recently he wants to boost the annual number of visitors to Cuba from the present 300,000 to 2 million by the year 2000.

In addition, Cuba is aggressively soliciting foreign investors. Within the past year, the island has attracted nearly $100 million in Spanish and Italian investment for tourist developments, including a $47 million Cohiba resort scheduled to open in time for the Pan American games next summer. Ms. Cepero says construction of the hotel about 20 miles east of Havana, plus other building and renovation projects, will add 5,000 new hotel rooms to the 9,000 available to foreign visitors.

But making tourism succeed will not be easy. Cuba spends only $3 million per year on advertising, and its biggest potential market, the US, remains off limits.

Although it is not illegal for a US citizen to travel to Cuba, it is a crime to spend dollars there. Exceptions are made for journalists on assignment, students, and those visiting relatives. Only about 6,000 Americans visit Cuba per year, compared to 50,000 Canadians and a like number of West Germans. Cuban officials concede that they need trade with the US. They would like to see the Bush administration lift the travel restrictions as well as the economic boycott.

"We need every help we can get," says Mano Coyula, deputy director of the Group for the Integral Development of Havana, a collection of architects and engineers planning Old Havana's renovation. …

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