Most people planning a trip to Cuba these days can't help but consider the Fidel factor. In power since 1959, Fidel Castro defines the nation, but his health has been widely reported to be in decline. His failure to make an anticipated appearance at his 80th-birthday celebrations in December confirmed the worst. But while Miami's Cuban community is gearing up to party when the official announcement of his death comes, travellers to Cuba are praying that it doesn't happen during their vacation—which it very well might.
On December 14, then–U.S. director of national intelligence John Negroponte told the Washington Post that Castro's death would take place “not much longer”¦months, not years” in the future. The paper reported that after his July 2006 surgery for an intestinal disorder, his brother Raúl Castro assumed his duties, even as Cuban authorities insisted that Fidel would return to office.
Uncertainty over Fidel's health contributed to a four-percent decline in tourist numbers last year, says Christopher Baker. The author of Moon Handbooks Cuba (Avalon Travel Publishing, $30.95), which has recently been published in its fourth edition, is in Vancouver March 1 for a sold-out talk and slide show on Cuba. From his home in California, Baker tells the Straight that he doesn't think unrest will follow Fidel's death, since he believes the political transition has already taken place.
“Raúl has taken charge of Cuba. There's no doubt that he's leading a post-Fidel government right now,” Baker says. The author of five books on Cuba has been visiting the country for 30 years, most recently in December. “The mood on the street is business as usual,” he says. “I think most people are expecting that when he [Fidel] dies or they announce his death that not much is really going to change.”
So the island isn't ripe for revolution? “Washington may like to think that the Cuban people are ready to get up and overthrow any Raúl Castro government,” Baker says. “It's just not reality. It's not going to happen. That mood doesn't exist. The vast, vast majority [of Cubans] are resigned to seeing how things work out under Raúl. I don't see any signs whatsoever that there's going to be major unrest.”
Baker acknowledges that it's in his own best interest to promote Cuban tourism. However, he also points out that a Raúl Castro government won't improve the tourism industry's “weak links”. “The service continues to be really bad,” he says. “The management of these [Cuba's] hotels is absolutely pitiful”¦complaints never get addressed.” Food in most areas of the country remains “very mediocre”. “The Cuban economy just structurally cannot address issues of service and food. That's one of the defects of the Communist system.”
Baker also notes that since the government revalued the currency in 2005, it's become 10 percent more expensive to visit. “Cuba is no longer the bargain it was,” he says.
That said, the potential for an influx of American tourists post-Fidel is already prompting more demanding standards. “The real question is what's going to happen when the U.S. lifts travel restrictions,” Baker says. He believes there's momentum in the Democrat-controlled Congress to do so, and that a Democratic president would seal the deal. If that happens, Baker says, “studies suggest that one million U.S. citizens will go to Cuba that first year, after the lifting of travel restrictions.” With two million tourists currently visiting Cuba each year, “The impact is going to be absolutely immense for the Cuban economy and social structure.”