The Tourism Encounter: Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories

The Tourism Encounter: Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories

by Florence Babb


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In recent decades, several Latin American nations have experienced political transitions that have caused a decline in tourism. In spite of—or even because of—that history, these areas are again becoming popular destinations. This work reveals that in post-conflict nations, tourism often takes up where social transformation leaves off and sometimes benefits from formerly off-limits status.
Comparing cases in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru, Babb shows how tourism is a major force in remaking transitional nations. While tourism touts scenic beauty and colonial charm, it also capitalizes on the desire for a brush with recent revolutionary history. In the process, selective histories are promoted and nations remade. This work presents the diverse stories of those linked to the trade and reveals how interpretations of the past and desires for the future coincide and collide in the global marketplace of tourism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804771559
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 08/30/2010
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Florence E. Babb is Vada Allen Yeomans Professor of Women's Studies and Affiliate Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. She authored After Revolution: Mapping Gender and Cultural Politics in Neoliberal Nicaragua (2001) and Between Field and Cooking Pot: The Political Economy of Marketwomen in Peru, Revised Edition (1998).

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The Tourism Encounter

Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories
By Florence E. Babb

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7155-9

Chapter One

Che, Chevys, and Hemingway's Daiquiris Cuban Tourism in Transition

IN HAVANA'S MUSEUM OF THE REVOLUTION, housed in a former presidential palace, a section is devoted to what the Cuban government termed the "special period in peacetime," a deeply difficult period of economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union. A display case in this space quotes Fidel Castro in the early 1990s as he set forth three areas of development intended to resolve the nation's economic problems:

[As] I have said on other occasions, our development efforts during the Special Period are based on three pillars: the food programme, which has to be among the first priorities, considering the difficulties that have to be overcome ... the tourism programme, which is developing well ... the biotechnology programme, which includes the pharmaceutical industry and high-tech medical equipment.

Following this quotation are several images-cruise ship, hotel, and dancing girls-that appear to underscore the primary importance of the tourism component of Cuba's development plan. Indeed, in recent years tourism has become, along with nickel production, a leading industry in Cuba. Furthermore, Cuba has become a key competitor in Caribbean tourism, and despite a slight decline in 2006 and 2007, the number of foreign visitors to the island rose to 2.35 million in 2008.

The return of tourism to this Caribbean island where it famously thrived as a tropical destination before the revolution has brought about a series of cataclysmic changes in Cuban society. It has become de rigueur to describe the clash of socialist and market economies and desires on the island fostered by the growth of tourism and to ask whether tourism will bolster the enduring socialist economy or destabilize it and bring a full-fledged capitalist economy in its wake. Likewise, it is commonplace to ask if tourism can help build a democratic and open society or whether social conflict resulting from a two-tiered society divided into those with and without access to tourist dollars will carry the day. I would suggest that we may view tourism as both "saving the revolution" from collapse and as a catalyst for further social and political change, as well as for engagement with the global market economy, in what one recent analysis refers to as Cuba's "hybrid transition" (Colantonio and Potter 2006:4-8).

Like others who have observed tourism's growth during the past two decades, I am struck by the ambivalence that Cubans reveal in response to the surge in the island's tourism, which has brought both economic recovery and social divisions precipitated by dollarization of the tourist economy (Espino 2000; Martin de Holan and Phillips 1997). At the same time, I have observed the fairly congenial way that diverse tourism niches have developed and offered relief to the suffering political economy. Thus, while my work agrees to some extent with that of analysts who emphasize the tensions and contradictions in Cuban tourism, I depart from them in some significant ways. I argue that just as socialist Cuba has moved toward a more mixed economy that allows for increased collaboration with capitalist nations while retaining centralized state control, the tourism sector has benefited from a similar development strategy. There is a decided advantage to state and society in allowing prerevolutionary capitalist attractions to coexist with socialist revolutionary ones, even as social and economic disparities become more apparent.

My interest lies in examining how Cuba presents this diverse tourism package and turns ambivalent desires for both pre- and postrevolutionary times into a marketable commodity. Drawing on theoretical work coming out of anthropology and tourism studies, I call for attention to the tourism encounter between travelers seeking "exotic" new destinations and societies seeking to market their cultural and national heritage effectively to this clientele (see Bruner 2005; Hanna and Del Casino 2003; MacCannell 1999; Rojek and Urry 1997). I should be clear that the desires I refer to are expressed in different ways by Cubans on and off the island and by travelers making their way to Cuba-they manifest as desires for the familiar or unfamiliar landscape, people, music, food, and so on. Nostalgia for the way things were before as well as after the revolution (and even, perhaps, after an awaited "transition" in the future) has been a stock in trade in Cuba and represents the biggest calling card for tourism development. Even though nostalgia for the distant past would seem to be anathema to the revolutionary project, the government nonetheless participates in reimagining Cuba's history in such a way that the "bourgeois" pre revolutionary period may be viewed as the logical precursor to the triumph of the revolution. Thus, there is less contradiction than first meets the eye in offering up historic Old Havana, Hemingway bars, Tropicana nightclub showgirls, and Buena Vista Social Club music along with revolutionary monuments for tourist consumption in present-day Cuba.

During five research trips to Cuba between 1993 and 2009, I focused my attention on cultural politics and tourism as part of my broader comparative project in the Latin American region. In my research in Nicaragua, I had observed the apparent erasure of the Sandinista revolution in that country and then the traces that still made an appearance on the developing tourism market. I was intrigued by what I describe in the next chapter as recycled notions of revolution in the midst of a commodified travel industry in the country. I judged that it would be instructive to examine similar questions in Cuba, where the revolution has held sway for half a century, albeit with substantial opening up of the market to local entrepreneurs and foreign investors. Staying in Old Havana or nearby Vedado, popular areas for tourists, I also traveled outside the capital to such tourist destinations as Varadero Beach, the model eco-community of Las Terrazas west of Havana, the Viñales valley in Pinar del Río, and the cities of Santa Clara and Trinidad. Twice I traveled with U.S. solidarity groups, and once I joined a Canadian group to "Discover Cuba." I took city tours and day tours outside Havana to get a firsthand view of what guides emphasize and what tourists take away with them. When possible, I gave questionnaires to tourists to fill out on the spot with information on their expectations, experiences, and reasons for travel to Cuba. In addition, I interviewed tour operators in their off-hours and occasionally recorded them during tours.

Beginning with a consideration of diverse forms of tourism and their success in today's Cuba, I show that there are nonetheless social costs that are experienced differentially among the population. I go on to argue that the paradoxes and pleasures of prerevolutionary capitalist-identified tourism in one of the last bastions of socialism are precisely what make Cuba a desired travel destination. With Havana as my principal site for ethnographic research, I describe the packaged "City Tour" as a microcosm of how the capital presents itself to visitors: as an amalgam of colonial architecture and traditional life; prerevolutionary extravagance and nightlife; and socialist modernity and revolutionary culture. In the concluding section of the chapter, I show how these elements come together to offer up a city and nation that is ready for foreign consumption. As José Quiroga so aptly describes, the "ideological memory project [of producing a past based on] what needed to be saved from the period before the revolution" is then put up for sale on the global capitalist market (2005:103).

Tourism in a Mixed Economy

The Cuban government's call for a Special Period in late 1990 was a way of introducing a series of austerity measures and other initiatives to overcome the country's deepening economic crisis. In one assessment of this emergency period following the dismantling of the Soviet Union and its trade with Cuba, sociologist Susan Eckstein (2003) showed that Fidel Castro looked not only to socialist strategies but also to capitalist and indeed precapitalist ones in order to rescue the economy. For example, to maintain the food program, the government allowed socialist principles of collectivist development to remain in place but also permitted agromercados (free markets) and encouraged urban subsistence gardens as a sort of precapitalist alternative for surviving the economic crisis. As necessity became a virtue, saving energy and foraging for needed resources became desirable. Cuban lives were dramatically affected as the nation experienced gasoline and cooking oil shortages and tried to become self-sufficient in food production. The socialist program of agricultural diversification and reduced energy consumption was coupled with a precapitalist reliance on bicycles and horse-drawn carriages for transport as well as production of homemade soaps, herbal medicines, and other goods to meet household needs. At the same time, ironically, new capitalist relations of globalization were introduced to rescue the revolution, as Castro courted foreign investment and encouraged the development of internationally competitive manufacturing and marketing.

Just as Eckstein has noted the multiple strategies of the Cuban state and society for confronting the Cuban economic crisis, I have found such diverse approaches in the area of tourism development. Visitors often note the contradictions of tourism on the island: on the one hand, offering the pleasures of high-end beach resorts and nightlife, luxury hotels in the capital city, and rich architectural history; and on the other hand, promising to show travelers a model of long-lasting revolutionary politics and culture. The nostalgia we find for both the idealized revolutionary past (before the Special Period) and the hedonistic capitalist prerevolutionary past in Cuba is evident on the tourist circuit. The peculiar amalgamation of tourist attractions is precisely what accounts for Cuba's global appeal and its economic advantage. Travelers who pay homage to Che Guevara at the Museum of the Revolution later flock to the famed "Hemingway bars" in Old Havana, the Floridita and the Bodeguita del Medio, followed by an evening out at the Tropicana nightclub to watch racy and extravagant shows.

As tourism has been reestablished as a mainstay of the economy and a key component of the strategy to make gains in the global market, it has also become a window on the many ironies and contradictions in Cuba. Thus, we are struck by the inconsistencies with socialist goals, such as the evident sex tourism and the socioeconomic inequalities in the form of tourism "apartheid," whereby Cubans lack access to tourist venues and revenues unless they work and receive tips in the industry. It is true that with the transition of leadership from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl there has been an official easing of restrictions on places Cubans can patronize, yet the majority of Cubans still do not have the resources to visit tourist hotels and restaurants. Although the government has sought to showcase its enduring nationalist ideology to visitors, sharp distinctions remain within the Cuban population.

While analysts generally agree upon Cuba's accomplishments in education, health care, social welfare, sports, and the arts, they also point to the differential consequences of the Special Period for Cuban citizens depending on their gender, race, and socioeconomic level, as well as their location, whether in Havana or the rest of the island (Holgado Fernández 2000; Safa 1995:166). The Cuban government has suggested that tourism development per se has not entailed a compromise of revolutionary principles and that any problems that have arisen are due to "antisocial" elements in the society. That is, hustlers and sex workers, jineteros, are said to be seeking personal gains at the expense of the revolution rather than responding to a difficult economic climate (Berg 2004b). Like other scholars, I am intrigued by the various aspects of tourism that seem to both undermine and support this socialist nation. However, in my view the resulting tensions are part of the powerful attraction of tourism to what one visitor described to me as "the last Marxist resort."

Tourism's Return in a Transnational Era

Tourism in Cuba has a long history from the late nineteenth century and extending through its mid-twentieth-century heyday, when the United States supplied the majority of visitors to the country. During that time, Havana was called the "Paris of the Antilles" and drew pleasure seekers to the glamorous, tropical destination known for its abundant nightlife. The city became the playground of U.S. mobsters, media celebrities, and the middle class (Pérez 1999; Schwartz 1997). The American influence through tourism allowed for peaceful political and economic control. However, with the revolution in 1959 and the U.S. embargo on trade and travel to Cuba in 1962, the Cuban government halted tourism development as a vestige of the bourgeois past. Hotels were nationalized, clubs were closed, and prostitutes were "reeducated" to become seamstresses and other morally correct citizen-workers of the new society. Ordinary Cubans were offered the chance to enjoy the pleasures of the island that were formerly the exclusive province of the elite and foreign visitors (Cabezas 2009).

In the period following the revolution, travelers to the country were most often activists like those in the Venceremos Brigades coming to cut sugarcane in solidarity with the young revolution. In 1977, the Antonio Maceo Brigades opened up the possibility for Cuban exiles living in the United States to travel to Cuba, which they began to do in large numbers in 1978.16 However, it took the Special Period to bring mainstream tourism back, and its level has surpassed that of the earlier heyday. When I made my first trip to Cuba in 1993, the country was experiencing the severe effects of economic crisis, with residents eating meager meals and sometimes malnourished, facing power outages, and walking or riding bikes to work. I heard many stories of women bearing the burden of feeding families, finding alternatives to such everyday needs as soap and shampoo (often mentioning the use of leaves and other natural materials), and using their ingenuity to acquire scarce goods on the market. Tourists were treated to the best of what the island had to offer, including luxury accommodations and lavish culinary displays, but Cubans were unable to partake in the pleasures of the new tourist economy.

While much scholarly research has been directed to official Cuban policies and formal structures set in place to bolster the state-led economy, less has been directed to the multitude of informal ways in which ordinary Cubans managed to cope with hardships of that time. The period was characterized by what Damián Fernández (2000) so aptly terms Cubans' "passionate politics"-both supportive and critical of government handling of the crisis-and by the intimate and affectionate forms of help that Cubans offered to one another when the state failed to provide its customary (if limited) assistance. Women along with men carried out what was necessary to get by despite crushing conditions, enabling the Cuban state to survive the enormous blow that had struck its foundation.

As the economy began its recovery and cultivated foreign investment, new hotels were built and old ones were renovated. Old Havana received a makeover so that the historic colonial district-designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982-would attract more international visitors. By the mid-1990s, restoration was well under way, particularly in the principal plazas and those streets surrounding them. After forced relocation of some of the local population, the historic area became increasingly a space for international visitors to pass through, enjoy hotels and restaurants, and occasionally make their home. One compelling view is that in restoring the colonial heritage of Old Havana, Cuba has been able to present to its visitors a very selective past that includes previous centuries of settlement and mid-twentieth-century haunts of a celebrated American writer and, in so doing, largely overlooks the later revolution; thus, a new narrative of Cubanness is constructed, largely excluding nonwhite Cubans and ignoring the second half of the twentieth century (Berg 2005). Although this narrower account is part of the larger story made available to tourists, it is also important to consider the degree to which the efforts to restore this leading travel destination were what allowed the socialist government to persevere, with all its flaws. As Matthew Hill (2007:71) describes, reclaiming the distinctive colonial past meant continuing erasures of other pasts, yet successfully "further[ed] the socialist project in a post-socialist world."


Excerpted from The Tourism Encounter by Florence E. Babb Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
Introduction: The Tourism Encounter....................1
1 Che, Chevys, and Hemingway's Daiquiris: Cuban Tourism in Transition....................19
2 Recycled Sandalistas: From Revolution to Resorts in the New Nicaragua....................40
3 Forgetting the Past: Andean Cultural Tourism After the Violence....................67
4 Remembering the Revolution: Indigenous Culture and Zapatista Tourism....................92
5 Sex and Sentiment in Cuban and Nicaraguan Tourism....................123
6 Race, Gender, and Cultural Tourism in Andean Peru and Chiapas, Mexico....................153
Conclusion: Posttourism and Nationhood....................175

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