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Cuba: a country with no country clubs

HAVANA — In March 1961 tensions between the United States and Cuba were reaching a peak.

So what did Fidel Castro do?

He invited his fellow revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, to a relaxing round of golf in an apparent effort to ease the political climate. Of course, the pair couldn't help but thumb their noses at "the sport of the idle rich," stomping around the course in military boots and fatigues.

But the game didn't exactly work out as planned.

Castro lost and relations with Washington went from bad to worse. Before long, golf was virtually wiped off the island.

Now, 47 years later, with Castro out of power, golf may soon make a comeback. Cuban tourism officials are reportedly considering a major investment in new golf courses across the island to boost its sagging tourism industry.

"The message coming from the Cubans is: bring us golf projects," said Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who represents one investor group.

A dozen golf projects around the island are on the drawing board, he said, each consisting of hundreds of villas and apartments built around the courses.

Cuban tourism officials "crossed the Rubicon of the ideological perception of golf a long time ago," he added. "It's now a priority of tourism development."

• • •

After spurning tourism for decades, Cuba turned to the travel industry in the 1990s to help substitute for its loss of trade with the Soviet Union. Dozens of new hotels were built and the number of visitors rose quickly to 2.3-million by 2005, with revenue of $2-billion.

But tourist visits dropped 4.3 percent in 2006 and were down again last year, the result of complaints about poor service and a low rate of return visits. To halt that slide, Cuba has announced several measures, including adding new boutique hotels, as well as marinas and golf courses.

"They are trying to survive and to survive they have to make money," said Tony Zamora, a Cuban-American attorney with Squire Saunders and Dempsey in Miami, who visits the island regularly and is an expert on Cuban real estate. Cuban officials see the roaring success of golf resorts not far away in the Dominican Republic, which has 3.5-million tourists a year, he said.

Several leading companies in Canada and Europe have drawn up golf proposals in Cuba, including Foster and Partners, one of London's top architecture firms, and Bouygues Batiment, one of France's largest construction firms.

No golf projects have been finalized, although a European group says it is close to signing a contract. A spokeswoman for Foster and Partners said its project in the western province of Pinar del Rio is "on hold."

In the past, foreign companies have balked at Cuba's socialist investment laws. Cuba does not allow foreign companies to have wholly owned operations in Cuba. All foreign investments have to be done under "joint venture agreements," by which foreign companies are allowed only a 49 percent stake.

But Cuba is ready to sweeten the pot, says Zamora, allowing new golf projects to include large apartment projects available to foreign buyers with 75-year leases. This makes it much more attractive to developers who can see bigger returns on their money.

Even so, some analysts say investors are unlikely to sign on the dotted line while the 4-decades-old U.S. trade embargo prevents American tourists from traveling to Cuba.

• • •

Before the revolution, Cuba boasted half a dozen quality courses, including two in Havana designed by the famous U.S. architect Donald Ross, who also laid out the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club in Clearwater.

In their day, the Country Club of Havana and the Havana Biltmore Golf Club were among the top venues for Havana's elite, as well as PGA Tour stars such as Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

Soon after the revolution, the Country Club course was dug up and turned into a music and arts institute. On a recent day, students played pickup baseball on what clearly was once a wide grassy fairway, as musical notes filled the air from practice rooms. Cups were only recently removed from holes on some surviving greens; mosquitoes were laying eggs in them.

The golf course where Castro and Guevara teed off, Colinas de Villareal, suffered the same fate as all the others and was converted into a military camp.

"These courses are gone forever," said Max Lesnick, a Cuban-American exile radio broadcaster who has personally encouraged Castro to revive golf. "But there's lots of other places where new courses could be built."

During Castro's rule, Cuba has built only one new golf course, located on the Varadero beach resort east of Havana.

Varadero was constructed without foreign investment. It took almost a decade to complete, according to its Canadian architect, Les Furber. "We had lots of false starts," he recalls, recounting how a lack of diesel and credit kept interrupting earth-moving on the site. "We tried to have 25 to 50 trucks working, but sometimes there were only four or five available."

• • •

Skeptics say talk of bringing back golf has gone on for years with little to show for it.

"In Cuba there's no culture of golf," said Orlando Vega, 69, a caddy at the Havana Golf Club, the capital's only surviving course. "Our authorities have other interests."

The nine-hole Havana course survived in large part thanks to the diplomatic community (there are only about 15 to 20 golf-playing Cubans left in Havana, Vega says). The condition of its fairways and greens is uneven at best. Due to theft, the flagsticks are fashioned from tree branches.

Politicians could learn a lot from a good golf swing, he says.

"In politics, the left and right are irreconcilable. In golf your left arm and right arm have to work in harmony."

Castro's swing was clearly not in harmony that day in 1961.

He shot 150 on the par 70 course, losing to Guevara, who shot 127. The headline in the paper the next day read: "I can beat Kennedy easily — Fidel."

U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was by some accounts one of the best golfers to occupy the White House, clearly was not troubled. Less than three weeks later he launched the Bay of Pigs invasion.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

Cuba: a country with no country clubs 03/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 11:17am]

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