Divvying up Cuba

After five decades under the thumb of Fidel Castro, it looks like Cuba is about to undergo some dramatic changes now that his brother, Raul, is in charge. 

Raul is relaxing some of the dire restrictions that Fidel imposed on Cuba. So residents who were making do with 50-year-old technology are getting their first DVD players, cell phones, personal computers and other late-20th century technology that the rest of the world has taken for granted for decades. And there’s talk that Raul’s rise to power will be a boon to Cuba’s tourism industry, which has been hobbled since Fidel took power in 1959.

All the speculation about what might happen in Cuba brought to mind a couple of thoughts. First, it reminded me of a conversation I overheard in Key West, Florida in October 1996. A friend and I were visiting the Key West Wreckers Museum, which tells the story of the Keys’ colorful salvaging industry. After touring the museum, we went outside and climbed a reproduction of a wrecker’s tower like those used by salvagers to spot ships that had run aground on the offshore reefs that parallel much of the Keys.

Three other people made the climb with us – two men and a woman. As we stood atop the tower, the men started discussing Cuba. They were only a few feet away from me, so I couldn’t avoid overhearing their conversation.

They talked about what would happen when Fidel Castro was gone. They were especially interested in Cuban tourism, and they seemed quite knowledgeable about it. What I recall most clearly is their descriptions of Cuba’s unspoiled, undeveloped beaches. When Castro was gone, those beaches would make someone very wealthy, they said, and it was clear that they’d very much like to get their hands on the beaches and the property that overlooked them.

And that made me think of the scene in the movie "Godfather 2" in which Michael Corleone goes to Havana in 1958 to meet with Hyman Roth, who is both his business partner and deadly enemy.

Corleone, Roth and other mob bosses gather at a Havana hotel to divvy up portions of Cuba’s lucrative gambling and tourism business. They also celebrate Roth’s 67th birthday. A cake with a map of Cuba is wheeled out with much fanfare. As the cake is sliced and handed out to the mobsters, Roth explains how the businesses will be distributed among the crime families. Then, he holds his slice of cake aloft and says, “I want everyone to enjoy the cake. So, enjoy!”

The symbolism of slicing up Cuba like a piece of birthday cake is obvious.

The fact that Fidel Castro avoided plunging Cuba into political chaos by handing over power to his brother instead of dying in office may head off a land rush to claim the unspoiled beaches and other opportunities that those guys in Key West were lusting after in 1996.

But there are doubtless thousands of eager, aggressive entrepreneurs who have been planning and waiting for Castro to leave power. And for better or worse, those unspoiled beaches in Cuba may not stay that way much longer.