- Pleasure Island: Tourism and Temptation in Cuba
Although tourism has been one of the largest and fastest growing industries of the twentieth century, only recently has it begun to attract the attention it deserves from social historians. Schwartz’ study of tourism in Cuba provides a model for anyone contemplating a foray into this fertile territory. Hers is less a study of the history of tourism (although it is that as well) but, as the author asserts, a study of tourism AS history, one that shows the connections between tourism and social change.
The book’s overall metaphor is that of tourism as theater. In theater, what goes on behind the curtain can be as fascinating and important as what the audience sees in front. In the theater of Cuban tourism, Schwartz focuses more on script-writers and scripts than on actors and performances. This makes it a scholar’s book and not a coffee-table tome (reinforced by a relative scarcity of photos, all in black and white).
The book is anything but dull. In lively, precise, jargon-free prose Schwartz clearly makes her main points. She divides the history of tourism in Cuba into three distinct decades—the 1920s, the 1950s, and the 1990s—each a function of the outside world’s search for “pleasure” and “temptation” not easily obtainable at home. In the 1920s the island attracted wealthy North Americans seeking a haven for drinking and gambling that had been curtailed by Prohibition back home; in the 1950s it attracted middle-class North Americans seeking an exotic, tropical, sensuous and slightly sinful island of pleasure; in the 1990s it has been pulling in Canadians, Latinos and Europeans seeking cheap resorts (by Caribbean standards) and cheap sex.
Schwartz’ overarching thesis is that Cubans were by no means passive recipients [End Page 190] of foreign tourists, but had their own agendas. In the 1920s, a group of politician-entrepreneurs referred to as The Three C’s (Cespedes, Cortina, de la Cruz) worked with Americans to develop an American Riviera for the wealthy, using tourism both to enrich themselves and to promote civic improvements—sewage, water and port facilities, casinos, country clubs, hotels, and upscale residential neighborhoods. Depression and war crippled tourism for two decades, but in the 1950s pent-up demand and expanded disposable income opened the way for mass tourism. The dictator Fulgencio Batista, like Machado in the 1920s, regarded mass tourism as a cash cow to enrich himself and his cronies, as well as to promote economic development and enhance public relations. He marketed Cuba as a pleasure island for a wide spectrum of tourists, from hard-core gamblers and conventioneers to honeymooners, families—and even secretaries. One of the most fascinating parts of this study is Schwartz’ exploration of the growth of single-female tourism (secretaries), stimulated in part by the “I Love Lucy Show,” whose charming Latin Lover Desi Arnaz was married to the respectable “new American woman” Lucille Ball, who herself was in search of a good time. A photograph of these American gals at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havana in 1951 is priceless.
Cuban tourism in the 1950s inevitably conjures up images of Meyer Lansky and the Mafia. Another service the book performs is to place the Mafia’s presence in perspective. Their stay was relatively brief (less than a decade). They did not coolly set their sights on Havana, but went there (and to Nevada) to escape the heat applied against organized gambling by the Kefauver Commission. They did not “take over” Cuba (which had its own long and proud tradition of vice and violence) but had to be enticed to bring their technical skills to running gaming operations there, and to overcome their distaste for the high wages and strong unions among Cuba’s hotel and casino employees. This all came to an end with the Castro regime, but not because of Castro. Cuba’s hotel and casino workers forced him to keep the casinos open; they closed simply because tourists stopped visiting Cuba. With...