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GAESA Traps the 'Wonder City' in its Tentacles

The powerful military group continues to launch projects to increase its hotel capacity. One of the latest is the reconstruction of the Gran Hotel, at Zulueta and Teniente Rey.

La Habana

Parodying Eusebio Leal Spengler's TV show, I resolve to "walk Havana" to verify that at the intersection of the streets Zulueta and Teniente Rey workers of the Unión de Construcciones Militares (UCM) and the French construction company Bouygues began to erect the socio-administrative building and temporary facilities, thus initiating the reconstruction of the Gran Hotel. Also known as the "100-room hotel", it is a mass of ruins that for decades has been held up by steel structures to prevent its collapse.

Eight blocks north is the Hotel Regis (Prado and Colón), a building combining eclectic styles from the 19th and 20th centuries. On the verge of collapse, it awaits builders. The building is surrounded by a fence and some panels announcing that the investor is the ALMEST real estate group; the operator, Gaviota; the supplier, TECNOTEX; the builders, UCM and Bouygues (BBI); while project plans are the work of the company Restaura, belonging to the city’s Office of the Historian.

Despite the delays, there have already been notable advances on the Packard Hotel (at Prado and Cárcel), which is about 60% done. According to the schedule, it should be completed this year.

In the vicinity, construction recently began on the Hotel Prado y Malecón (located at the corner of the same name), where one can hear the sound of the pile drivers excavating the foundations, a tough job being carried out by soldiers of the General Military Service (SMG), slave labor used by the UCM and BBI for construction tasks not calling for skilled workers.

In San Rafael, by the facade of the Manzana de Gómez Hotel, they are touching up the public lampposts and the marquee, as soon Kempinski will open its doors to offer 172 rooms and 74 suites; shops with 16 locales for the sale of well-known brands, a pool, restaurant, café, business lounges and a panoramic bar, plus beauty services, lockers and massage rooms. However, to build this "Taj Mahal" the builders hired 400 Indian laborers, "who were four times more productive than Cuban workers" according to the official press, which, at the same time, covered up the fact that the foreigners received salaries 20 times greater than those given Cubans.

With these investments, the powerful military consortium GAESA will augment the capacity of its subsidiary Gaviota in the center of the capital, one of the areas most popular among international tourists.

The worrisome thing is that the services offered by the State - in addition to being delivered by prestigious hotel chains - are being criticized by those making up the avalanche of tourists triggered by the political thaw Obama set in motion in 2014: abusive practices, a lack of hygiene, legions of cockroaches, the contraction of diarrheal diseases and high prices are some of the most frequent complaints. These hotel companies may also be hiring foreign personnel to render services, as regulations permit it.

When walking through Havana one is exposed to clouds of dust and smoke, like the hundreds of tourists who come and go on foot, in bicycle taxis, and convertibles dating back to the 50s. With the background sound of guitars, bongos and maracas, characterizing the typical music of the area, tourists sit at tables of establishments scattered everywhere, to raise their glasses or savor some typical Cuban fare. Their experience includes, free of charge, sniffing a wide range of odors, including a potpourri of urine, garbage and excrement. But, most importantly, they can experience, live and up close, the poverty that afflicts the people of Havana, the antithesis of the sublime Ciudad Maravilla (Wonder City) portrayed in the catalogues.

The scam is enshrined on a plaque unveiled a year ago on the esplanade of the San Salvador de la Punta fortress, by the New7Wonders Foundation, which chose Havana as one of the world’s seven "wonder cities" for its legendary charm, warm and welcoming atmosphere, and the allure and joviality of its people.

Walking towards the bay we come upon another "wonder", in this case of Cuban civil engineering: the pumping station that moves the sewage generated to the Playa del Chivo (beach).

In the vicinity there stands the former headquarters of the General Staff of the Navy, today that of the military consortium GAESA, and the office of Brigadier Gen. Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, the shadowy genius of the regime's underground economy regime, who, from there, patting his pockets, perhaps counts and observes, as if they were little sheep, the tourists descending from cruise ships at the port of San Francisco.

Retreating down the Calle Neptuno, westbound, and admiring the dingy white sheets hanging from the balconies, two tourists interrupt the "Havana walk" of this reporter to ask: "why do the taxis keep going when someone flags them?"

I clue him in that on the necessary "stop" signal to convey that they will pay the fare in CUC. They look at me, puzzled, and clarify that they are talking about the "taxis that charge 10 pesos". I tell them that such a fare is history. Shrugging my shoulders I say: "Didn't they want  a 'wonder city'?  Well, there they have it."

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