January 28, 2009


Cuba's golf revolution: plans to make island a golfer's paradise: This round was Fidel Castro's way of demonstrating his scorn for the bourgeoisie. But the game he loathed survived his rule, though plans to make the island a golfer's paradise have foundered. (Leonard Doyle, 13 January 2009, Belfast Telegraph)

The return of Cuba's golfing glory days remains a gleam in the eyes of the mostly British and Canadian investors who have been encouraged by the government of Raul Castro to build luxury resorts. Foster and Partners developed plans for a marina and golf resort on the island's north coast, with three 18-hole courses and 1,500 upscale apartments. A spokeswoman said yesterday that it was just a feasibility study.

Other grand projects have been equally short-lived, despite the enthusiasm of the Cuban regime to see hordes of European and North American golfers forking out hard currency. Tourism in Cuba is run by the military and Raul Castro, who ran the country's defence forces before becoming Cuba's President, is said to have endorsed more than a dozen upscale golf projects.

But the devil has been in the details and, because Cuba does not recognise the rights of individuals to buy and sell property, it has 75-year leases for foreigners like those on offer in Dubai, which also bars foreign ownership of property.

But whether it is because international investors are reluctant to build resorts that might one day be nationalised by the government or because the Cuban government is wary of social upheaval if it allows luxury apartments to be built for foreigners, most of the golf projects have remained in blueprint form.

From the outset of the revolution, Fidel Castro and his allies set about destroying Cuba's legacy of fine golf courses which had catered to the gangsters, gamblers other high-rollers who treated the Caribbean island like their private playground.

What started as a popular uprising against Batista's thugs was soon being transformed by Fidel and his younger brother Raul, into a clone of Soviet-style communism, with collectivisation, land seizures and mass expropriations.

With the exception of Rovers Athletic,a ll of Cuba's golf clubs, including several gems designed by the US architect Donald Ross, were occupied by the military.

But in late 1962, shortly after the missile crisis threatened to engulf the world, Fidel Castro made a grand gesture aimed at mollifying US public opinion. He invited his fellow revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara for a game of golf intending to send a signal of friendship to President John F Kennedy.

Fidel and Che showed up in military fatigues and boots with photographers and reporters in tow. They stomped around Cuba's historic course at Colinas de Villareal, but their efforts to thumb their noses at the bourgeois sport turned serious as the competitive juices flowed. Both men were sons of privileged families and Che had worked as a caddy in his native Argentina while going to medical school.

The Cuban journalist Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, Fidel's personal reporter, was to cover the game. It would be his last day at work. Now in exile in Florida, he told The Wall Street Journal: "Castro told me that the headline of the story the next day would be 'President Castro challenges President Kennedy to a friendly game of golf'."

But neither man liked to lose and the game became intensely competitive. He said Che "played with a lot of passion", and he felt obliged to truthfully record the game's outcome. He wrote for the communist party daily Granma that Fidel had lost. The next day he was sacked and fled the country.

It was all downhill for golf after that ill-fated game. President Kennedy, the best golfer to occupy the White House, did not take up the offer. Instead, he tightened the already tough economic blockade, which to the fury of Cubans remains in force. Fidel ordered military barracks to be built on most courses, although the scene of his defeat by Che was earmarked for an arts college, which never got off the ground.

But somehow Rovers Athletic hung on for 20 more years, the British and Cuban flags flying alongside with portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Fidel hanging inside the mahogany-lined clubhouse.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 28, 2009 2:45 PM
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