EXCLUSIVE: Reports From Cuba By Soraya Diase Coffelt: Government Shouldn’t Be In The Hotel Business
Soraya Diase Coffelt, JS, MJS
By SORAYA DIASE COFFELT/SPECIAL TO THE V.I. FREE PRESS
My trip to Cuba was indeed a wonderful experience. Whenever I travel, I spend time observing the area – its people, culture, economy, and surroundings – and think about what we in the Virgin Islands can learn from that area and do to improve our lives. Here are some of my thoughts that I would like to share:
1. The people of Cuba are very proud of their culture. How do I know that? It is evident by the importance they place on it. Their music is prevalent, from impromptu bands that pop up on the streets, to small groups of singers and musicians providing entertainment in restaurants.
They have a variety of art museums and artists displaying their works. Their small symphony orchestras (as few as 8 members) dedicatedly perform throughout the island and internationally. Their dancers perform to unique choreographies and music. These are just a few examples.
And, this is all done with an average salary equal to $20 per month. I admire such ingenuity and determination!
Cubans start their children in elementary school, usually around age 7, studying in the fields of theater, art, dance, and music.
An abundance of after-school programs exists in “Houses of Culture” in each community teaching these subjects. As the students grow older and graduate from high school, they can continue studying at the prestigious and competitive Institute of Arts.
Developing and promoting our unique Virgin Islands culture in similar ways should be of great significance for us.
2. Cubans understand the importance of the vocational trades in their economy and society in general and give their children the option to learn a trade beginning in high school.
For those students who opt to learn at an older age, there are vocational schools for students ages 17 to 30, such as the one we visited in Cienfuegos.
Not all students want to attend college. In the Virgin Islands, we must offer a variety of classes teaching vocational trade skills beginning in middle school, especially to lower the dropout rate of our young men.
I strongly believe that developing a modern approach to teaching career and technical skills is imperative for our society and will do much to keep students in school and lower the crime rate.
3. There is a “city historian” in each Cuban city to promote the renovation and preservation of buildings and other historic areas. Specifically, in Cienfuegos, the city historian has partnered with the vocational school, with tremendous success.
Not only are students given the hands-on opportunities to learn trade skills and assist in renovating buildings, but they also have a job waiting for them when they graduate. The city historian, in turn, has the necessary skilled persons to assist with restoration efforts. It is a win-win situation for everyone.
As a result of all the hard work dedicated to renovation and preservation, many towns in Cuba have been designated world heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
According to UNESCO’s website, the importance of these sites is paramount: “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.”
In the Virgin Islands, we too have beautiful, historic towns – Frederiksted, Christiansted, and Charlotte Amalie. Our historic preservation committees that operate under the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources should consider a similar arrangement and partner with public schools, non-profits, and the private sector in order to renovate our towns. An important goal would be to have our towns ultimately designated as world heritage sites as well.
4. After the 1959 revolution, the new Cuban government confiscated all land and buildings. Slowly, the government has allowed some private enterprise, particularly for restaurants.
During my trip, I slept in government owned hotels and ate at government owned restaurants. I also ate at privately owned restaurants. In my opinion, privately owned hotels and restaurants offer the best amenities, food and service.
Government ownership of hotels and restaurants just does not work as well or produce the quality that private ownership will. In the Virgin Islands, our governor wants to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars to have the government build and own a luxury hotel.
I strongly disagree with this, especially since our government already owns two hotels and has invested considerable amounts of money in them.
The role of government should be to creatively market an area and provide strong incentives to private investors, and not be competitor with the private sector.
5. Cuba has a considerable amount of pristine, natural beauty and will be a huge draw for American tourists in the next decade, once the restrictions are lifted and its doors are completely opened to Americans.
In fact, one of its goals is to have two million annual cruise ship visitors within the next few years. That is about the number that the Virgin Islands now have in cruise ship visitors.
There is no doubt in my mind that Cuba will take visitors away from us. Although I do not believe that Cuba currently has the infrastructure to handle a tsunami of tourists who travel by plane and stay at hotels, it can handle an increase in cruise ship visitors.
We must plan ahead for this, as it will be a definite financial blow for our tourism-based economy.
Soraya Diase Coffelt is a longtime St. Thomas resident, a retired Superior Court Judge and former V.I. Attorney General for the Mapp Administration who has a JD and MJS in law. She is visiting Cuba as part of a “people to people exchange” in conjunction with her alma mater Cornell University.