August 12, 2009

Venezuela's Chavez Condemns Golf, Yet The Sport Is Slowly Taking Off Once Again In Cuba

Yesterday, news came from Venezuela that Hugo Chavez and his political party had found a new target of opportunity: golf. Chavez himself denounced the sport on Venezuelan national television in July, saying that “Golf is a bourgeois sport." He then repeated the word bourgeois with derision, driving his point home to his loyalists. Since then, his henchmen have closed in on well-known Venezuelan clubs and shut them down...proving once again that Chavez is less about true democracy than he is about totalitarian control where what is allowed is only what meets his approval.

We have seen this before -- in Cuba.

After the 1959 revolution there, Fidel Castro ordered the country's golf courses bulldozed because they were a symbol of "the bourgeois excesses of American capitalism." After that, few golf courses remained in the country, which was once the center of Caribbean tourism and a haven for golfers seeking to escape the winters of the colder northern latitudes.

Perhaps you have seen the famous photograph of Castro and his cohort Che' Guevera playing golf -- that was the symbolic "final round" that kicked off what was meant to be the end of the sport in that country. Dressed in army fatigues and combat boots, Castro played his final round with cameras clicking all the way. Ever aware of symbolism and the power of mass media, he used the time on the course as a way to expound upon the evils of the game and the need for its removal from Cuban society. That day, Guevera, ironically an avid golfer, beat Fidel which did the sport no favors in that country.

Bulldozed, But Not Dead

Somehow, despite the official condemnation of Castro and the Cuban Communist Party, golf survived in Cuba, though greatly diminished. Though there were only a very few courses -- Varadero, Habana, and the “off limits” course at the US-held Guantanamo Naval Base, the game never completely disappeared.

In 1998, however, Castro's attitude changed. A communist country -- like any other, no matter the form of government -- needs money to survuve, and with a 29-year embargo in place and little in the way of international trade, Cuba shifted its policy in 1998 and decided to gather hard-currency in order for the Castro government (and the country itself) to survive. The government decided to revive its dormant tourism industry, and as part of that, it planned to meet the need for the recreational activities of their customers by bringing back the sports it had previously condemned: golf, tennis, and others. The government then began a systematic plan building new golf facilities, in conjunction with Canadian and Scottish partners. Today, golf is doing quite well in that country, if only for the touristas that spend their much-needed Euros there.

For example, Varadero Golf Club was rebuilt on the site of a mansion formerly known as Xanadu, then Dupont Mansion and later, Las Américas. The layout was built by the past owner Irénee Dupont de Nemours - of the famous DuPont family. Originally opened in 1927, the course was redesigned by architect Les Furber of the Canadian company Golf Design Services LTD (GDS) and is nearby the "Breezes SuperClubs" -- surely another place of bourgeois excess. It costs the equivilant of $75/US to play and golf carts are required -- something that Hugo Chavez said was proof of the "lazy" nature of the game.

Another par of the past was not completely erased, either. The old Havana Golf Club, a Par-35 nine-hole affair was re-opened, and is the only golf course in the capital city. Located ten minutes from Jose Marti Airport, it is described as being in rough but improving condition, and is thought of as an experience in golf the way that it once was played in the pre-Revolution 1940's and 1950's.

The Missing Ingredient: Yankee Dollars

Cuba, unlike favored nation Red China, does not enjoy the influx of American industry and tourism, nor the hard currency that comes with it. While the Chinese have seen an expansion in manufacturing not seen since the Industrial Revolution, the old Cuban Embargo remains in place, essentially unchanged since it was put in place in 1960. While Europeans and Canadians enjoy free travel to the country, along with some industrial activity, it is illegal for US companies to do business there and illegal for American families and individuals to travel there. This was codified into law with the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, and can result in jail time and heavy fines for Americans who defy the US law. That in mind, it is easy to understand the slow pace of Cuban golf's rebirth, given that its most ready market faces time in a penitentiary for the mere act of visiting the country.

Despite the lack of American currency, as many as ten courses are in various stages of construction, according to the Cuban government, along with a $146m/US upgrade in other tourist infrastructure, but with Cuba's ever cash-strapped economy, none have reach opening and the infrastructure upgrades lay incomplete. Coupled with the global economic downturn, which has hit tourism particularly hard, Cuba's European and Canadian partners have also scaled back their ambitions for the moment, leaving the country's golf expansion plans largely incomplete or still of the drawing boards. Still, Cuba's government has not signaled a shift away from its plans to enhance golf in the country, and Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and ostensible successor, has stated that golf remains a vital aspect of Cuba's plans, especially in light of the success it has brought the nearby Dominican Republic in reviving its own lagging tourism industry over the past 20 years.

Is What's Good For The Goose Bad For The Gander?

One has to wonder, if golf is good enough for Chavez's hero and mentor Fidel, why is it not good enough for Venezuelans? The answer is undoubtedly that the game itself is not the issue, but controlling the people and their activities is. There, Chavez seems intent on building a "worker's paradise" by making life a living Hell for his countrymen. That failed in Cuba and one has to suspect that golf in Venezuela will also survive and live far longer than Hugo Chavez.


  1. That picture is HILARIOUS ! Bet the penalty for stepping in someone's line with those boots is pretty severe.

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