By Dalia Acosta
HOLGUÍN, Cuba, Jun 10, 2008 (IPS) - Afflicted for far too long by severe drought, which concentrated all minds on how to get water to entire communities of people, this eastern Cuban city seems at long last to be drinking its fill, and its appearance is completely different from what it looked like two or three years ago.
Cafés, restaurants, snack bars and opportunities to combine leisure and culture are beginning to flood into the historic centre of Holguín, the capital of the province of the same name, as the most visible sign of a government project to embellish the city and restore services that have been in poor shape since the 1990s.
And one of the most important things is that "the Cuban peso is returning to its former prominence," Rigoberto Romero, the provincial government coordinator for the project to restore the boulevard running through the heart of Holguín, which is also known as the City of Parks, told IPS.
"Services paid for in national currency should have the same quality standards as those that are paid for in hard currency. We are trying to add character to the venues with cultural options, as well," he said.
And so La Caverna de Los Beatles appeared, followed by a jazz club, a piano bar at the Hotel Majestic, and Las Tres Lucías, a café decorated with stills from the Cuban film "Lucía" (Humberto Solás, 1968), which shows videos and films to its customers.
The pedestrianised boulevard did not exist early this decade, but now harbours a large number of eateries with prices in national currency, which have resurrected popular and economic dishes like croquettes on bread or "al plato", breaded fish fillets and fresh fruit juices.
Smaller shops selling water, milkshakes, ice cream and coffee at subsidised prices are comfortably elbow to elbow with restaurants, cafeterias, bars and pubs that are a little more expensive, but still accessible because they charge in national currency.
"We’re open 24 hours a day. Towards midnight, the clientele are mainly intellectuals. Then the young people arrive when the discothèques close, and at about four or five in the morning, people who are on their way to work come by," Lisandro Fernández, who works at a coffee bar, told IPS.
The legalisation of the dollar in 1993, together with the severe economic crisis that hit Cuba in the 1990s, led to a decline in services offered in national currency, and the emergence of a parallel market in hard currency that gradually became virtually the only option for Cuba’s 11.2 million people.
The government of President Raúl Castro regards revaluation of the Cuban peso as one of its economic priorities, but has recognised that it will be a slow process, requiring "an integrated approach" that will include eliminating the present dual currency system on the island.
Meanwhile, in cities like Havana, most restaurants still charge in convertible Cuban pesos (CUC), and the equivalent of five U.S. dollars will only buy lunch for one person at one of the most inexpensive cafeteria chains.
At the state exchange bureaus, the CUC is worth 25 Cuban pesos, or 1.25 dollars.
In spite of government efforts, the venues accepting national currency still do not satisfy demand in Holguín, one of Cuba’s biggest cities. Official sources indicate that in late 2007 there were 334,046 residents of Holguín, to which must be added a floating population of another 45,000 people.
"In the boulevard area alone, 75,000 daily rations are being sold. Sometimes, supplies run out," said Romero.
Prices vary from 0.70 pesos for a croquette on bread to 100 pesos for lunch for three at the restaurant known as 1545, one of the most upscale in the city. In dollar terms, an average family would spend five or six dollars for lunch at one of Holguín’s new wave of restaurants.
Among the new developments, three hotels which charge in national currency have been restored and reopened. "We get reservations for honeymoons or company events, but around 50 percent of our guests are ordinary people who book their own visits as they please," Leonides Romero, manager of the Hotel Majestic, told IPS.
At Isla Azul, the most economical chain of state hotels that only take hard currency, a double room including breakfast costs about 50 dollars, whereas at the Majestic the bill is 75 Cuban pesos a night, equivalent to about four dollars.
Located in the centre of Holguín, the Hotel Majestic was founded in 1932 and rescued from a state of ruin in 2007.
The aim is to "restore rundown old buildings in the communities and save the local heritage, while adding an element of modernity, and creating new options with three basic elements: utility, beauty and culture," said Miguel Díaz-Canel, first secretary of the Communist Party for Holguín province, in an interview on local television.
The initiative, known as the Imagen project, is being applied in all the municipalities of this province of over a million people. In addition, a state aid plan for the eastern part of the island has led to more than 100 economic and social projects being inaugurated in late 2007.
The list of projects, published in the local newspaper Ahora, includes electrification in several neighbourhoods, generators installed in mountainous areas, refurbished or newly-built sports facilities, public health centres, centres for the elderly, housing, hydraulic plants in isolated areas, maternity homes and children’s parks.
In spite of what has already been achieved and the plans for more progress this year, there is still much to be done, in Romero’s view. "All the cultural development in the city is taking place basically in the historic centre. We should start decentralising city services towards the outskirts," he said.
Dissatisfactions aside, and although provincial development plans have continued without interruption, Holguín is a flourishing place compared with what it was in 2004, when the drought was at its height. "This city is changing day by day," Manuel Escobar, who works at the Taberna Ahumados, told IPS. (END/2008)