Thursday, December 18, 2014

That Time Fidel Castro and Che Guevara Played Golf

News recently broke that the United States is re-opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Communist-controlled island nation 90 miles from Florida with which the U.S. has had adversarial relations for more than 50 years. Many who heard the news thought of the realpolitik implications. I thought of golf.

Hey, do you remember that time revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Che Guevara played golf? Here they are, those crazy scamps, playing golf in their combat boots and fatigues:

What's going on here? Shouldn't communist revolutionaries detest an upper-class, capitalist-infested game like golf? Yes, and they did (although Che had played before growing up in Argentina).

Cuba once had a fair share of golf courses. In the pre-Castro days Cuba was ruled by right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista liked America's money, and American tourists loved Cuba's beaches and its Mob-run casinos and fancy hotels. Cuba was a Caribbean getaway. Money changed hands liberally, both ways (just not into the hands of many ordinary Cubans).

But within a few years after Castro seized power in 1959 and replaced the right-wing dictatorship with a left-wing dictatorship, he kicked out the Mob and also legitimate American businesses. And he began plowing under those symbols of capitalist decadence called golf courses. Soon, only nine holes of golf was left in Cuba (other golf courses were returned to agrarian uses - think sugar cane.)

Historian Michael Beschloss provides the timing of the Castro-Che golf photos and a hint at what was going on:

A few years back CNN wrote this:

Castro himself once recalled that he had been mocking Eisenhower, but gave no specifics of the date.

"One day, Che and I went to play golf. He had been a caddie once to earn some money in his spare time; I, on the other hand, knew absolutely nothing about this expensive sport," he said in quotes published on Cuba's Television Camaguey Web site in 2007.

"The United States government had already decreed the suspension and the redistribution of Cuba's sugar quota, after the Revolution had passed the Agrarian Reform Law. The golf game was a photo opportunity. The real purpose was to make fun of Eisenhower."

CNN says that Che Guevara shot 127 that day and Fidel Castro came in at 150. (Maybe this is why Castro eventually shunted his old friend aside and Che died a pathetic death in Bolivia.) Given his terrible putting form, it's surprising Che had any history with the game:

In recent years, an aging Castro, in poor health, has turned over many of the day-to-day duties of dressing up in costumes and bellowing Marxist rhetoric - that is so 1982 - to his brother. And Brother Castro has liberalized a few things here and there, including allowing some golf course construction. A 2013 article in The Economist explains why:

... the main reason for the sudden enthusiasm for pitching and putting is a need to attract more tourists. The island pulled in 2.8m visitors last year, far fewer than the 4.6m who flocked to the Dominican Republic, its smaller neighbour.

... The $350m Carbonera Club, to be developed by Esencia, a British firm, is the first project to get the go-ahead; another course is expected to be complete by the end of the year. A 1,300-berth marina, the largest in the Caribbean, is to be built in Varadero.

A true opening of the Cuban economy and liberalizing of the country's policies will probably have to wait for the death of the Castros. But I would be willing to bet that 25 years from now Cuba will be one the premiere golf destinations in the Caribbean, and American golfers and tourists will against be flocking there.

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