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Bombers target Cuban hotels
Hotel & Motel Management / September 15, 1997

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON -- Bombs are suddenly going off at resort hotels across Cuba, in a mysterious but determined campaign aimed at sabotaging the Communist island's budding tourist industry.

On the morning Sept. 4, blasts exploded within 20 minutes of each other in the lobbies of three Havana hotels, killing an Italian visitor staying at Havana's Copacabana. Explosions also occurred at the nearby Chateau and Triton hotels -- marking the tenth such attack directed at Cuban hotels in four months. Neither hotel staff nor government officials would comment, though the Castro regime issued a statement in August saying "these terrorist acts are encouraged, organized and supplied from within U.S. territory."

On Aug. 22, according to employees, a small bomb exploded at the Hotel Sol Palmeras in Varadero, a beach resort popular with Canadians, Spaniards and other Western tourists. The explosion marked the seventh such attack directed at Cuban hotels in four months -- and the fourth time the Spanish hotel chain Sol Melia has been targeted.

Francisco Jimenez, manager of the Sol Palmeras, denied that the explosion was caused by a bomb, attributing the blast to an electrical problem caused by "an overloaded transformer." But few people are buying that argument. One employee quoted by name told The Miami Herald the day after the incident that "everybody knew a bomb had exploded, but no one wanted to confirm it."

The 607-room Sol Palmeras is managed by Spain's Sol Melia chain in a joint venture with the Cuban government agency Cubanacan. In April, a bomb heavily damaged a discotheque at the Hotel Melia Cohiba, Havana's newest luxury hotel. A second bomb was found unexploded at the hotel a few days later. Bombs have also gone off in several other well-known Havana properties including the Hotel Capri and the recently restored Hotel Nacional, though no death or serious injuries have been reported.

From the beginning, President Fidel Castro has pointed the finger at the CIA or Miami-based Cuban exiles opposed to the Castro regime. In fact, the militant exile group Alpha 66 says it's been in contact with "clandestine cells" inside Cuba responsible for the blasts. Yet other exiles -- and some U.S. experts -- say the bombings are the work of disgruntled military officers or even the Cuban government itself.

"Our sense is that it points to some sort of clandestine cell in either the Cuban military or the intelligence apparatus," said Jose Cardenas, a spokesman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, an exile group headquartered in Washington. "These bombs are not intended to hurt anybody, but to send a dramatic message to the regime."

Wayne S. Smith, a Cuba-watcher and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, disagrees that unhappy military men are behind the bombings.

"I find that unlikely, and I'll tell you why," said Smith, a well-known opponent of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. "The Cuban intelligence and security forces are very effective. If I were a disgruntled officer, the last thing I'd think of doing would be planting a piss-ass bomb in a hotel as a sign of my disgruntlement, knowing full well I'd be found out."

Smith, who served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982, says he suspects outsiders of involvement. Anti-Castro sentiment runs rampant in South Florida, and Cuban-American leaders have made no secret of their bitterness towards Spanish and Canadian hotel chains that invest in Cuba, keeping the Castro regime afloat.

Even so, says Smith, the bombs haven't done much to dissuade foreign tourists from visiting the island.

"It would have to be much, much worse than it's been so far," he told Hotel & Motel Management. "Whoever is behind this isn't very serious. The bombs aren't very destructive, and there's been no loss of human life." He adds that "the ultra-conservatives say the Cuban government itself may be responsible, which seems most unlikely since it might have some impact on the tourist industry, which they desperately need."

Despite Washington's embargo, which forbids most U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba or investing there, 1.3 million foreigners are expected to visit Cuba this year, up from 20% in 1996. Canada sends the most tourists, with many opting for low-cost, all-inclusive packages that start at $600 a week including airfare from Toronto. That's spurred the cash-starved Castro government to build thousands of new hotel rooms annually, bringing Cuba's current capacity to 27,000 rooms.

In late March, the regime announced plans to construct 15 new hotels (with more than 6,000 rooms) on Cayo Coco and other keys along the north coast of Ciego de Avila province; like the Sol Palmeras, most will be joint ventures between government-run Cubanacan and foreign partners.

John S. Kavulich II, president of the U.S.-Cuba Economic & Trade Council in New York, says it's too early to tell whether the bombs are scaring away tourists, since most visitors pre-pay their packages.

In fact, Hugo Capote, assistant manager at the Habana Libre -- Cuba's largest hotel -- told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel earlier this month that he hasn't had any travel agencies or tour operators call to cancel bookings. "My problem now," he said, "is finding more rooms for all the guests who want to come."

Yet that problem might not last if the bombings continue.

Cardenas says his organization is thinking about launching an advertising campaign in Spain "calling attention to the fact that the Spanish managers of these hotels are denying and outright lying in saying that no bombing has occurred, or that it was an electrical malfunction. We find it unconscionable. This is directly endangering the welfare of their clientele."

Asked if the spate of bombings will eventually hurt Cuban hotel investments, Cardenas responded: "I certainly hope it will."

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