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Golf on the Forbidden Island

He added, in all seriousness, that compared with the frenzied pace of life and the high cost of living of his last posting in the Far East, Cuba was a joy. "Thanks to the embargo," he said, "nothing really goes on. There's not much for us to do. We get up and shuffle a little paper and then"--he lifted his drink as if in a mock toast--"head to the golf club."

He asked if we had been to Varadero, where "the real action is." He meant the new hotels and resort golf course that were going in. I told him that we were headed that way in the next day or two. If the Diplo Club represented Cuba's golf past, Varadero was clearly a sign of its future.

I asked one of the more senior hands, a Canadian diplomat, what he thought of Cuba's trend toward liberalization. The arrival of the U.S. dollar appeared to have eased some problems but clearly created others. As everyone knew, there were now two economies and value systems competing on the street and behind closed doors: the dollar-based tourist economy, symbolized by a hotel building boom, and a peso-poor population struggling just to make ends meet. The situation is potentially disastrous. Despite Fidel's announced crackdown on prostitution in late 1995, the practice was flourishing, as thousands of Cuba's young women, called "disco girls" or jineteras, were openly selling themselves in the nation's salsa bars and nightspots. "I t's a problem they're keenly aware of," the diplomat said. "But that's one of the consequences of having to open the doors a bit. You get the bad with the good. They open the door and close the door, and each time they open it a little wider. Eventually, Cuba will simply have to open her doors to the outside world--particularly America--and it will be interesting to see what is left of the old socialism." He swirled his scotch and added, "Right now it's a little bit like the Wild West, though. Everybody's got a deal for the Cubans."

A few minutes later, the rain stopped and Duque and I went back to the first tee for our second match. With my head spinning from three mojitos, the afternoon was beginning to have the quality of a pleasant tropical dream.

I was somehow still tied with my host as we neared the sixth hole, at which point, as I was preparing to hit my approach shot to the green, a ball whizzed past my head, missing me by just a few inches. I turned around and saw a hunched and unhappy-looking Asian man marching toward me with a Cuban caddie trailing behind. The golfer stomped past me without a word, much less an apology. My young caddie informed me it was the Indonesian ambassador. "I'm afraid we have a great deal to learn about how the game is played," Duque apologized as he quietly appeared at my side. The incident rattled him sufficiently that I was able to win the hole and take the second match by one. We agreed to play our rubber match in three days, just before I had to leave.

Of course we had to see—and play—Varadero, and on our way there our van sped over ocean headlands that would make Pete Dye and Tom Fazio drool. Our destination was the old Du Pont estate, where Yankee colonialism had given way to a boom of resort hotels and a new American-style golf course. Our host there was Pedro "Chopy" Klein, golf operations manager of the new Varadero Golf Club. The only part of the course officially open was the back nine, and as we played this half of the new course--an attractive 6,895-yard layout that wandered along the dunes and limestone outcroppings of the Varadero peninsula--Chopy talked about how the development had come about. It hadn't been easy. "It was difficult for the officials in Havana to imagine that people would actually come to Cuba just to play a golf course. Golf was not something they understood, and they were nervous about the kind of money it took to build this course."


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