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How secure are the hotel facilities in Cuba?

The explosion of the Saratoga hotel could serve the Cuban Government to begin to change some things regarding the security of its facilities for foreign tourism, precisely because it revealed how vulnerable and dangerous these can be even when they are promoted as high standards and with a registry of visitors that has world famous personalities as is the case of the damaged building and where Mick Jagger, Madonna, Beyonce, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood and Stanley Kubrick stayed, among others.

Located at the beginning of the central Havana avenue known as Paseo del Prado, a few meters from the Capitol, seat of the Cuban Parliament, the Saratoga made headlines around the world this past May 6 when, due to a gas leak, while a tank truck with more than 12,000 liters of fuel supplied the hotel tanks, the building exploded, causing the death of 46 people, plus damage to nearby buildings.

Although the official results of the expert opinion have not yet been published, it can finally be known whether the cause of the incident was accidental or intentional —despite the fact that the Cuban government, a few minutes after the event, hastened to silence the rumors about a possible attack— , if something has become clear according to the evidence, it is that the explosion was caused by an escape of the gas used in the kitchens and boilers of the Saratoga hotel, which was stored in two tanks, located in the basement and on the roof of the building , despite the risks involved in the use and handling of this highly volatile fuel, more so for such a densely populated and busy area.

Of the testimonies published by various media outlets during the first few hours, there are several that seem to point to a series of negligence that, when they converged, led to the tragedy or propitiated it, including the poor location of the gas deposits —where aesthetics prevailed over safety—in the basement of a building from the end of the 19th century, the frequent smell of gas regularly reported by hotel workers long before the incident, the absence of a security cordon and danger signs during unloading, the fissure in the supply hose detected by a cook and not by the people who should have been aware of such matters, the latter according to statements made to the official press by Alexis Acosta, mayor of the Habana Vieja municipality.

Another reason that points to the possibility that the explosion was not triggered by factors external to the hotel but by internal elements that caused it, either as an accident or an attack, are the breaches of the regulations related to both the handling of fuel and the optimal technical condition of the facilities and safety in general, which can be deduced from the statements made by officials of the state-owned company Unión Cuba Petróleo and the Liquefied Gas subdivision, in which they confirmed that the tanker truck that “was in position discharge” at the time of the explosion “was in technical condition to operate” and that both the equipment and the hotel had recently passed the regulatory inspections in accordance with the safety regulations in force on the Island.

In fact, during the extraction of the tanker truck, in the middle of the rubble work, it was possible to verify at a glance not only that it was a piece of equipment that had been in operation for a short time, but that it had hardly suffered any serious damage despite having been close to the epicenter of the explosion that, judging by the visible damage, undoubtedly occurred in an area near the service area and the basements, where one of the deposits was located, less than 50 meters from the main kitchen, as confirmed several hotel workers.

Regarding the issue of safety in this and other similar facilities, with very similar fuel handling and storage systems in almost all the hotels on the Island, this outlet collected information both in the facilities themselves ―in conversation with several workers, managers and officials, Cubans and foreigners― as well as in the few publications, both those generated and academic works, mainly in tourism faculties, and on the internet, where the matter has rarely been addressed.

Unsafe places

On September 12, 2020, a fall from an elevator at the Meliá Habana hotel caused the death of a guest. Although those responsible for the Spanish chain that manages it described the event as an “unfortunate accident” and the matter has never been discussed again nor have the results of the investigations been duly disclosed, the truth is that, according to sources linked to the expert actions, was the result of the “sustained abandonment” of “a simple and routine operation” such as the “equipment speed configuration adjustment”, which was programmed for a building with more floors where the speed of displacement must be greater.

“The only explanation is that the inspections were not carried out. That was very normal, not only in all GAE (GAESA) hotels until the Meliá Habana happened,” says a source linked to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism. And he goes on to say: “Don’t think that things have become stricter than before, that now they have put the speed (of the elevators) to a minimum, even in the tallest hotels, like the Cohiba, but the lack of parts is the same one that suffers transport and aviation and everything in this country. To tell you, when I have to visit any of those hotels I go up the stairs even if I arrive dying, no elevators, because I know that many work like a miracle, ”says the source.

Even so, both Meliá and the military of GAESA, owners of the hotel, saved responsibilities by hiding behind the technical opinions of optimal operability, which they have regularly received after the security inspections of a state company (COMETAL) that is still in the hands of the same owners of the Meliá Habana, a facility with services promoted as five-star and considered among the best on the island.

But, judging by the negative comments on TripAdvisor, left by several clients after their visits to hotels in Cuba, the dropouts are neither casual nor exceptional, and even some recently opened high-standard hotels such as the Manzana Kempinski, the Paseo del Prado , Iberostar’s Grand Packard, or the emblematic Hotel Nacional, do not escape criticism for poor services but also for the conditions ―sometimes described as deplorable― in which they find themselves, to the point that some guests have seen their peace of mind threatened and security, as can be deduced from the relatively recent reviews on TripAdvisor (especially from 2018 and 2019, before the closures due to the pandemic) to hotels such as the Habana Libre and Saratoga itself, where some have reported experiences of “bad smells”, “unbearable noises” and even “smell of gas”.

This was reflected in October 2018 by the user XusaS, from Spain, who, although she described the service as “very good” by the staff who attended her and praised the comfort of the rooms, said she had felt “strong smells like gas”, as well as noises coming from one of the Saratoga’s bars.

A similar opinion is that of Jackie L, from Miami, Florida, who years ago, in 2015, gave the hotel the worst rating and said she felt “disappointed”. Like the user Mike B, also from the United States, who perceived “bad odors” in her room, although she attributed them to poor hygiene in the vicinity of the hotel.

The complaints, without a doubt, are very few but constant since its inauguration, and reflect that things have not gone as they should, not for a hotel destined and sold to VIP clients.

Two Saratoga workers, interviewed under strict conditions of anonymity since, As a result of the explosion, both Gaviota S.A. As officials of the Ministry of the Interior in charge of the investigations, they have threatened with strong reprisals those who offer information to any media outlet, whether official or independent.

“We always joked about the smell of gas but we never thought something like this would happen,” says one of the workers interviewed. “It always happened, even if the pipe (of liquefied gas) did not come, it was normal, because they told us it was normal (…) when we called CUPET or the firefighters and they checked, they never found anything wrong (…). That was always a concern. (…) When the pipe arrived, the perimeter was not closed, security personnel were not posted to tell people to at least cross to the other sidewalk (…), people passed by smoking. That was left alone, nobody watched anything. The drivers (of the tank cars) got out and went to the kitchen to ask for something to take away, as happens in all hotels. It was very normal.”

“There were several complaints (from customers) about the smells (of gas and garbage), so CUPET was talked to so that the gas did not come with so much mercaptan, which is what gives it that smell (…), the gas that is carried It’s like that in hotels, with little odor, precisely so that customers don’t complain (…), they never said there was a leak but that the tank was very close to the kitchen and that when they refilled it was always going to be felt but it wasn’t dangerous because it was almost undetectable (…). With the garbage, an agreement was reached so that it would be collected every day and special, hermetic containers were bought, but sometimes three days, a week, would pass, and the car would not pass; then the garbage that could decompose faster was put in the refrigerators or we ourselves had to find a truck and take it to the landfill, ”says another source.

Danger as usual

Although hotel security is one of the weakest points pointed out by foreign administrations when they take control of any installation in Cuba, very few investigations have been carried out and published on the island on the subject. The few that exist focus mainly on general issues of administration and implementation of technologies aimed at services but touch very superficially or evade problems such as those related to the treatment of residues, waste, fuels and substances that could represent a danger both for the guests as well as for the staff that assists them.

Thus, some very tangential references to the subject can be found in several diploma papers in the faculties of Tourism, related to the quality of services, as well as in internal management manuals for academic use or those of Luis Benavides, from the University of Matanzas, on a study carried out at the Hotel Villa Trópico, in Varadero, in 2008. The latter is also available on the internet, although it barely approaches the problem.

The director of an important European hotel chain established in Cuba has pointed out some of the difficulties they face on a daily basis with respect to the general security of the facilities they manage.

“We cannot decide with the personnel we work with and there are many areas in which we cannot give an opinion, among them those related to maintenance and the companies we hire; All of this is managed by the Cuban side,” explains the source. “It is not possible for someone to be hired, assuming all the expenses, so that they only certify the security of a hotel, that cannot be done, it has to be with the entity that they have there and that they are themselves, with their standards adapted to their reality, which have nothing to do with our standards (as a foreign company). We limit ourselves to management, in the most essential, in sales and customer services, but in other things, even if we know they are wrong, we cannot do anything other than complain and wait for them to be moved”.

And later he goes on to say: “At first we invited several friends, including Cubans with a lot of experience, to work on the results of their investigations, but it didn’t work (…). It was about installing solar panels in some areas, transforming some facilities, introducing technologies with greater security. They told us it is not possible, they are not authorized, all of this corresponds to us, and it seems that they did not like the word ‘budget’, not even when we said ‘We assume that’. They wanted to continue selling us all those services, the certifications, everything that revolves around that, it’s their business”.

But it could be said, based on what was expressed by various sources in the academic media related to Tourism, that the general security that the Cuban side must guarantee is not only part of a business where they offer what they cannot but a prohibited subject, censored, despite the fact that it is where there would be more problems to point out, and that it becomes essential as a result of the explosion of the Saratoga, still without clarifying the true causes.

“The military don’t want anyone to stick their nose in their business,” a student about to graduate from Tourism, with whom we spoke, tells us.

“Precisely to save responsibilities when anything happens, like the Meliá Habana elevator, or minor things like food poisoning, burns, accidents of all kinds, and the fact is that safety regulations are not followed. Look for a single investigation where the topic is touched directly. There are not. However, customer complaints indicate that there are problems piling up: from things as simple as loss of objects in luxury facilities, water treatment, food handling, storage of substances and waste, to things as serious as this, explosion due to gas leak. (…) When someone, no matter if they are a student or professor, requests permission to carry out research in specific facilities, they give you a resounding no, but it is in those areas where they have the most problems, and serious ones, because everyone knows that nothing is done as it should be, many things are done because a plan needs to be updated, or because someone without any knowledge decides to do it just like that, and what happened at the Saratoga with the gas could happen at any other hotel, because there are problems with maintenance but also because everyone shits on the rules”, says the student based on his experience and that of other classmates during the preparation of his degree topics.

Also in this regard, an official from the Ministry of Tourism informs us, for whom the events in Saratoga will change some things in terms of security, but only until they forget those who, in his words, “give the orders” because “it is as if we would have gotten used to living with danger, with the ‘that doesn’t happen here’”.

“Now they have ordered all the hotels to be inspected, and when the pipe arrives there must be two guards on guard and no one can stay in the service area,” the source reports.

“That was done before but after that everything relaxed. Total, if nothing ever happens. ‘Those things don’t happen here but why not, this is Cuba and that’s it’. “That only happens in the outside news.” When the Meliá Habana elevator was the same, they ordered all the elevators to stop. And what was the result? That more than half of them have to be renewed, but when it comes to money everything stays that way, that is not talked about again (…). The same thing will happen with gas. There are hotels like Manzana where the system is the same; the Bristol, recently opened, almost next to the Saratoga, the system is very similar (…), new, yes, but in a few years and without the maintenance that it carries we will see it go through the same thing, and hopefully nothing else like this will happen, but it is that in Cuba it is not that there is not a culture of maintenance, that really there is not, but that they hate the word maintenance because it means money that must be taken from where they should have kept but they did not. They build, build, build because the money comes from the State budget or from someone who gave or lent it, but nothing is maintained, or it is done too late, or it is done poorly. A single example in sight, the Habana Libre (hotel) is to be thrown down, it’s so bad, there are rooms where you touch a wall and get electrocuted from how damp it is. Now they are scared with the Saratoga but when the scare gets over they still start to cut back, ”says the official.

The Cuban regime has proposed to increase the number of hotel rooms to more than 100,000 by 2030, according to official statements from 2019, adding some 18,000 rooms to the existing ones, distributed in some 40 new hotels still in the construction phase. . A gigantic and pretentious investment when compared to the short list of hotel facilities currently undergoing repair and maintenance, which includes barely fifty throughout the island, out of a total of around 350, and where Havana could be considered privileged by having with only 12 of its hotels undergoing major repairs.

With the delays and adversities that have been imposed by both the pandemic and the political crises worldwide, together with the profound imbalances derived from the so-called “Ordering Task” (a package of measures of the regime that has had a negative impact on the economic scenario of the Island ), the plans for tourism for 2030 will undoubtedly undergo modifications, although the Cuban government is determined to comply with them just to show the world its ability to overcome problems, a claim that will cause and accentuate other greater evils even for the industry itself national tourist destination where, with the tragedy of the Saratoga Hotel, it has become evident that some things that seemed to be the epitome of perfection are dangerously wrong.

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José Martí
José Martí
Nacionalista cubano, poeta, filósofo, ensayista, periodista, traductor, profesor y editor.

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