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American visitors galore

American visitors galore

By Victoria Alcalá

Cuba, and especially Havana, was visited by countless early travelers, whether for business, family relationships, scientific research or simple curiosity. And although until the eighteenth century the publication of the testimonies of those visits corresponded to the Europeans—Spaniards, Dutch, English, French, Italian—by the nineteenth century, Americans began to gain supremacy over the others. Several texts written by citizens from the north, such as Abiel Abbot or Samuel Hazard, have become essential referents for the study of that era on the island.

Guides for excursionists and travel books, almost always illustrated, abounded, while the farsighted William J. Clark published in 1898 a detailed volume of 514 pages, including maps and illustrations, aimed at entrepreneurs: Commercial Cuba. A Book for Business Men. Publications in the twentieth century did not differ much, and reveals at least one area of the interests of American travelers: potential investments, finding a friendly climate (the word winter appears repeatedly in the titles), interest for “exotic” customs… Other motivations such as abundant rum in times of Prohibition, easy sex or the practice of abortion, were left for discrete personal comments.

During the nineteenth century, there is hardly news of Americans celebrities traveling to the island, because the tourism boom, worldwide, began precisely at the end of that century. In contrast, the twentieth century exhibits an impressive list of famous visitors. Until 1958, the streets of Havana were filled with likes of actors like Johnny Weissmuller, winner of five Olympic medals in swimming, but remembered above all for his role as Tarzan in more than 10 films; the  great star of silent westerns, Tom Mix, and another idol of silent films, comedian Buster Keaton; tough guy John Wayne, compelling leading men like Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power or the incomparable Marlon Brando, who at the peak of his talent and sex appeal relished Havana night life to the limit, sex symbols like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner; Oscar champion Walt Disney; and dancer, choreographer, singer, musician and actor, the great Fred Astaire.

But not only film stars were curious about Cuba: Havana residents enjoyed the performances of  the great Josephine Baker, the unforgettable Nat King Cole and The Voice, Frank Sinatra. Nelson Rockefeller displayed his fluent Spanish, and another famous millionaire, Irénée du Pont, whose family was one of the richest and most prominent families in the 19th and 20th centuries, had a mansion built for him in Varadero. This house, which he named Xanadu, is considered one of the wonders of Cuban architecture. Just like most of his compatriots having the same pedigree, the idol of the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle, and one of the great heavyweights in boxing history, Jack Dempsey, stayed at the legendary Hotel Nacional, which closed its doors in December 1946 for a major meeting of the heads of the major crime families, including Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Santos Trafficante and Vito Genovese. So significant was this conference that in The Godfather II, Michael Corleone travels to Havana for a mobsters’ meeting. But the most beloved of all the Americans who came to Cuba in the first half of the twentieth century was undoubtedly Ernest Hemingway, who wrote, drank mojitos and daiquiris, fished and chased German submarines out of Havana.

Contrary to what one might think, due to the rupture of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States and the very tense relations that have marked almost six decades, many American celebrities looked out to the neighboring island, sometimes openly, sometimes with the utmost discretion. Again, the film industry beats all: Oscar winners like Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Robert de Niro, Ed Harris, Michael Douglas, Kevin Costner and Kevin Spacey, and Academy nominees Annette Bening, James Caan and Johnny Depp, who came to the Caribbean, but not as a pirate; other Oscar winners like Robert Duvall and Leonardo di Caprio; the always supportive Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover; Arnold Schwarzenegger, the “Governator”; Peter Coyote; Billy Zane and Jennifer Lopez, among others. To this incomplete list, you would need to add directors competing in fame with the actors listed above: Steven Spielberg, who was welcomed with the exhibition of his films in the best cinemas in Havana; Roman Polanski; Francis Ford Coppola; Oliver Stone, who made the Comandante, a documentary film on Fidel Castro; the controversial Michael Moore; Michael Mann; Steven Soderbergh, who put the figure of Ernesto Che Guevara on screen, and many more.

Given the undisputed musical power of Cuba, many musicians have made it a point to know the island “up close and personal”: Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Peter Frampton, Gladys Knight, Backstreet Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Beyonce and Jay Z, Kool & the Gang… in other areas,  star baseball players like Wade Boggs and Stan Musial have also visited the Island, the brilliant and eccentric chess player Bobby Fischer, the legendary heavyweight Muhammad Ali and prominent scientists and Nobel laureates David Gross (Physics) and Peter Agre (Chemistry).

American writers have not been regulars to the Island, but William Kennedy, author of the well-known novel Ironweed, and writer of the screenplay of the film of the same name as well as Cotton Club; Gore Vidal, a critic of US foreign policy in Cuba; sociologist James Petras; and playwright Arthur Miller. Pop art icon, Robert Rauschenberg also landed in Cuba. The famous journalist Barbara Walters interviewed Fidel; social activist Angela Davis, who introduced the afro hairstyle on the island, was received with honors; ex-president James Carter awakened much sympathy, and more recently in March 2016, President Barack, who announced on December 17, 2014, simultaneously with his counterpart President Raul Castro, the decision to restore diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.

The public announcement of the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the US and the opening of embassies (the Havana embassy in the presence of Secretary of State John Kerry) seems to have changed the dynamics of the arrival of American visitors to the Island. Politicians, businesspeople, intellectuals, artists and onlookers have invaded the streets of many Cuban cities (and also the beaches, although tourism in Cuba is not authorized by the US government) with different motivations. Some come to explore possible investment trying to preempt an imagined avalanche; some say that others come to enjoy the country before it is filled with McDonald’s and other like symbols. Of course, many are avid to have a taste of the until recently “forbidden fruit” while others hope to see the last days of the “communist stronghold in the West,” whose collapse they have spent more than 50 years prophesying to no avail.

For one reason or another, after December 17, 2014, many others have visited the island: ZZ Top; Major Lasser; Katy Perry, Usher, Ludacris, Jimmy Buffett; Conan O’Brien, who taped a special Conan in Cuba in March 2015; Rihanna who came with celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for a photo shoot in Havana; the best professional boxer in the world in the last decade, Floyd Mayweather; the eternal heartthrob Richard Gere; Paris Hilton; Naomi Campbell; Spike Lee; the  fabulous soprano Barbara Hendricks; the Fast and Furious stars and crew, as well as The Transformers; and the most recent visit in May, 2016 of Kanye West and the Kardashian clan. And last but least, the ineffable Simpsons have announced they will be coming in October this year. Homer will bring his father Abe to see Cuban doctors to cure the WWII veteran.

Indeed, to our neighbors up north, it seems that Cuba has never gone out of fashion.



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