A sea breeze can rouse the palms that stud the Hotel Nacional gardens in Havana to only a desultory rustle. It’s a steamy evening. Even the waiters, with crisp white shirts and bowties are betraying a hint of sweat-beaded foreheads—but then they are constantly on the run, trays laden with drinks and the inevitable cigars. In the corner of the terrace a quartet of singers is harmoniously enticing hotel guests to salsa. The three girls are in little black dresses (and in Cuba, little really does mean the bare minimum of skirt), black stilettos and black homburgs.
Tonight probably rates as just an ordinary evening at the Hotel Nacional. The world’s tallest man has just crossed the Moorish style lobby with its black and white flagstone floor. He is stooped and walking as if it is painful to do so; Turk Sultan Kosen parts a sea of rubber-neckers pointing their mobile phone cameras at him, dazzling him with flashes from their digitals. No one says hello to him.
The Hotel Nacional’s terrace is u-shaped, the open-ended side facing the Caribbean. It’s normally a place of subdued light but there’s a film crew here setting up blindingly white lights around the round pool and fountain in the garden.
Nestled photogenically beside it on a park bench is—I’m told by a passing waiter—one of Cuba’s most famous leading men. Appropriately perhaps, he is draped around a suitably decorative leading lady. A small band of Cuban musicians strolls past—disconcertingly, they strum, blow and croon but there is no sound. They mime for take one, take two…
The Hotel Nacional is probably Cuba’s most famous hotel so film crews barely raise a flutter of interest among the staff and Cuban clientele. What does stop almost everyone in their tracks is the arrival of a young lady in a tiny red lycra dress that appears to have been spray painted onto her body. There is, as my grandmother would have noted, no room for a hankie.
She struts past on heels that would give orthopaedic surgeons an attack of the vapours. All around the terrace, drinks hang suspended between lips and tables. Even the waiters forget where they were going. The temperature on the terrace seems to increase perceptibly… and then she is gone.
She’s lost in the melee in the lobby of tall Turks, dishevelled Canadian tourists and businessmen trying to find wifi coverage on their laptops. In other hotels this might have gone down as a memorable night but for the Hotel Nacional it is nothing. It was built in 1930—eight storeys of Art Deco, Spanish Moorish, neo-classical luxury on a spot where, hundreds of years earlier, the Spanish colonists had defended their territory from passing pirates and British invaders.
The two were not mutually exclusive as Cuban waters had been frequented in the 17th century by buccaneers—pirates given a doubtful form of legitimacy by the English government as a cheap way to protect its interests on the high seas.
Among them were Sir Frances Drake and the notorious Henry Morgan. The cannons from this era of raid and invasion are still in situ in the grounds and have Unesco protection.
For the next three decades after its opening, the Nacional was the playground of the rich, famous and infamous. This was the era when Cuba was regarded as America’s rather risqué, on-the-edge playground. Havana was the place for casinos, raunchy cabarets and beautiful call girls and the Hotel Nacional was a one-stop shop for all three.
But the hotel has always been much more than a landmark with a colourful past. During the 1930s, senior army officers holed up in the hotel during a revolt against the then-ruler of Cuba. Among those bombarding the hotel was Fulgencio Batista, who became president himself in 1940 and then again in the 1950s, when he staged a coup with the backing of the US and began an era of violent oppressive dictatorship.
It was during the Batista era that the Mafia began to frequent the Hotel Nacional. In 1946 the hotel was closed to the regular guests to provide privacy for the US’s most powerful and notorious gangsters including Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano and their families.
In an attempt to provide a patina of respectability to the gathering, it was disguised as a Frank Sinatra concert. Lanksy even managed to persuade the hotel’s owners at the time to give him part ownership. He also had the lease on the casino which, rumour has it, at one point had a turnover larger than the biggest casinos in Las Vegas.
By the end of the 1950s the Hotel Nacional’s guest list had included Edward VIII, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Walt Disney and Winston Churchill.
Among the less well publicised guests during the 50s was a young Cuban called Fidel Castro, who formed a revolutionary cell in the hotel. By 1959 he and his fellow revolutionaries, including the legendary Che Guevara (who later used to watch chess matches in the hotel), had overthrown Batista and were running the country.
Fidel closed the hotel down in 1960. It was used on occasions to accommodate foreign dignitaries but was restored and reopened to the public only in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which took with it one of Cuba’s main income streams.
Since then, the guest list has grown to include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert de Niro Mohammad Ali, Hugo Chavez, Kevin Costner, Jimmy Carter and Kate Moss. Photographs of the notables line the walls of the corridors leading to the basement restaurant where a chef was flat-out making pancakes for a group of American college students—something of an anachronism given most Americans are banned from visiting Cuba.
It was President JF Kennedy who imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and it has been in place ever since, preventing not only trade between the two, but also tourism. There are only a few exceptions, for some students and academics etc.
The ludicrousness of this ban can’t fail to hit one after just a few days in Cuba. Life in the bubble of the Hotel Nacional is far removed from that of most Cubans, who face shortages of just about everything (there is still rationing of essentials such as cooking oil, rice and soap to ensure the poorest in society don’t miss out), horse-drawn transport is still widespread and many rural houses still have dirt floors.
How Cuba today could be regarded as any kind of threat to the most powerful nation on earth is beyond belief. I suspect that one of the real reasons it has continued for so long is that previous American administrations couldn’t bear the thought that so many Cubans still hold on to their revolutionary ideals and haven’t rushed pell-mell into the embrace of capitalism.
Fidel remains a thorn in their sides—even though he is now largely a figurehead—and Che’s mantra of Hasta La Victoria Siempre (Onwards to Victory) is still emblazoned on house walls all over Cuba.
Things might be about to change however. There are signs that President Obama may be considering relaxing travel restrictions on American citizens wanting to visit Cuba. When this happens—watch out, a longer pancake queue at the Hotel Nacional will be the least of the changes.
If all that comes to pass, no doubt the Nacional will be in line for another spruce up. At present, Cuba’s straitened financial situation has meant the hotel has not been scrubbed clean of its past. The lobby looks little changed, the bar where jazz musicians play before dinner still has its mirrored wall and curved sweep of polished wood. Even the bathroom fittings look original (the creaking plumbing they are attached to almost certainly is).
If change comes to the Nacional I won’t go back—better to remember it when the ghosts of the gangsters, the glamorous show girls and political intrigue still seem to waft along its corridors.
First published on June 30, 2011 at nzherald.com