By Martin Gleeson
In February 2015, my wife and I spent two weeks in Havana, the capital city of Cuba. We spent the first 6 days in the Hotel Nacional, which is now a national monument. We would not have travelled to Cuba at all if we could not have booked some time in this hotel, because we were interested in its historic significance, both during the Batista regime and during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, at the beginning of the Fidel Castro years.
The Nacional Hotel was built by an American company and opened in 1930. It catered for rich American guests and among the famous clients were: Rocky Marciano, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. It had the deepest swimming pool in Cuba which entertained guests such as Johnny Weissmuller (Tarazan in movies), who could go out to his balcony and from there dive down into the pool. Winston Churchill stayed there and liked both their rum and cigars. Today, there is a Churchill bar in the hotel where people can smoke big cigars and drink lots of Cuban rum!
During the halcyon years we must remember that there was a more sinister side to Cuba. The hotel’s historian, Teresa, took us on a guided tour of the hotel and told us about what went on the second floor. A whole corridor, with tree doors, was rented by Salvatore Lucianco, often called Lucky Luciano. He was not just a Mafia leader, he was the capo di tuti capi,(the boss of all the Mafia bosses). Next door to his suite there is another room that was kept permanently for one special guest. That was Frank Sinatra. When Frank married Ava Gardner in 1951, they had their honeymoon in the Hotel Nacional and our guide Teresa told us that both of them behaved very badly, getting drunk, breaking glasses and fighting!
One wing of the hotel was rented out to Meyer Lansky, known as the Mob’s accountant, which was used as a gambling casino. Lansky had 6 casinos but said that he made most money from the one in the Hotel Nacional.
Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole
During these years, the world’s best entertainers were brought to Cuba. Eartha Kitt was the singer to perform in the hotel’s adjoining Casino Parisien. But because of her colour, she was booked into another hotel,
Nat King Cole, too sang in the Casino Parisien. He had to agree to three conditions. Firstly, to never use the hotel swimming pool. Secondly, to go straight from the front door to the lift and talk to no one and thirdly, to have all his meals in his room.
Today, now that the great Nat King Cole is dead, there is a beautiful life-size statue of him in the hotel foyer.
On 1st January, 1959, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary party gained power and everything in Cuba changed immediately. The American tourists no longer came and the hotel went downhill rapidly.
In 1962, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed with Fidel Castro to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. When the missile preparations were confirmed by the Americans, they established a military blockade.
The Cubans were expecting an air attack and Castro installed artillery in the big tropical garden of the Hotel Nacional and built a rough tunnel underneath. Castro’s top military commanders along with Che Guevara stayed in the hotel as they waited for the attack from Florida only 90 miles away.
To walk around the lush garden these days and drink pina coladas while a band plays ‘Guantanamera’, it is hard to believe that this was the centre of a drama that could have ended in a nuclear war.
While staying in Hotel Nacional, we went to Mass in the local church. On the way out we met a lovely lady, a Spanish language teacher. A few months previously, she had had four Irish boys over to learn Spanish.
They arrived in Cuba with euro notes only. The lady advised them to change them into the Cuban universal currency notes (the currency used by tourists) only in a bank. However, the four boys met some locals on the street who told them that banks were closed due to a strike and that they would change their money for them. The Irish boys handed over their euros and got one Cuban peso for each of them. They found out later that these Cuban pesos are worth only a few cents each………the boys had been badly scammed.
This shows that even in a Communist country where the law is strictly enforced, innocent visitors can still be ripped off.