I was visiting the famous Hotel National in Havana, Cuba when the piercing light of a camera’s flash shot in rapid succession across the eclectic, Art Deco interior. A small group of plain-clothes people formed a semi-circle around a woman in a sequined red dress as she cast a skyward gaze into nowhere. The bulwark, 1930s hotel completed the scene by providing the tension present in Cuba’s visible frontiers in a dance she has performed many times in the past.
Built on a promontory overlooking the sea in the Vedado (“prohibited”) section of Old Havana, Hotel National exhibits an eclectic architectural style, reflecting Art Deco, Arabic references, features of Hispano-Moorish architecture, and both neo-classical and neo-colonial elements.
A number of rooms occupied by the famous have been preserved – several having been declared historic (those of Nat King Cole, Compay Segundo, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, María Felix, Johnny Weismuller, the Mafia bosses, Bola de Nieve, Tyron Power, Gary Cooper, Agustín Lara, Jorge Negrete, Mario Moreno, Stan Musial, Paul Casal, and Errol Flynn). On display in each are photographs and a biographical profile of their celebrated former occupant.
In December 1946, the hotel was the venue for a major gathering of the Mafia, closing its doors to the public while accommodating the heads of the most notorious (American) Cosa Nostra families. The hotel was the also setting for the formation of the ’26th July Movement’ (M-26-7) revolutionary cell led by Fidel Castro.
On this day, I witnessed Cuba: old vs new, youth vs wisdom, Castro’s Cuba vs the New Cuba.