Published December 30, 2010
HAVANA – The carpets are worn and the rooms have a musty feel. Yet Havana's iconic Hotel Nacional, which marked its 80th birthday Thursday, wears its slightly shabby elegance with pride, an aging beauty a bit past its prime.
The hotel has welcomed movie stars and mobsters, but today's visitors are mostly flip-flop-wearing tourists from Britain and Spain hoping to get a taste of the past at the apricot-colored monolith on Havana's seaside Malecon boulevard.
The hotel's story reads like a parable of recent Cuban history, chronicling the island's evolution from naughty tropical playground to communism's Caribbean enclave.
"The strength of the hotel lies in its history, in everything it's lived through and remained standing," said general manager Antonio Martinez Rodriguez. "Its fissures are like wrinkles on the face of an old and wise person who's seen it all."
Opened in 1930 as a rum-soaked getaway for Mafia dons and Hollywood starlets, the Nacional became a training center for illiterate peasant women after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. It was shuttered around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major ally and protector, and was reborn following a major overhaul as a source of much-needed foreign currency.
The past has left its scars on the stone-and-concrete building, in the bullet holes that once pockmarked the facade — leftovers from a 1933 rebellion — and in the network of Cuban Missile Crisis-era tunnels and anti-aircraft positions still carved into the garden.
Its register reads like a "Who's Who" of the 20th century. Luminaries such as Winston Churchill and Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rubbed shoulders with mobsters including Lucky Luciano. Errol Flynn and Rita Hayworth slept under the same roof as Mickey Mantle and Fred Astaire.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the five-star hotel served as a backdrop for some of the brinksmanship that brought the world close to nuclear war. As the standoff neared the boiling point, Cuban soldiers dug a web of invisible tunnels beneath the verdant lawns and installed three Soviet anti-aircraft guns.
The Nacional was also the scene of a bombing by an anti-Castro group. In July 1997, an explosive planted in the lobby went off, wounding a guest and several hotel employees. The blast, part of a campaign that also targeted other Havana hotels, was aimed at destabilizing Cuba's fragile economy as the country turned to tourism to substitute for Soviet largesse after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Plans for the hotel were hatched in the late 1920s under President Gerardo Machado. Though the Cuban government ostensibly was responsible for the lion's share of the $7 million investment, general manager Martinez said much of the impetus for the project came from the mob, which was flush with Prohibition-era cash.
"That capital needed to be invested," Martinez is quoted as saying in "Revelations of a Legend," a book on the hotel's history launched Thursday. "The Hotel Nacional was a well-thought-out choice."
The Nacional was designed and built by U.S. firms. It took the crew of 8,000 workers 14 months to finish the building, an architectural Frankenstein that combines elements of Art Deco, Baroque, Spanish colonial and Latin American criollo styles.
Marketed as a tropical paradise, the casino and cabaret delivered no-holds-barred fun to the Nacional's then-largely American clientele, and the mafia pocketed the profits, Martinez said.
In December of 1946, about 500 Mafiosos descended on the hotel for a mob summit — an event immortalized in fictional form in "The Godfather Part II." During the six-day-long gathering, the dons divided up the spoils of Cuba's lucrative gambling, drug and prostitution rackets, said the hotel's resident historian, Estela Rivas. Rivas sometimes serves as tour guide, making one of her stops the second-floor suite where Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky held their talks.
She also brings visitors to the hotel's cabaret — where showgirls in marabou feathers and strategically placed sequins continue to enthrall — and the Churchill Bar, where Britain's wartime prime minister liked to relax with a Romeo y Julieta cigar during his stay in 1946.
The Nacional's decades of high-wattage glamour and anything-goes decadence came to an abrupt end in 1959 with the triumph of Castro's revolution.
The hotel was nationalized, its walls hung with pro-communist banners. Hundreds of rural women learned to read and sew there, and the hotel later lodged Soviet engineers and honeymooners from across the island.
"This place was put to much use, and the years took their toll," Martinez said. In 1990, the hotel closed for a total renovation, he said, reopening two years later.
Nowadays, 86,000 tourists pass through the Nacional's 426 rooms each year, Martinez said. With standard rooms priced at the modest rate of 120 convertible pesos ($129) per night, the hotel attracts mostly middle-class Europeans and also some Americans, who defy the nearly half-century-long U.S. embargo against the island.
"It's as if we shared a bit of history with the people who were here before," gushed Pepa Gutierrez Ortega, a guest from Seville, Spain.
"All you have to do is look around and you realize that being here is worth it."