When a statue of a communist leader is removed to make way for a luxury five-star hotel, well, someone is skittish in Cuba. Free market capitalism is attempting to coexist with Marxist economics, and while pork remains traditional fare in la Habana I’m reminded of the saying “Lets put some lipstick on this pig!”
The Charles Schwab Corporation coined that phrase in a 2002 commercial about Wall Street’s conflicts of interest, but it was presidential candidate Barack Obama who actually made it famous. By 2014 he was the leader of the free world, and spearheading the official re-opening of the United States Embassy in Cuba.
Once the playground of Hollywood’s rich and famous, A-list celebrities like Frank Sinatra were once regulars at the Hotel Nacional where they sipped on the hotel’s signature Mojitos, and smoked Cohiba cigars. El Floridita created the Daiquiri for Ernest Hemingway who returned every night to pen “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Even Ava Gardner, Jane Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe all danced at the iconic Tropicana Night Club. Indeed, Havana Cuba was in many ways the predecessor to Old Las Vegas where gambling, entertainment, and luxury hotels all pandered to the American tourist.
A major influence was the President of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, who controlled the island's casinos and drug traffic in an absolute government of corruption. Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement would oust the dictator, cozy up to the Soviet Union, create a socialist state, and effectively push socialism (along with soviet nuclear missiles) within 90 nautical miles of American shores. It can fairly be said that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 effectively brought communism to the west.
It was the apex of the Cold War, and the next 50+ years would produce austerity in Cuba. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s complex and fractured relationship with Venezuela, and the failing health of Fidel Castro combined to turn the inevitable page of communism to market capitalism. By 2014, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their intention to ease a 54-year stretch of hostility between the two nations and otherwise warm up relations between their people. The “Cuban Thaw” was an act of humanitarian brio, and designed “to help Cubans achieve a better future.”
The deregulation that ensued fostered commerce. U.S. Airlines began serving ten Cuban airports, Google modernized Cuba’s Internet, and cell towers began connecting the island-nation to the world. While the Cuban Embargo of 1958 can only be ended by the U.S. Congress, the Obama Administration took executive action to ease trade and travel restrictions, negotiated a prisoner exchange, and re-opened the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Yet flying into the island nation in 2018 felt more like a reconnaissance mission than a retreat to the Caribbean. Footpaths and dirt roads connect rural towns and villages where Cuba’s 11 million residents still dwell in abject poverty.
Having visited the Russian Federation, I can attest to little difference between the international airports of Moscow and Cuba. Each reeks of soviet-era mystique, and possess all the charms of the U.S. Department of Motor Vehicles. One queues through immigration into an inquisition, looks of suspicion, and a cursory mug shot. Then onto highways where relics, scooters and livestock all intersect into a labyrinth of vehicular chaos.
Fifteen harrowing kilometers separate the Jose Marti International Airport from the capital of a nation founded on ideals of social equality, and positioned at the very epicenter of Old Havana lies the newest pretender: The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana.
As the first five-star hotel in Cuba, the Gran Hotel Manzana is actually owned by Cuba’s Army (Gaviota), but operated by Europe’s oldest luxury hotel group (Kempinski), in as curious a pairing since Bogie & Bacall. In 1951, all of America tuned in to a 30-minute radio show about tropical Havana. Considered the most mysterious island of the Caribbean, salty seadog Slate Shannon (Bogart) owns a Cuban hotel, and haven for revolutionaries. The sultry sailor Duval (Bacall) tags along, and together they navigate the waters around Havana in the “Bold Venture.”
What isn’t widely known is that Batiste was bankrolling Humphrey Bogart’s production company (Santana), and baiting America’s appetite for celebrities. Indeed, tourism to the island soared in 1952, and a real-life revolution did too! It was a breathtaking example of life imitating art in the 20th century.
But how do you lure foreign investors into joint ventures with state owned businesses today, and why would any self-respecting foreigner oblige? The answer may lie in the ethos of the island’s history.
Spanish Colonization and Rule
Before the arrival of the Spanish, approximately 150,000 indigenous peoples inhabited Cuba. They were farmers, hunter-gatherers and fishers by trade, and the first to encounter Europeans in their “New World.” Christopher Columbus landed on the island in October 1492, and claimed it for the Kingdom of Spain. In 1511, Diego Velázquez founded the first settlement, and the indigenous peoples were forced to work under the Encomienda system. The Spanish Monarch offered military protection in exchange for indentured servitude.
For the next 400 years the indigenous people remained the subjects of Spain, but in 1898 won their freedom in Cuba’s War of Independence. Soon the first European-style shopping arcade was built, and the now emancipated people took their first steps toward free market capitalism. Corruption, fascism, and communism ensued over the next century until June 2017 — when Gaviota redecorated the old shopping arcade into an opulent luxury hotel.
The 246 rooms of luxurious pinks and plums are sumptuous, and the bouquet of white lily that wafts into every corridor and suite is arresting. The Cigar Lounge is a novelty, and the restaurant a glammy confluence of Cuban paladars and gastronomy. If the spa offers all the expected amenities, the state of the art fitness center proffers stunning views of Havana's most stunning paradox. Where else in the world can you ride a Technogym lifecycle overlooking a veritable time capsule of vintage Cadillacs and Ox Carts?
But converting a soviet-era shopping arcade into a temple to conspicuous capitalism isn’t merely about bolstering the GDP through the tourism sector. It’s about luring foreign currencies — that have earned their mettle in a free market system — into a communist regime that has not. Consider this: If the average wage of a Cuban is $25.00 per month, and a “Versace Lamb Leather Shoulder Bag with Medusa Head” retails for $2,000.00, won’t that exhibition of luxury goods aggravate the very class inequality that triggered the Cuban Revolution in the first place?
At its 27th Anniversary celebration last year, Gaviota announced 55 hotels in operation, more than 24,000 rooms, sales upwards of $650 million, and 24,376 workers. According to state television, Gaviota plans to nearly double its number of hotel rooms and workers to 50,000 by 2020. With an annual salary of $200.00 per year, labor stands to take less than a 1% sliver of Cuba’s billion-dollar pie.
While the detente triggered a tourism boom (American travel nearly tripled to 300,000 in 2017) U.S. tourists are nevertheless warned not to drink the water in a clear and compelling reminder that Cuba is still a Third World country. “Use bottled water when brushing your teeth,” the U.S. State Department warns. “Avoid ice in beverages.” Our encounter with Cuba’s notorious bacteria occurred on our last day la Habana, rendering 3 in our party of 6 to urgent care and antibiotics. On reflection, it was a small if salient price to pay for this magnificent peek into history. For nary a week after our return, American Airlines effectively cancelled all flights from Charlotte to Cuba.
Whom amongst our common men has sat at a rooftop pool in Old Havana overlooking its Capitol, Great Theater, and UNESCO World Heritage sites? The famous Castillo del Morro twinkles on the horizon, and from our spacious penthouse suite — on par with the finest in the world — I can see the crumbling Hotel Ambos Mundos: where Hemingway penned his novel about Spain’s Civil War. Considered a literary masterpiece, it was an epitaph to democracy and fascism in the days and hours preceding World War II. Its publication presaged the attack on Pearl Harbor by one year, and informed the principal debate in western civilization.
He followed me around the Flea Market like a stray, translating as I bartered for souvenirs. Despite being warned not to give money to the locals I paid him anyway — for services rendered — with $20.00 CUC. The Convertible Paso (which tourists use) is worth 25x’s more than the Cuban Peso (which locals use), and with a little grit and determination he’d effectively earned in one hour what his parents make in a year.
We danced at the Tropicana. We smoked Cuban cigars. And we drank vintage rum in the very best bars. Its what I tell people of our trip to Cuba, and frankly all they expect to hear. But the real currency of Havana’s culture shone from a resilient eight-year-old street hustler named Santiago. Daring to dance within Cuba’s twin currencies, he targeted the interlopers of his island, and, far more importantly, outsmarted those that govern it. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by an oppressor,” said Martin Luther King. “It must be demanded by the oppressed.”
As the Republic of Cuba comes full circle in its political life cycle, it seems and certainly feels as though their economy is as similar today as when its indigenous peoples were forced to work under the Encomienda system. Colonialism, Castro, and communism have given way to the new market capitalism that, for now, appears to serve one elite class.
The Havana Cathedral no longer inters the remains of the island’s conqueror, Christopher Columbus, but its asymmetrical bell towers informed every hour of our 4-day journey to Cuba. Beyond the mere telling of time, they rang when Batiste was exiled from the island, when Fidel Castro died, and for a full week following the 26th of July Movement. They rang for Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Barack Obama, too.
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” Hemmingway wrote, in his literary classic. For it didn’t just chronicle the Spanish Civil War, or the rise of Strongmen in the western world, but the varied conversations — from soldiers to shop keepers to everyday people — who unwittingly conflate prejudice with patriotism. To the indigenous peoples of Cuba. To the conquered and those who flee. To the hustler who won my heart “It tolls for thee.”