First Night in Havana

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The Godfather Part II captured the dying days of Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba. Meyer Lansky, thinly-fictionalised as Hyman Roth, and his Mafia associates had a vision of casino hotels right along the Malecón, the esplanade which curves around the waterfront from Old Havana to what was then the smart suburb of Vedado.

Batista – who really did have a solid gold telephone like the one we see Michael Corleone testing for weight and handing round the table – offered a gaming licence and like-for-like subsidies to anyone who invested more than $1m in a casino hotel. But, in the end, only a few were built before his government fell and the incoming Communists seized all Yanqui property. Lansky’s Habana Riveria was the biggest and grandest when it opened. It proved a catastrophic investment.

I stayed in the more modest Hotel Deauville, built in 1957 for the Florida boss, Santo Trafficante Jr. It was a nominal three-star by then, painted a jaunty blue. The casino, plundered by Castro’s rebels, was long gone and the hotel seemed to be slowly decaying. It would be entertaining on a morning to see what had failed overnight. On the second day, a button fell off the control panel inside the lift. On the third day, the whole panel was hanging by its wires. On the fourth, an out of service sign hung on the door.

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I was not expecting much when I went out to dinner. Even travellers who are usually delighted with a hunk of overcooked meat and a wilting salad were rude about Cuban food. I heard the story again and again of waiters presenting an expansive menu, but saying – no tengo (I don’t have it) to everything but chicken and rice.

Shortages are a fact of life in a command economy and memories are yet to fade of the so-called Special Period, when Soviet subsidies abruptly ended and Cubanos were forced to eat their pets and animals from the zoo.

But things are slowly, quietly changing. Private enterprise has been allowed, in a small way, for some years now. The restaurants were obvious beneficiaries. I happened upon Castas y Tal on the first night and went back more than once. It was a few steps from my hotel but would have been worth a walk.

 

The room was informal with contemporary lighting and the menu fashionably hand-written on the walls. It served nicely-presented reinventions of Cuban classics. The concept would have worked well enough in London or New York. Or at least it would if they had stopped putting red wine in the fridge.

The shutters were flung open in Castas y Tal and a breeze cut through the Caribbean heat of the evening. A boisterous crowd strolled up the road to the Malecón. At least one in each group had a bottle of rum by the scruff of the neck. Even at tourist prices, Havana Club costs about the same as the cheapest bottle of wine in a British supermarket. The lesser brands cost little more than bottled water.

– ¿Tienes ron? (do you have rum?) I asked at a street kiosk one night, fully expecting no tengo.

– Si, the vendor said and produced a Tetra Pak container, or a Communist equivalent.

– ¿Es ron? I asked doubtfully.

– Si, she confirmed, and it was and it was fine.

It was mesmerising to watch old American cars growl and grumble down Avenida de Italia in the twilight, drivetrains whining, exhausts belching smoke, and to reflect that they were not just the same type but the very same cars that prowled these streets when Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante Jr were investing in casino hotels.

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They were of the same period but a world away from the cars used for tours run from Old Havana with their gleaming chrome and shining paintwork. These were everyday hacks, bodged up, repaired, put back on the road with half a century’s worth of whatever was available. The chrome was dull and rusting. Bodywork was dented and clumsily painted. Headlights were optional. A diesel unit from a Japanese pick-up might have been bullied into the engine bay, or a commercial body grafted onto what started out as a car.

The crowd stayed on the Malecón into the morning. Their volume increased as they passed round the bottle. I had left the door to the balcony open in lieu of air-conditioning and the shouting and singing funnelled inside. Eventually it blended with the rhythmic crash of the waves on the sea wall and the shush of the cars on the road and just became background noise.

A merry group with a Spanish guitar and a few shots left in the bottom of the bottle was still at it at seven in the morning when I went downstairs for coffee. The guitar player knelt to serenade a girl on her way to work but she ignored him and they shuffled off home.

I asked at reception for a scratchcard for the internet. – No tengo, they said.

© Richard Senior 2019

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