Imagine a suburb full of stately houses, large gardens, blooming gardenias, wrought iron fences and balconies from which to gaze at the ocean. People driving down wide avenues in fat-tired pastel-coloured convertibles, others are sipping mojitos pool-side under the shade of palm trees.
Imagine now that same suburb has been placed under a glass dome and time has marched on forward.
Paint is peeling off sunburned houses, ironwork needs retouching, the balconies are propped up with makeshift lumber crutches, but inside the houses many families now share space, and the gardens are still sweet-smelling and lush.
This is Vedado, a suburb of Havana which was THE place to live and vacation before the revolution of 1959 – full of sophisticated expats living life large, and rum-soaked playground of Mafia dons and Hollywood jet-setters with money to burn.
The construction of the plush Hotel National in the 1920’s is reported to have been bankrolled by the Mafia with cash from Prohibition-era alcohol sales and money laundering. Why not also set up a gambling empire in the Caribbean?
The Hotel National was the place to see and be seen in Havana, and guests included Winston Churchill, Hemingway (of course), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, American mob bosses, Sinatra and Walt Disney.
It’s a pretty nice place to wander through – especially in the heat of the day as it has air-conditioning!!!! Staying there was out of the question (read:budget) for me, but even if you are not a guest, you can still order a (pricey) mojito at one of the patio tables on the lawn overlooking the malecon and watch the locals sitting on the seawall. You do have to be careful where you step though, the spongy grass lies over tunnels and holes where anti-aircraft guns were positioned during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Another famous landmark in Vedado is the hotel Habana Libre, built in 1957 with the personal backing of Cuban President Batista.
Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, in cahoots with the Mob, passed Hotel Law 2074 in 1955. This provided tax exemptions to any hotel providing tourist accommodation and guaranteed government financing and a gaming licence to anyone willing to invest $1 million or more in hotel construction, or $200,000 for the building of a nightclub. Source
Originally known as the Havana Hilton, on 8th January 1959 it became into the headquarters of Castro government; Fidel based on the 25th floor with the best views in Havana. In October 1960 the Habana Hilton was renamed Habana Libre. Capitalists be gone!
Today a street scene in Vedado bears no resemblance to pre-revolutionary days – locals wait in long lines for a table at spaceship-shaped Coppelia ice cream (government subsidised), accordion-belted guaguas (wha-whas) lurch down calle 23 belching black smoke, jam-packed with people, and large american cars (colectivos) ferry locals between the barrios of Habana Viejo and Vedado.
Later people will line up for comida at small paladores, women fanning themselves and their children with chinese fans as they wait in the hot sun – the choices are simple: a cheese pizza, a ham and cheese roll or spaghetti with ketchup sauce. Later still as the streets cool down and an ocean breeze comes through people will emerge to enjoy the breeze, or perhaps walk down la rampa to the malecon to watch the sun set before heading home again.
Disclaimer: I went back to Cuba. Never closer, right? Stay tuned for more Cuban content…