Havana, Cuba, Yesterday and Today

I recently returned from a two and one half week trip to Cuba, after having spent the last nine months immersed in the island’s past as I taught an undergraduate course on the U.S-Cuba relationship in film and history at Florida International University and curated with Rosa Lowinger a Cuba-themed exhibition at The WolfsonianFIU. Having spent so much time researching and selecting items for Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction, I was excited about having the opportunity to actually travel to Cuba and to see and experience some of those things I had only read about or seen in film. Today’s blog post will provide a brief look at things as they were in the period 1919 to 1959, and things as they are in 2016, starting first with Havana’s iconic seaside drive, the Malecón and El Prado street.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


Photographed and recorded by the author


The WolfsonianFIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca


Photographed by the author

Nineteen-nineteen was an important date in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations. Sugar, which dominated the Cuban economy since the earliest colonial times well into the mid-twentieth century, experienced such a hike in prices during the First World War, that it is referred to as the “Dance of the Millions.” In 1919, sugar prices fell precipitously, so that wartime fortunes were lost overnight. Consequently, the Cuban government sought to diversify the economy by passing a tourist bill legalizing gambling to encourage wealthy American tourists—no longer taking their vacations in war-ravaged Europe—to spend their money in Cuba instead. The passage of Prohibition in the United States that same year also encouraged thirsty Americans to visit the island of rumba, rum, and roulette.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


The WolfsonianFIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The Gran Casino Nacional reopened in the exclusive Marianao neighborhood in 1928, with extensive renovations provided by New York architects Schultz and Weaver and interior decorator Renee Lewis. The palatial casino, which featured a first class restaurant, a spacious dance hall, and beautiful terraces, was frequented by Havana high society and the “best class of tourists,” and it helped establish Havana’s reputation as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean. A fountain set in front of the elegant building was carved by Italian sculptor Aldo Gamba (1881-1944?)—supposedly while serving time in prison for shooting an English woman whom he later married. It was described by Consul Carlton Hurst as having been illuminated by “colored lights playing on the marble figures of the dancing nymphs.” When the Gran Casino closed, Tropicana’s owner, Martín Fox purchased Gamba’s famous Muses’ Fountain and moved it moved to the Tropicana cabaret in 1952, where it still stands, bathed in colored lights.


Photographed by the author

The Tropicana cabaret, originally established in the Havana suburb of Marianao in 1939, went on to become the premier entertainment venue in Havana. It reached its pinnacle of fame in the 1950s largely because of its famous choreographer, Roderico (“Rodney”) Neyra. Rodney, who had cut his teeth choreographing striptease shows at the infamous Shanghai burlesque theater later worked at Club San Souci until lured away by Alberto Ardura with a high-paying, exclusive contract at the Tropicana.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection





The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The modernist outdoor structures designed by Cuban-born, American-educated architect Max Borges, Jr. also elevated the reputation of the nightclub.


The WolfsonianFIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Borges’ glorious glass and concrete Arcos de Cristal (Crystal Arches) and Bajo las Estellas (Under the Stars)—an abstract outdoor structure where showgirls sashay down catwalks among the trees—remain intact. Presently under the direction of Ibrahim González Baldoquín, the club’s outstanding revues deservingly continue to attract tourists to the cabaret.




Photographed by the author

If Cuban musicians, performers, and rhythms were—and remain—important attractions drawing Americans to the island, Cuban rum was an especially important lure in the period of U.S. Prohibition (1919-1933). In the pre-Castro era, the BacardÍ family’s rum business was the biggest home-grown industrial enterprise on the island. Rodríguez, R. Fernández and J. Menéndez designed an Art Deco office tower in Old Havana to house the company’s headquarters. Constructed of reinforced concrete with a glazed terracotta exterior, the Edificio Bacardí was erected in only three hundred days in 1930. Its belfry tower, topped by an ornamental bat—the company’s logo—made it Cuba’s tallest building at that time.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Today, despite the need for some serious conservation treatment, the building still affords some of the best views of old Havana.




Photographed by the author


The WolfsonianFIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Although my wife and I stayed with relatives, with family friends, and in casas particulares during our trip to Cuba, we did frequent the beautiful old hotels that once attracted American socialites to the island in the 1920s and 1930s. Our favorite was the historic Hotel Inglaterra, which is beautifully restored and gorgeously decorated inside.


The WolfsonianFIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca




Photographed by the author

From its rooftop bar, the Inglaterra also offers spectacular views of the parapets of the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater,  El Capitolio (the capitol building presently under reconstruction), the tree-line Prado, and glimpses of the Hotel Sevilla-Biltmore, and El Morro Castle in the distance.



Photographed by the author

Another hotel that caught our attention was the Hotel Plaza, pictured here in a vintage luggage label and postcard.



The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

During our visit, the hotel was draped with a flag to mark the upcoming July 26 anniversary.


Photographed by the author

Originally designed by the American architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White and opening to visitors in 1930, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba has also been restored to its former glory.



The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Its beautiful lobby and grounds are open to Cuban residents and tourists alike.


Photographed by the author

While staying at a casa particular in Vedado, we visited the nearby Hotel Habana Libre. The hotel had been jointly designed by the Los Angeles firm Welton Becket & Associates and the Cuban firm Arroyo-Menendez, with the construction work funded with the pension plan of the Cuban Catering Workers’ Union. When it originally opened in March, 1958, it was operated by American Hilton Hotels group and was known as the Habana Hilton—the tallest hotel in all of Latin America.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

I was particularly pleased to see the original exterior mural by the artist Amelia Pelaez in tact. The beautiful mural had been hidden away for years until the hotel’s renovation in the late 1990s.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

I was also eager to see how the infamous Mafioso Meyer Lansky’s Hotel Riveria had fared, so I dragged my poor wife from the Maine monument down the Malecón in the mid-summer sun to the hotel just to be able to compare it to postcards and other historic images of the same.


The WolfsonianFIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

While the first floor lobby, restaurant, and pool area had been restored, the remainder of the building was still undergoing major renovation and was virtually deserted.


Photographed by the author

In addition to visiting the hotels frequented by American tourists in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’50s, we also spent time at the city’s great landmarks. No stay in Havana would be complete without a stop at the Cemetery of Colon—featured in one of my favorite Cuban films, La Muerte de un Burocrata.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


Photographed by the author

As one would probably expect, not much has changed in the cemetery, except that at the exits the police were stopping cars and looking in the trunks. I assume that they were doing so to ensure that none of the white marble slabs or ornamental ironwork were being stolen, but perhaps they were fans of another film set in Cuba, Juan of the Dead and were making sure none of the inhabitants of the necropolis were trying to escape!


Photographed by the author

We were unable to enter El Capitolio as the capitol building is currently being renovated, but we did get some nice photos of it and the buildings directly across the street from it.


Photographed by the author


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


Photographed by the author

Statues of José Martí—the poet and revolutionary inspiration of Cuba’s independence movement—abound in Havana, from the city center of Old Havana to Revolutionary Square.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

With the dome of El Capitolio shrouded in scaffolding as it undergoes conservation, it almost appeared as if Martí were imprisoned within, whereas his giant statue in Revolutionary Square appears dwarfed by the obelisk behind it.



Photographed by the author

But by far the strangest assemblage of statuary we saw was a menagerie of busts resting on the porch of a house in Vedado!


Photographed by the author

As my father worked for many years as a union representative for “Ma Bell”—in the days when there was only one telephone company—my wife and I paid a visit to the Cuban Telephone Company building which has been turned into a museum.





Throughout the trip, I was impressed by the number of American cars built in the 1950s that were still on the roads today. Cubans have always prided themselves on their automobiles and as soon as the latest models rolled off the assembly lines in Detroit, they appeared on the streets and highways of Cuba.


The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


The WolfsonianFIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

 Despite having no access to spare parts for more than fifty years, Cubans have creatively and resourcefully managed to keep many of these antiques running. Many collectives look like they’ve been in service for as long as they have; others used for personal transportation or as taxis for tourists look pristine and new.



Photographed by the author

We mostly drove around in a “Mosquito”—our host’s affectionate nickname for the hat-shaped cars manufactured in Moscow and exported to Cuba.


Photographed by the author

Our host regularly spent between an hour and an entire day making major repairs on the vehicle before, during, and after each road trip.


Photographed by the author

For much of our time in Cuba, I was determined to see and experience the island like a native. Every so often, however, we gave in to the urge to make the pilgrimage to such touristy spots as Sloppy Joe’s bar and the Hemingway haunt, El Floridita. After walking the streets of Habana Vieja at the height of the summer sun, it was a relief to sip down a cool and refreshing mojito or frozen daiquiri.





The WolfsonianFIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


Right next door to Sloppy Joe’s in old Havana was a wonderful shop named Memorias where I was able to purchase an issue of Conrado Walter Massaguer’s Social magazine from 1937 and few other ephemeral items to donate to The Wolfsonian museum.


Photographed by the author


What will stick in my memory the most from this trip, however, is the music of the streets: the “alarm-clock” roosters rousing me from my sleep and the songs of the street vendors.


Photographed by the author

I will also remember fondly the music of contemporary  Cuban performers who continue to provide live entertainment in the restaurants, bars, and public squares of Cuba as their predecessors did in the pre-Castro era.

SONY DSCPainting of the Cuban all-girl group, Anacaona by Oscar Garcia Rivera (1915-1971), on loan to   The Wolfsonian-FIU for the exhibition, Promising Paradise. Image courtesy of  Cernudaarte.com

We also  had the great pleasure of meeting in Matanzas, Cuba with the last surviving member of the all-girl orchestra, Anacaona, originally founded by Chuchito Castro and her sisters in the 1930s.


Adneris Canova not only reminisced with us about her experiences performing with the group but she even graced us with two songs!


Photograph by author

Back in Havana, we had met with Georgia Aguirre, group bassist and leader of reconstituted Anacaona orchestra, a fourteen-woman group playing popular contemporary music. They are known in Cuba as ‘Las Mulatisimas del Sabor.’


 Photograph by author

We also had the pleasure of listening to a host of musicians performing live in restaurants and in the streets of Havana, and watching Afro-Cuban dancers at the Museum of Carnaval before flying out of Santiago de Cuba.




Videos and photograph by author

Anyone living in or passing through Miami Beach between now and August 21st can see more materials concerning Cuban music and culture at the exhibit, Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction at The Wolfsonian museum.

~ by "The Chief" on August 8, 2016.

One Response to “Havana, Cuba, Yesterday and Today”

  1. What an informative and delightful account of your trip! I visited there a couple of years ago, and indeed the high points for me were the architecture and the music…
    Nina Herrick

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