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CUBA'S HOTEL NACIONAL - A HISTORICAL PROFILE

The land now occupied by the HOTEL NACIONAL DE CUBA was part of an area known in the early centuries of the colonial area as Monte Vedado (vedado - prohibited) because of a Spanish government decree banning the creation of paths to the beach in that area; this is why one of the function rooms is named "Sala Vedado".

The constant attacks by privateers and pirates, followed by the capture of Havana by the English, prompted the construction of various fortifications, towers, batteries, including at this site (now occupied by the hotel gardens) the Santa Clara battery. Together with Havana's old town (La Havana Vieja), this was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The remnants of this defence system, two cannons, are currently on display in the garden: the Krupp and the Ordóñez; the latter was the world's largest in its day.

The promontory on which the hotel sits was known as the Loma de Taganana, a reference to the name by which a famous cave that lies beneath the hotel's foundations was known for centuries, explaining the name Sala Taganana given to another of the establishment's elegant function rooms.

The decision to build a luxury hotel was taken in the late 1920s. The American firms McKim, Mead & White and Purdy & Henderson Co., tasked with the planning and construction, completed the palatial edifice in 14 months.

The hotel exhibits an eclectic architectural style, reflecting Art Deco, Arabic references, features of Hispano-Moorish architecture, and both neo-classical and neo-colonial elements. There are even details from the centuries-old Californian style. The resulting unique example of so many schools of architecture is the most unusual and interesting hotel in the Caribbean region.

The HOTEL NACIONAL DE CUBA was opened on the night of 30 December 1930. The party to celebrate the opening, attended by leading lights of the time, was held in the ballroom.

TIMELINE

1930s

2 October 1933: the hotel was bombarded, following the stationing there of officers of the army elite of the deposed president Gerardo Machado, in a revolt by lower-raking officers - Batista among them - in protest at the privileges of high office.

Guests of the hotel in this decade included: Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan), Edward VIII (prince of Wales), Jack Dempsey, Tom Mix, José Mujica, Buster Keaton, Emilio Roig, Amadeo Barletta, Rita Montaner, José Raúl Capablanca, Tito Guizart, Trío Matamoros, Ñico Saquito, Errol Flynn, and the mobsters Santos Traficante (father) and Meyer Lansky. The last-mentioned arranged with Batista the future business of the casinos.

1940s

In 1945, the hotel was host to the international air transport conference, attended by delegates from the world's airlines, which founded IATA, the International Air Transport Association.

In February 1946, Sir Winston Churchill visited Cuba, staying in the hotel's Republica Suite, and was accorded diplomatic privileges by the Cuban government.

In December 1946, the hotel was the venue for a major gathering of the Mafia, closing its doors to the public while accommodating the heads of the most notorious (American) Cosa Nostra families.

For over 12 years, the hotel was home to steel magnate Barón Thyssen Bornemicza. The avalanche of celebrities continued unabated: George Raft, Amanda Ledesma, Betty Grable, Rómulo Gallegos, María Félix, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Vargas, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Carol II of Rumania, Mario Moreno (Cantinflas), Tyrone Power, Lucky Luciano, Rita Hayworth, Ali-Khan, Ernest Hemingway, Fred Astaire, the Los Panchos trio, Ernesto Lecuona, Hugo del Carril, Germán Valdés (Tin Tan), Bola de Nieve, César Romero and Gary Cooper.

1950s

These were the halcyon days of tourism for the hotel.

Its American management refused accommodation to both Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole, on racist grounds, but in 1957 relented in the case of the latter, who gave some unforgettable performances during his stay.

Other guests and visitors during this period included: Nelson Rockefeller, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gadner, Sir Alexander Fleming, Arturo de Córdoba, Agustín Lara, Hermanos Iturbide, Ferrucio Burco, Pedro Almendaris, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Pablo Casals, Lucho Gatica, John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Leopold and Baudouin of Belgium, Walt Disney, Sara Montiel, los Chavales de España, Libertad Lamarque, Porfirio Rubirosa, Esther Borja, Lola Flores.

In 1956, Eartha Kitt inaugurated the hotel's Cabaret Parisien, where the famous voices that charmed the guests included those of Vic Damone, Nat King Cole, René Cabel, Esther Borjas, the Los Modernistas quartet, Yma Sumac, with excellent entertainment by Mario Martínez Casado and, more recently, Las d´Aida, La Orquesta Aragón, la Orquesta Jorrín, Compay Segundo and Alberto Herrero, among so many who have enlivened nights at the Hotel Nacional.

The Salon Vedado was the home of an exhibition of upmarket jewellery created by the Harry Wiston Corporation, a magnet for Havana's wealthiest American families.

The hotel was the setting for the formation of the '26th July Movement' (M-26-7) revolutionary cell led by Fidel Castro.

On the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on 1 January 1959, the representatives of the American company that operated the hotel departed, and the hotel staff took over the management.

1960s

Between 1960 and 1961, Cuba's revolutionary government reorganized the hotel's administration. Comandante Osmany Cienfuegos was appointed to lead this task.

There was a noticeable change in the style of tourist activity, with the arrival of Cuban guests and small farmers. Reflecting the changes in the wake of the revolution, in October 1960 the hotel was the setting for the foundation of the National Revolutionary Militias and of the Committees for Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), while on 12 January 1961, in a letter to Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, President of the Republic, the workers affirmed their unconditional support for the measures taken by the revolutionary government up to that time. In the same month, Commander-In-Chief Fidel Castro founded the Ana Betancourt dressmaking school for countrywomen, who came to the Cuban capital to learn this skill and lived in the hotel. On 16 April 1961, a group of the hotel's workers were mobilized for the duration of the Bay of Pigs mercenary invasion.

Frequent visitors to the hotel included Celia Sánchez Manduley (to supervise the school), Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos and Comandante Ernesto 'Che' Guevara during the chess tournaments.

October 1962 was the month of the Missile Crisis. Antiaircraft emplacements were installed on the hotel's hillock, and walled trenches were excavated below the gardens - a large scale engineering feat.

The world's first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, stayed at the hotel. Other guests during this period included Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Josephine Baker and, appearing in cabaret, Bola de Nieve, Esther Borja, among others.

1970s

A revival of international tourism began in 1974.

Among the guests during this decade were: Alejo Carpentier, Wilfredo Lam, Gabriel García Márquez.

The hotel acted as the base for the journalists covering the 6th summit of the Non Aligned Movement.

In December 1979, the hotel hosted the first Latin American New-Film Festival, and has remained as the festival's venue ever since.

1980s and '90s

In 1982, Havana's old town (La Habana Vieja) and the city's system of fortifications were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the fortifications concerned include the cannons in the hotel gardens, which formed part of the historic Santa Clara battery.

The hotel was architecturally and historically restored, achieving the status of flagship of the Cuban hotel industry. It was reopened in 1992.

Visitors included Geraldine Chaplin, Danielle Mitterrand, Harry Belafonte, Manuel Vázquez Rañas, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Michel Legrand, Robert de Niro, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Diego Armando Maradona, Alicia Alonso, Ana Belén, Víctor Manuel, Francis Ford Coppola, Muhammad Ali, Imanol Arias, Rubens de Falce, Adriana Estevez, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Victoria Abril, Henry Aaron, Javier Sotomayor, Teófilo Stevenson, Danny Glover, and Soraya, former empress of Iran.

In 1994, the hotel attained recognition as the flagship of the Gran Caribe hotel group.

In 1998, the first historic rooms were inaugurated, namely those that had been occupied by Maria Felix, Ava Gardner, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), and Jorge Negrete. The year's guests included Alejandro Vargas, son of the famed singer Pedro Vargas, top models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell (Europe's highest-paid black model).

The hotel hosted the 1999 ninth Latin American summit.

Highly significant national and international events were held at the hotel, as were important press conferences and working meetings of companies from all over the world.

In 1998, the hotel was declared a national monument by the National Monuments Commission, based on its architectural values, place in Cuba's history, the celebrities who have been its guests and the international events it has hosted. Also as a repository of objects of virtu dating from the 1930s onward, including furniture, lamps, appliqué, paintings, and the ancient cannons on display in the garden.

21st century

The hotel is the regular venue for events - an average of 65 per year - that take place in the hotel's reception rooms, the salas Vedado, Taganana, 1930 and Compay Segundo (which was the traditional venue for the concerts given by this member of the Buena Vista Social Club), and in the Apartment of the Republic (the salas Sala Santi Spíritus, Baracoa, Trinidad and Puerto Príncipe). Key events include the Latin American New-Film Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Havanos (cigar) Fair, Homage to Orchestras, concerts, the International Symposium on Tropical Fruit, the International Law Summer School (jurists), art auctions, the Congress of the Latin American Design Association, the International Congress on Satisfactory Longevity, events linked to the Havana International Trade Fair and to the Tourism Trade Fair, the Wine Fair, meetings of the businessmen of different countries and business forums, events staged by the Ministry of Public Health, the Ministry of Computing & Communications ("MIC"), an International Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) Seminar, gala dinners, receptions and presentations of embassy credentials. It was also the venue for the South-South summit (2000), the 6th summit conference on desertification and drought (2003) and the 14th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (2006).

Numerous important figures (heads of state, heads of government, other political and social leaders, distinguished filmmakers, Nobel laureates, scientists, artists, sportsmen and sportswomen) have honoured us with their presence, among them:
in 2000, Hugo R. Chavéz Frías, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; Abdelazis Bouteflika, President of the Democratic & Popular Republic of Algeria; Rev. Lucius Walker, originator and organizer of the Pastors for Peace; the Rev. Dr Joan Brown Campbell, former Executive Secretary of America's National Council of Churches, accompanied by American lawyer Gregory Craig, who were instrumental in the return to Cuba of the kidnapped boy Elián González; Daniel Barenboim, celebtrated conductor and concert pianist; Joan Manuel Serrat, Spanish singer.

In 2000, the Cabaret Parisién was repaired and restored.

In 2001 and 2004, the hotel hosted the gala awards ceremony for the best Latin American sportsmen and sportswomen.

Guests in 2001 included Jian Zemin, president of the People's Republic of China; Najma Akbarali Heptulla, president of the council of India's Inter-parliamentary Union; the Rev. Dr Joan Brown Campbell, American ordained minister; Favio Assuncao, Brazilian actor; Benicio del Toro, Hollywood actor; Fito Paez, Argentinean musician; Jonathan Demme and Kevin Costner, American film directors, and the production team of the film, directed by Kevin Costner, 'Thirteen Days'.

In 2001, the hotel received the Cuban capital's highest award, the Flag of the city and of the Giraldilla (weather vane).

Among the arrivals in 2002 were the Backstreet Boys; Jodie Foster; Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg, American filmmakers; Sara Montiel, Spanish actor; Celia Sandys, Winston Churchill's niece; Vilma Espín, president of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC); Roberto Formigoni, president of Italy's Lombardy region; the president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA); the president of Spain's autonomous Basque community.

Distinguished guests in 2003 included Nobel peace-prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, and Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, president of the Federative Republic of Brazil.

In 2004, the 'Club de los 120 Años' (120 Years Club) was founded, with Dr Eugenio Selman as its president.

Guests in the same year included Hu Jintao, president of the People's Republic of China, on the occasion of the Cuba-China Investment & Trade Forum.

More historic rooms were inaugurated, commemorating occupation, respectively, by the Mafia, Nat King Cole, Compay Segundo, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, and Errol Flynn.

In 2006, the hotel hosted a summit conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, chaired by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Among the large number of presidents visiting the hotel was Evo Morales of Bolivia; the Nicaraguan politician Tomas Borges was also present.

And in 2009: Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador; Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina; Martín Torrijos, president of Panama; Álvaro Colom, president of Guatemala; Leonel Fernández Reina, president of the Dominican Republic; Dr Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organisation; American actors Peter Coyote and Robert Duvall; Juan Esteban Aristizabal (Juanes) and Olga Tañón, participants in a 'Peace without frontiers' concert; Frei Betto, Brazilian thinker and writer; the American 'Kool & the Gang' group.

Guests in 2010 included New Mexico governor Bill Richardson; Vicente Álvarez Areces, president of the legislative assembly of the autonomous region of Asturias; the Nobel laureates Zhores Ivanovich Alferov and David Gross; His Highness El Jeque Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Prime Minister of the State of Kuwait; Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, president of the Republic of South Africa; Nikita Mijalkov, Russian filmmaker; Álvaro Torres, Salvadorian singer and composer.

Among notable guests in 2011 were former US president James Carter; Gil Bellows, Canadian actor and director of the film 'Gravity Pull', shot in the hotel; Claudia Palacios, presenter of CNN in Spanish; and the world's tallest man, Sultán Kosen; Danny Glover, American filmmaker and champion of the cause of the five Cubans jailed in the United States; Peter Agre, Nobel chemistry laureate; Viktor Yushchenko former president of Ukraine, Gerrit Fransisco Schotte, Primer Ministro de Curazao, China Vice President Xi Jinping; Souleymane Cissé, Malian filmmaker.

In the course of 2012 stayed at the Hotel other personalities as: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran; Bashar Al Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic; Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer and intellectual; Salman Khan, Indian actor; Walter Martinez, director and producer Dossier Programme Venezolana de Television; Wade Boggs major league ballplayer noteamericano; Magglio Ordonez Delgado, Venezuelan major League baseball player; Annette Bening, american actress; Sergei Stepashin, Chairman of the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation; Charlet Rose, presenter major newspaper chain CBS; Adelmo Zucchero, prominent Italian musician; and other. An exhibition of photographs in the Vista al Golfo bar, also known as the Hall of Fame, provides a panorama of the illustrious guests who have stayed at or visited the hotel from 1930 to the present day.

Awards

From 2003 to 2012 except 2010, the hotel received the World Travel Awards "oscars of the travel industry".

Since 1997, the hotel's staff has received the state-awarded distinction of Vanguardia Nacional.

In 2005, the hotel was granted the status of a teaching institution by the School of Higher Studies in the Hospitality & Tourism Sector.

A number of rooms that have been occupied by the famous have been zealously conserved, several having been declared historic (those of Nat King Cole, Compay Segundo, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, María Felix, Johnny Weismuller, the Mafia bosses, Bola de Nieve, Tyron Power, Gary Cooper, Agustín Lara, Jorge Negrete, Mario Moreno, Stan Musial, Paul Casal, and Errol Flynn). On display in each are photographs and a biographical profile of their celebrated former occupant.

The remarkable history of the HOTEL NACIONAL DE CUBA, of its guests and its staff, is the subject of a historical guided tour, which has taken place from Monday to Friday starting at 10.00 in the morning and again at 4.00 in the afternoon, and Saturday at 10:00 A.M.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba Historian's Office

 


Click on one of the pictures below for a larger view.



Nat King Cole

Winston Churchill

Ernest Hemingway

Frank Sinatra

Ava Gardner

Bola de Nieve

Shintarô Katsu

María Félix