Posted March 10, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
By COLIN BARRACLOUGH | Special to The Globe and Mail
COLIN BARRACLOUGH trawls the coast road from the Havana Yacht Club to Varadero in search of the hangouts and haunts of the island’s worst and finest era—the decadent, bloody years of Fulgencio Batista’s rule
HAVANA—The thing that got me were the girls in the trees. I had expected dancers on stage and in the aisles, and had even heard tell of trapeze acts. But I had failed to imagine a mini-jungle teeming with semi-clad women zipping from branch to branch, driven on by salsa music that thundered into my body like a foghorn. I watched, entranced, as three dozen chiquitas strutted, stomped and high-kicked their way through a round of rumbas and salsas, lissome and lithe, stretching every sinew, manoeuvring every muscle, and attempting every twist that the human body could make. The performance was pure sex.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, for Havana’s Tropicana cabaret has been the last word in near-carnal excess for more than 60 years, most famously during the iron-fisted rule of Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in Cuba in 1933 and presided over one of the most blood-soaked and corrupt, yet frighteningly successful, regimes of the century. Bankrolled by the U.S. government, supported by an army of thugs and torturers, and aided by American mobster Meyer Lansky, Batista built an island of fantasy dedicated to the seven deadly sins.
I had come to find what relics remain from that tarnished golden age. I’d watched Guys and Dolls, reread Our Man in Havana, checked out Gabriel Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, a novel set among the smoke-filled dance halls of the time, and listened to the soundtrack from Buena Vista Social Club. I didn’t end up rediscovering any long-lost Cuban musicians, but I did stumble on hang-outs and haunts still resonant with memories of an era that was both Cuba’s finest and worst.
Eschewing the much-travelled Hemingway trail, I chose instead to trawl the coast road from the Havana Yacht Club to Varadero, a sun and sex resort area 140 kilometres east of the capital. There are better drives in Cuba—roads so untravelled that only the passing of a companero on horseback disturbs a landscape of rugged emptiness—but no other encompasses so many monuments to the Batista years.
Tourists first began to visit Cuba in the 1920s, when the island’s rum-soaked pleasures contrasted sharply with the dour Puritanism of Prohibition in the United States. By the end of the Second World War, Cuba’s sun and sleaze image was drawing high-rollers from all over the world.
The smart set lunched at the Biltmore Country Club, worked the odds at the Cuban-American Jockey Club, or dressed to impress at the Teatro Garcia Lorca. Wealthy playboys would down a dozen daiquiris at Sloppy Joe’s, throw a fistful of cash on the craps table, then explore the contours of the statuesque jineteras at the Tropicana or indulge any vice they cared to name at the city’s seedier sex shows.
With dollars flooding into Cuba, the villains weren’t far behind. The U.S. Mafia had already put out feelers when running rum to the Florida Keys in the 1920s, but Batista himself ushered them in en masse in 1938 by inviting mobster Meyer Lansky to run two of Havana’s casinos and a racetrack. By December, 1946, when mob bosses picked Havana for a major conference of organized criminals, the Mafia was firmly in place and the city boasted the kind of nefarious delights not seen since the destruction of Gomorrah.
The morning after my Tropicana experience, I jumped into my hired Peugeot—less graceful but more practical than Havana’s famed fleet of prerevolutionary Chevrolets, Fords and Dodges—and headed up to Miramar, an exclusive quarter to the west of Havana.
Ernest Hemingway fished the sapphire waters off the craggy coast, riding after marlin with his buddy, Gregorio Fuentes, who, until his death in 2002, spilled tall tales for tourists in the fishing village of Cojimar. The boating set gathered at Miramar’s Havana Yacht Club, intriguingly recreated in Martin Cruz Smith’s evocative novel, Havana Bay.
From Miramar, it’s a five-minute drive to Vedado. Americans modelled Vedado on Miami’s South Beach and left a town of highballs-at-five and Lucky Strikes, of Formica and chrome, and crooners on the gramophone. Amid the crumbling neo-Classical villas and verdant tamarind and flamboyant trees are high-rise towers and sweeping concrete vistas that evoke Frank Lloyd Wright. From the decaying fortress of the Focsa Building, once an exclusive diplomatic residence, to the marbled fountains and cavernous lobby of the old Hilton, now the Habana Libre, Vedado is fifties Americana gone wild.
Before the revolution, visitors and Cubans alike would dance at Club 21, sway to the beat of the rumba or the cha-cha-cha at the St. John or the Pigal, or check out the talent at the Coppelia ice cream parlour, now state-owned but still as popular. Those with dollars could see Nat King Cole, Maurice Chevalier or Lena Horne. Frank Sinatra even came to town in 1947, flying in with two of Al Capone’s cousins and a gold cigarette case for Sicilian Mafia boss Lucky Luciano, who had been recently deported from the U.S.
Mobsters’ money built Vedado—in particular its hotels. These days, stumbling into the faded kitsch of the Hotel Capri, where Luciano and Lansky planned their mob operations, is like walking onto the set of Marilyn Monroe’s Niagara. The lobby, washed by light from the faux-gilt chandeliers, is graced with Romanesque statuettes, golden vines, low-slung chrome and leather sofas and canaries in golden cages. Fifty years ago, Lansky hired an actor, George Raft, to front for the Capri’s casino, the Salon Rojo. Raft acted a gangster, and did it so well that people believed him. On the night of the revolution, angry crowds started looting the casinos; one group headed for the Capri. Raft himself went out on the steps, put on his best gangster voice, and drawled, “No punks are busting up my casino.” Amazingly, the crowd broke up and slipped away. Half-close your eyes and you can still imagine the red drapes and carpet, the velvet lamps bathing the baccarat tables in a warm red glow.
The jewel in the Mafia’s crown was the Riviera, an angled tower of blue balconies on the oceanfront, owned by Lansky and opened amid much fanfare in 1957. Lansky flew Ginger Rogers down for the opening night; Abbott and Costello appeared soon after. The Riviera has faded badly, but a gallery of photographs and the hotel’s original marketing brochure framed in the lobby hint at its vibrant past.
But fun in Havana did not come free. Batista’s thugs protected their patch with sadistic pleasure—the bodies of those who objected to the corruption or the opulence were often found hanging from lamp posts. By the late 1950s, the chasm between Cuba’s fun-loving image and its deadlier underbelly had widened; an evening out could be a disturbing experience. “On the road to pleasure,” recalled Cuban writer Enrique Fernando-Mas in Havana Bay, “your driver could turn around at a stoplight and show you photos of bodies bloodied with bullets and young faces ripped apart by tortures so savage—vividly described by the revolucionario driver—that the daiquiris, the sweet roast pork, the yummy yams, the fine Havanas, the hot sex, nothing tasted good any more.”
These days, Havana’s taxi drivers offer little more than black-market rum, cigars or a cut-price room for the night. And the casinos remain firmly closed. But other signs of the Batista years survive. Dos Hermanos, a 24-hour bar popular in the fifties, is still open for business. Cubans are still experts at fleecing visitors: Stop for a street-side chat and a quick drink and, before you know it, you’ve run up a $50 cocktail bill. And sex still makes the island tick. Hustlers and hookers ply their trade on Havana’s colourful streets. A Tropicana chorus girl offered me her body for the price of supper; a barfly offered me his sister.
Heading east along the wondrous Malecon, Havana’s heavenly seafront promenade, it’s easy to understand why Batista’s cronies kicked up such a fuss when Castro brought their nirvana to an end. The Caribbean sun bathes the grand façade of arches and balconies in rose, purple and lemon, the ocean cascades over the sea wall, and the air is filled with the clopping of horse-drawn traps.
The Malecon leads eastwards under Havana harbour and, snaking out of town, turns into the Via Blanca, a landscaped parkway lined with the only advertising billboards I saw in the country. Edging into fifth gear—the only time I could on my trip—I set my sights on Varadero, two hours along the coast. With frothing breakers on the left and steamy jungle on the right, the scenery was pure Caribbean. Banana palms and sugar cane edge the verge; flamboyant trees grace the streets of the few towns. Wooden shacks sport wide verandahs and rocking chairs; on occasion, the horizon is split by gaunt housing blocks of classic Warsaw Pact design. Turkey vultures wheel overhead, eyes peeled for road kill.
Two million vacationers now visit Cuba each year; a third go only to Varadero. A narrow spit of white sand looping 20 kilometres into the Florida Straits, the resort took off in 1926 when French chemicals magnate Eleuthère Irenee Du Pont built an estate complete with an airstrip, golf course and yacht harbour. He crowned it with Xanadu, his lavish vacation house, where a rooftop bar is now open to the public. The golf course remains; symbolically, Castro and Che Guevara played a few putts on it after the revolution.
Wealthy Americans followed Du Pont, and Varadero quickly became a millionaires’ hideaway. Even Chicago Mafia boss Al Capone had a place: The Casa de Al, now a restaurant, offers such delights as mafiosi soup, blood-stained spaghetti, and high-explosive pudding.
But tourists eventually arrived, and by the fifties Varadero’s decadence was challenging even the capital’s. The iconic Hotel Varadero Internacional, which opened in 1950, sparked a development boom that continued until the revolution. And it’s in Varadero that Batista’s legacy is still most evident: Packaged, marketed sex, sold in industrial quantities to foreign visitors, is booming once more. Last year, a police crackdown temporarily blocked the pasty-faced Brits and Germans searching for the next dark-skinned Cuban to sashay into their lives; 7,000 girls were removed from Varadero alone. But the jineteras have already begun to trickle back, drawn by the allure of the mighty dollar. The show, after all, must go on.
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Habana Libre: phone: 53 (7) 334011, fax: 53 (7) 333141.
The Capri: phone: 53 (7) 333746.
The Riviera: phone: 53 (7) 334051.
Hotel Varadero Internacional: phone: 53 (5) 667038.
Casa de Al: phone: 53 (5) 667090.
Mansion Xanadu: phone: 53 (5) 663850.GETTING AROUND
All car rental firms are state-owned. In Havana, you can book direct with Transautos (phone: 53 (7) 247644) or Havanautos (phone: 53 (7) 239815), but it’s easier to book through your hotel. Tariffs are exorbitant—basic daily rates start at $70 (U.S.) a day.
THINGS TO DO
The Tropicana: phone: 53 (7) 2671010. The club is located in Marianao, a western suburb of Havana. A decent seat will cost around $100 (U.S.) but includes a bottle of rum. Again, you could try booking directly, but it’s easier to let your hotel do the work.
Coppelia ice-cream outlets are found throughout the country, but the main branch is on Calles 23 in Vedado, Havana.
On December 11, 2005, Eneji palma wrote:
I AM A SECONDARY SCHOOL NIGERIAN GRADUATE WITH GOOD GRADES PLEASE CAN YOU KINDLY GIVE ME INFORMATION ON HOW TO UTILIZE THE KIND SCHOLARSHIP GESTURE PROVIDED BY THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT. I WISH TO STUDY MED IN CUBA