Politics, cinema and witchcraft to the rhythm of Compay | More was lost in Havana

Actor Robert Redford, during his meeting with Fidel Castro at the National Hotel in Havana, in 2004.Courtesy of the Nacional hotel.

On July 12, 1997, as Cuba was hastily building hotels to face the crisis generated by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, an explosion shook the lobby of the National. It happened at the same time that in Spain it was announced that Miguel Ángel Blanco, a councilor kidnapped by ETA days before, had been found seriously injured in a field (he would die a day later). On the third floor of the hotel, a Basque businessman listened to Spanish Television in awe when the bombshell sounded. “I ran down to the lobby. It was a small explosive placed in the phone booths, which caused various damage and injuries to employees and customers, “said the businessman that day with his face puzzled by both news.

That was how hot things were in the summer of 1997. More bombs exploded in Havana, and one planted in the Copacabana hotel on September 4 killed an Italian tourist. The campaign of attacks was encouraged by organizations from the harsh exile of Miami and was intended to scare off tourism at a time when the sector was beginning to shed some light on the extremely fragile Cuban economy. Attracting foreign visitors became a priority issue in Cuba, and the National, as always, was there.

View of the Nacional hotel. In the foreground, the nautical rose that presides over your terrace.Yander Zamora.

Neither the bombs managed to drive away the tourists nor did the Fidel Castro revolution collapse following the domination of the socialist camp; on the contrary, Cuba began to become fashionable while Compay Segundo sang and the sounds of Buena Vista Social Club, album that that same year won a Grammy award. Chan chan it was playing at full volume on the radio, and Cuba began to travel around the world. Robert Redford came, Francis Ford Coppola came, and Kevin Costner and Steven Spielberg also arrived, and they all stayed in the iconic establishment, which was once again filled with filmmakers, politicians and artists.

In 1999, the North American composer and producer Alan Roy Scott came up with the idea of ​​creating a Cuba-US musical bridge to promote understanding between the two countries through the collaboration of great artists. Already in 1979, under the mandate of Democrat Jimmy Carter, a similar meeting called Havana Jam was organized. At that time, Weather Report, Billy Joel, Stephen Stills – a member of the mythical folk quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-, Kris Kristofferson and a selection of the members of the Fania All Stars traveled to the island. This time, the Bridge to Havana was attended by 43 musicians, mostly North American and British, who were paired by lottery with 43 other great Cuban artists.

The hotel became a gigantic creation workshop, with the musicians composing together for a week in rooms, gardens and corridors, and three recording studios running non-stop 15 hours a day on the edge of the boardwalk. You would pass by and see Andy Summers, a former member of The Police, composing salsa-pop with José Luís Cortes, The Tosco, director of NG La Banda, or Joan Osborne making sexy lyrics for a Sergio Vitier danzón, or the legendary saxophonist Gary Bartz improvising with the pianist Chucho Valdés, as he had done before with Miles Davis or Charles Mingus.

Original mailbox next to the elevator.
Original mailbox next to the elevator.Yander Zamora.

There were pairings that seemed difficult but that worked first, such as that of REM guitarist Peter Buck, who joined salsa singer Isaac Delgado, or that of troubadour Alberto Tosca with guitarist Peter Frampton to compose. Hey Hey –Tosca told the anecdote that Frampton was always his idol and that, to ensure that he was touched in the draw, he did Afro-Cuban witchcraft in a corner, and it was his turn. Cuban singer-songwriters Carlos Varela and Santiago Feliú worked with North Americans Beth Nielsen Chapman and Annie Roboff, and Varela created for the occasion a song whose title was a good summary of the spirit of that meeting: So far and so close.

That luxurious week at the Nacional ended with a great concert at the Carlos Marx Theater, which coincided with the first presentation in Cuba of the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, with Compay second in the lead. Compay adored the Nacional, and from that year he established a fixed peña in the Living room 1930 from the hotel, where until his death (at the age of 95) he played with his group every weekend. Tickets were always sold out; Going through Cuba and not listening to Compay at the Nacional, it was like not having been. “I don’t think there is a better place to sing into the public’s ear. Not so close to the sea, ”he said. Almost 18 years after his death, in the Vista al Golfo bar a statue of Compay continues to pay tribute to the troubadour, and the group that accompanied him keeps the peña alive in the 1930.

Kevin Costner and Fidel Castro, during the actor's stay at the Nacional in 2001.
Kevin Costner and Fidel Castro, during the actor’s stay at the Nacional in 2001.COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL

Music and cinema always had a fondness for the Nacional. During his trips to Havana to offer courses at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Coppola stayed several times, and the anecdote of some spaghetti that was brought from California and went down to kitchens to prepare them is famous. a group of friends. In November 2001 Kevin Costner landed to promote his film Thirteen days, about the days of the 1962 missile crisis, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war. His arrival at the hotel, dressed in pristine white, was quite a spectacle. A 55-year-old Spanish woman of good tonnage grabbed him treacherously and snapped: “Hey, you’re great, you’re very nice.” The actor, surprised, asked the journalists who followed him: “Did she call me stupid? “.” No, no, stupid no: es-tu-pen-do, “they clarified. Fidel Castro and Costner saw the film together, and later someone at the hotel told him that during the crisis in the National Gardens they were installed several pieces of antiaircraft artillery to repel a possible invasion. The Hollywood star wanted to see with his own eyes the traces of those events. “And he made a suggestion: show visitors a gallery of memories of those events, as a contribution on the need to preserve peace in the world ”, said the historical Antonio Martínez, director of the hotel from 1997 until his death in 2020. Today the gallery on the Missile Crisis exists and can be visited.

Access to the exhibition on the missile crisis in one of the hotel's trenches.
Access to the exhibition on the missile crisis in one of the hotel’s trenches.Yander Zamora.

The day after he left, Costner stayed with the then president of China, Jiang Zemin, and a few months later it was Steven Spielberg’s turn, whom Castro entertained with a dinner and eight hours of talk at the Palace of the Revolution. “I hope that my visit and that of other cultural ambassadors is a sign that we want to have broad interaction between Cuban and American creators,” he said upon his return. In 2004 the illustrious guest was Robert Redford, who arrived to present his production Motorcycle Diaries, based on the nine-month trip that Che Guevara made with his friend Alberto Granados through Latin America in 1952, when he was still a medical student and was 23 years old. It was a lightning trip of 24 hours, he saw the film with the guerrilla’s widow, Aleida March, and her children, and before returning to the United States, Fidel Castro arrived unexpectedly to meet him.

In those years the salons of the Nacional became the headquarters of US congressmen, senators, governors and businessmen opposed to the embargo. There were dozens of trips by delegations that tried to influence Washington to normalize its relations with Cuba, but Barack Obama had to arrive at the White House for things to slow down and again tens of thousands of Americans could travel to the island (285,000 in 2016). El Nacional once again became a place where English was spoken in the corridors, as when it was inaugurated, and in the spring of 2016 Obama traveled to Cuba. Then the Rolling Stones played, and Chanel organized a great parade on the Paseo del Prado, and the eighth installment of Fast&Furious, with spectacular car races on the boardwalk filmed from helicopters. With those three successful hits, everything seemed on track, but Donald Trump arrived and again the Nacional ran out of American clients ninety years after its construction.

Statues of Yuri Gagarin and Compay Segundo at the Vista al Golfo bar.
Statues of Yuri Gagarin and Compay Segundo at the Vista al Golfo bar.Yander Zamora.

In front of its gardens, at dusk, sitting on a sofa under the gallery of eclectic arcades, one feels its story: that of Lucky Luciano fixing the affairs of the mafia under the cover of listening to Frank Sinatra; that of Baron Thyssen’s rebellion against the hotel management so that they would not put air conditioning on it; that of Sartre fascinated by the spectacle of palm trees from his room – “I saw long graceful ghosts stretching towards the sky” -; that of the establishment full of peasants during the agrarian reform and, later, of soldiers during the missile crisis; that of Muhammad Ali, Yuri Gagarin, Redford and Kevin Costner; that of 86 musicians from both shores composing together for a week in front of the sea; and that of Compay Segundo’s hoarse voice in the Living room 1930 singing that of “The love I have for you / I can’t deny it / My babita comes out / I can’t help it.” Pure Cuba, wow.