In April 2000, my wife, Professor Rima Sokoloff, and I visited Cuba with an educational study group. Our weeklong trip included visits to beaches, farms, cigar factory, schools, reforestation project, hospitals, historic sites and a Passover seder at a Havana synagogue. I subsequently wrote about our trip in Lodging Hospitality magazine (August 2000) “Cuba: The Caribbean’s Hottest Destination”:
The streets are apparently safe and relatively free of crime; no beggars, no homeless but long lines of people waiting patiently to buy the famous Coppelia ice cream.
Of course, there is no opposition press, no anti-government political parties, no free elections. There is rationing and what appears to be a benevolent governmental dictatorship. With the shortages of building supplies, the monumental city of Havana has derelict buildings everywhere in need of repair, plastering and painting. Despite these severe shortages, Cuba has devoted its limited resources to education with 98% literacy and 100% universal health care for all.
Incredibly, Cuba has one of the best medical systems in the world with twice as many physicians per capita as the US Its infant mortality rate and life expectancy are about the same as in the US and its HIV/AIDS prevalence is almost nonexistent.
The 513-room Hotel Nacional was built by the Purdy & Henderson Company to the designs of the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead &White who also designed the original Penn Station in New York, the Hotel Pennsylvania, the Savoy-Plaza, the Garden City Hotel, the Harvard Club of N.Y., Columbia University and many more projects across the United States.
Cuba is a large island, three-quarters the size of Florida and 12.5 times bigger than Puerto Rico and offers great opportunities for development. It is the least commercialized Caribbean country with substantial cities like Havana, Matanzas, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, Bayamo, Baracoa, and Santiago de Cuba. With 2.1 million inhabitants, Havana is the largest city in the Caribbean. Founded on its present site in 1519, its picturesque old town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
When the Hotel Nacional opened, tourists from America flooded the hotel’s spacious reception areas, gardens and restaurants. From its opening, the hotel was visited by American legends like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, and many more.
The hotel’s long central building parallels the coast and its cross wings are marked by two open rooftop towers. The garden on the northside features two 18th century cannons, fountains, illuminated trees, a marble mosaic map of Cuba and benches where guests sit and enjoy the view from the edge of the cliff of Havana Harbor.
The history of the Hotel Nacional is linked to the US mobster years. In 1946, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky hosted an infamous mob summit attended by Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and many others. Francis Ford Coppola memorialized the conference in his film “The Godfather Part II.”