From Jean Paul Sartre to Muhammad Ali, through Yuri Gagarin

On January 1, 1959, the Habana Hilton, Riviera and Capri hotels were already built, but the Nacional was still the Nacional. A few hours after the triumph of the revolution, the mobster Meyer Lansky sent for Jaime Casielles, one of his trusted men in Cuba, and asked him to go urgently to the hotel: “Lansky already knew that Batista and his family had fled from the country. He told me: ‘Baby boy, we have to go through the casinos and collect the money before the mobs take to the streets ”. Everything on the island had changed.

For more than a year the Nacional remained in the hands of its North American owners, but soon the conflicts with the new Government began and the aristocrats and Hollywood stars began to fade, although new guests came to observe the new times. On February 20, 1960, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir stayed, who were invited by Carlos Franqui, the director of the newspaper. Revolution. His objective was to know first-hand the political process that was taking place in Cuba.

Fidel Castro accompanies Jean Paul Sartre during his trip to Cuba in 1960.
Fidel Castro accompanies Jean Paul Sartre during his trip to Cuba in 1960.Courtesy of Alberto Korda State.

“We live in one of the best neighborhoods, in the Hotel Nacional, a luxurious fortress, flanked by two square crenellated towers. His clients, who come from the United States, are only asked for two qualities: fortune and taste. As they are rarely reconcilable, if they have the first, they are supposed to be the second without finding out much ”, he wrote on his return to France. “I put the air conditioning to maximum to enjoy the cold of the rich. With thirty degrees in the shade, I go to the windows and, with sumptuous shudders, I watch how those who pass by perspire. I have not had to search for a long time the reasons on which the supremacy, still indisputable, of the Nacional is based. It was enough for me to draw the curtains as soon as I arrived: I saw long graceful ghosts stretching towards the sky ”.

The Palm trees. Always the palm trees, the same ones that dazzled Lucky Luciano and other famous guests, but the Sartres hadn’t come to Cuba for that. The next day the couple left for Santiago and later they marched to Holguín, where Fidel Castro opened a school in what had been a military barracks. There they met the Cuban leader and also met Che Guevara.

Exterior areas of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a National Monument and declared Memory of the World by UNESCO.
Exterior areas of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a National Monument and declared Memory of the World by UNESCO.Yander Zamora.

Back at the Nacional, they were told that Che would receive them at midnight at his office at the National Bank, the institution he directed. “And I was still lucky,” Sartre would recall, “journalists and foreign visitors are received kindly and for a long time, but at two or three in the morning.” That meeting with Che was immortalized by the photographer Alberto Korda and the philosopher would describe it in one of the articles that he published in the following months in the magazine France Evening, reunited later in the book Hurricane over Sugar.

“Night does not enter that office. In those men in full wakefulness, to the best of them, sleep does not seem a natural necessity but a routine from which they have more or less freed themselves. I don’t know when Guevara and his companions rest. I guess it depends: performance decides; if it goes down, they stop ”. Sartre was surprised and moved by the youth of the revolutionaries (Castro was 33 years old, Che was 31). “The biggest scandal of the Cuban revolution is not having expropriated farms and lands, but having brought boys to power,” he would say. “Since a revolution was necessary, circumstances appointed the youth to carry it out. Only the youth experienced enough anger and anguish to undertake it and had sufficient purity to carry it out.

Guevara told him that night that the Cuban was a “backlash revolution”, and Sartre concluded that it was a process with an ideology “free of elaborations”, perhaps “the most original revolution in the world”, based “on a direct democracy ”. When asked in an interview what it was, the author of Being and Nothingness He replied: “That Fidel Castro continually traveling by helicopter or car; that he frequently speaks three times a week on television for hours on end; that explains every step of his government; that discusses all realization; who listens to the peasants and takes note of their criticism; that inaugurates schools in lost corners and argues passionately with their ministers, that is direct democracy ”.

Sartre and Beauvoir traveled throughout the island, many times in the company of Fidel Castro, and one of those discoveries produced one of the great anecdotes of the visit. They came to a tourist spot and ordered a lemonade. It was lukewarm and Fidel protested, asking the person in charge why Cubans should receive bad service. The woman replied that the refrigerator was broken and that the person responsible for fixing it had not appeared. Faced with new questions from Fidel, the employee closed the conversation with a phrase that anticipated what would come next: “You know how this is.”

On March 4, at the National Hotel, the explosion of the La Coubre in the port of Havana, where the French steamer was anchored with its cargo of 76 tons of arms and ammunition for the revolution. 136 people died, and a day later, during the burial, Castro gave a famous speech in which for the first time he enunciated his slogan ‘Homeland or death’. On the platform that day were Sartre, Beauvoir and the main leaders of the revolution, and there Korda took the mythical photo of Guevara with a beret and the lost look that would become a revolutionary icon.

View of one of the trenches part of the exhibition on the missile crisis at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a National Monument and declared Memory of the World by UNESCO.
View of one of the trenches part of the exhibition on the missile crisis at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a National Monument and declared Memory of the World by UNESCO.Yander Zamora.

The French intellectuals stayed in Havana until March 15, and a week after they left the Nacional was expropriated. When Sartre and Beauvoir returned, in October of that same year, the hotel was already beginning to fill up with literacy teachers, vanguard workers and peasant women from mountainous areas who came to Havana to study. The new foreign guests no longer came from the United States.

Fidel Castro and Yuri Gagarin exchange caps during the cosmonaut's trip to Cuba in 1961.
Fidel Castro and Yuri Gagarin exchange caps during the cosmonaut’s trip to Cuba in 1961.COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL

In July 1961, three months after his space trip, Yuri Gagarin arrived and met with Castro on several occasions, in addition to participating in the celebrations of the assault on the Moncada barracks and exchanging caps. Before his welcome speech, Castro asked Gagarin: “How long did you go around the Earth?” “In an hour and a half, commander,” he replied. Fidel smiled and said: “Then, start counting.”

Today a bust of the cosmonaut adorns one of the hotel’s bars, in front of several portraits of Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro and Lula, also clients of the establishment. The same gardens of the Nacional where Gagarin walked were filled with artillery pieces and trenches a year later, during the Missile Crisis of 1962. The place was key to the defense of the Havana coastline in case the crisis had worsened , something that did not happen after the withdrawal of nuclear rockets from Cuba by Nikita Khrushchev without counting on Fidel. The Cuban leader did not like that, and at that time congas went out to the boardwalk, also in front of the Nacional, who chanted: “Nikita, ladybug, what is given is not taken away.”

Images of the missile crisis in Cuba in 1962. Above right, a tractor donated by the workers of the National Hotel of Cuba to the Agrarian Reform in 1961.
Images of the missile crisis in Cuba in 1962. Above right, a tractor donated by the workers of the National Hotel of Cuba to the Agrarian Reform in 1961.COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL

As the revolution became radicalized and the United States decreed the embargo, the economy became Soviet and tourism began to be considered an evil, and in the same way the gray five-year period arrived for culture. The imprisonment of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971, accused of “subversive activities”, caused the breakdown of part of the Latin American and European intelligentsia with the revolution, and among those who first signed the letter of protest for the Padilla case Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were there.

In the mid-eighties 150,000 tourists traveled to the island a year, half of them from the socialist countries, and the hotels were declining. An anecdote is told of a guest who while taking a shower felt that the bathtub moved at his feet, and in fear of a misfortune happening, he wrapped himself in a towel and went down to the folder to protest: “Look, knowing how this is , have you been lucky not to fall into it lobby”, The receptionist replied.

The lack of maintenance began to take its toll on the Nacional as well, and there came a time when the hotel closed its doors for a major refurbishment (1990-1992). When it was reopened, the crisis of the Special Period had already settled in Cuba and attracting foreign currency and attracting foreign tourism became a national priority, it was then that Cubans were forbidden to stay in hotels to dedicate the available rooms to the “dollar area” . That crisis left Cubans exhausted, the blackouts lasted 12 and 14 hours a day, there was no medicine, no food, no public transportation, and while the United States intensified the embargo, some North American humanitarian organizations began to send aid to Cuba. In 1996 one of these missions traveled to the island with Muhammad Ali at the head of the delegation. Half a million dollars in medical supplies were distributed, and the North American journalist Gay Talase also traveled with the task of doing a report. On Ali in Cuba, Talase recounted the vicissitudes of that five-day stay in which the former heavyweight world champion was honored as a hero wherever he arrived.

Ali’s hands were shaking and he no longer spoke due to Parkinson’s, but he was kind to his fans, who stopped him when he walked through the great lobby of the Nacional to ask for autographs. “It took thirty seconds to put his name on any card or piece of paper,” Talase explained, but “he wrote it in full, ‘Muhammad Ali’, he didn’t just write ‘Ali’ to buy time. He has never skimped on his audience ”.

The night before returning to the United States, the Cuban president received the group at the Palace of the Revolution. Ali and Castro made the simulation of exchanging some blows in front of the cameras and, when they said goodbye, the wife of the ex-boxer told Fidel that if he passed through the United States, he would be welcome at her home. Castro then complained that when he had gone to his country to participate in a UN General Assembly, he was not allowed to leave New York.

– “But things change,” he added.

Fidel Castro was wrong. Things did not change, tensions were on the rise and a year later a bomb exploded at the Nacional.

(to be continue)