Our Man in Havana – J. Hoberman


April 10, 1984: “… Well, a lot of things have changed since 1957, but Havana remains a cornucopia of ’50s imagery. It’s actually in fashion! Even modest bungalows out in the suburbs sport curlicue grill­work and harlequin mosaics, jazzily tapered columns brandishing kidney-shaped sun roofs. Half the cars on the road are Eisenhower-era De Sotos and Buicks, patched and repatched and painted tropical colors: mint green, dusty pink, hot canary, blaz­ing turquoise. Driving west along the sea­wall on the Malecón freeway you see the terraced towers of palatial hotels, blind­ingly white against the diaphanous De­cember sky. Vegas strip garish, Miami Beach deluxe, they rose even as Fidel and his bearded ones, los barbudos, were making revolution in the Sierra. There’s the Capri with its rooftop swimming pool and Salón Rojo nightclub, the Riviera (built, they say, by Meyer Lansky) with its free-form fountain sculpture and an­cillary, blue-domed something or other, once a mambotorium inaugurated by Miss Ginger Rogers. Amazingly, the Hil­ton logo is still decipherable on the glass doors of the renamed Habana Libre. Of course, the former casino is now the Salón de Solidaridad, and there’s the inevi­table Vietnamita exposition downstairs by the dollar shop, where you can buy a handstitched leather platter bearing the likeness of Che Guevara for only $140. The French have moved over to the Libre, but all the rest of us foreigners, here for 10 days for the fifth Havana Film Festival, are holed up at the Hotel Nacional, around the corner from Casa Czechoslovakia, a block and a half from the spot where Sergio Corrieri picked up Daisy Granados in Memories of Under­development, not far from the concrete umbrella of the people’s Coppelia Ice ­Cream Center (more flavors than Baskin-­Robbins). Built in 1927, the Nacional is a stately dowager with a flaming past. It was here that the officers of the old re­gime resisted the first coup staged by then-sergeant Fulgencio Batista. In 1957, Steve Ryan called the hotel ‘a pile of money sitting on a rock overlooking the Malecón’ with a “controlled gaming room” as ‘hallowed as a church.’ When the Nicaraguan revolutionary priest Er­nesto Cardenal stayed here 13 years later, he noted with pleasure that ‘young pro­letarians’ — white and black — were chat­ting in the lobby ‘with the confidence once possessed by millionaires.’ …”
Voice

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