Tuesday, April 16

Hotel Saratoga, a story in Havana


Correspondent in Brussels

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The Saratoga was in an imposing location, on the Paseo del Prado, next to the Capitol, which is a building that has been waiting almost since it was built for the arrival of democracy in Cuba. When I visited it in 2001 it seemed to me then a sad luxury, not a funeral but an environment in which the joy that one can feel in the essence of Cubans was absent. There were few tourists and almost all of them were confused by the overwhelming contrast between the exquisite ostentation inside the doors and the squalor of the houses where Cubans live just a few steps away.

It began to be built when Cuba was still a Spanish province and until the 1959 revolution it was a classic hotel, for many the best in the area.

Fidel Castro, which did not expect anything from tourism, then turned it into fortune apartments to accommodate peasant families recently arrived in the capital, with infinite subdivisions to organize coexistence in a bad way. Anyone who has seen a neighboring building in Cuba knows that things that are broken or stolen are never repaired and thus, the remains of the old hotel deteriorated hopelessly until it became unhealthy and was abandoned. like so many buildings consumed by the hardships and nonsense of a regime that has never worked. Everything in that adrift Cuba was falling apart due to incompetence.

From the boardwalk that had been a dazzling facade of Havana facing the sea, towards the interior of the city, the old city was irremediably disintegrating until the fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba with even fewer resources and the only solution for the entire center of Havana, it seemed to be speeding up by technical means the demolition that time and nature were carrying out on their own. A member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the historian Eusebio Leal, dared to challenge these plans of Fidel Castro himself with an ambitious project that consisted of restoring the entire old part of the city as a tourist project, so that the rich heritage of Havana would be saved with the income of foreigners. I was only once at the Hotel Saratoga when Eusebio Leal himself suggested that I visit him, after an interview he gave me in his office as Historian of Havana, and it seemed to me that this hotel was destined to continue waiting for a normal life in a Cuba liberated, just like the Capitol, because the leaden atmosphere of the dictatorship weighed more than all the stars with which they proposed to adorn it.

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When tip hunters recognized a tourist around, they were quick to ask, “What do you want to know?” to see if they could entangle you in some benefit for what they call “resolve” there

At that time it was impossible to talk to anyone about politics, even clandestinely. When tip hunters recognized a tourist around, they were quick to ask, “What do you want to know?” to see if they could entangle you in some benefit for what they call “solving” there. I once replied to one that he wanted to know when Fidel would die and he almost fainted because he already felt guilty just thinking about it. Eusebio Leal died in 2020, four years after the disappearance of Fidel Castro, having left an incalculable heritage to his country. And the Saratoga hotel has been blown up, it seems because of a gas explosion that could very well be the symbol of the Cubans’ weariness against the dictatorship.

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