You may be assuming we are at the place in this next photo? The Breakers, in Palm Beach? But we are not.
No, indeed. We are at Hotel de Nacional, Havana, Cuba. Once it was said to have rivaled places like The Breakers at roughly the same time when Havana was so worldly and cultured a city that it was frequently compared to Paris and New York. Oh yes, it had those days. And the Nacional: It was an alternately art-deco moorish marvel built in pre-revolution Cuba of 1930 and temporary quarters to all manner of luminary. Since then, luxury as we know it left Cuba on a raft.
The Breakers went on to be a lovely hostess. Hotel Nacional went on to become a poorly renovated and cared for conference center, at best. I find it surreal that they can be confused for one another as it seems they could not be more different. The Breakers is big league luxe, a veritable shrine to the trappings of unbridled and unregulated capitalism. The Nacionale, a sad historic hand-me-down from a grand and more flush era of freedom. The pictures are staggeringly disconcerting, but give me a second on that...
The Nacional is not the only thing in Cuba which needs saving; it is probably the least of it. But over the years it has been something of a landmark in my soul: A place the heart knows only from a distance but longs to meet and in that way is not unlike other impossibilities like Jackie O and Ernest Hemingway. They are gone. They cannot shake hands with my wonderment, but that does not stop me from wishing I could know the sound of their voice or to see them in person.
On a more tangible plane, our dollars could do a lot of good there. Since some will spend their money off shore rather than on even in times like this, for a multitude of reasons, many of them humane, it would be wonderful that some reach the people (that part is key) of this island nation. I can only hope it is finally freed and reopened as, in the years I went easily around the world, unlike my colleagues, I declined to enter Cuba through Canada. Though I desperately wanted to, curiosity is no reason to break the law. I remain hopeful that I will see it wholly legally and with its freedoms returned in my lifetime. But I will wait a bit if the gates open, I am hoping some part of its glory days return.
Because you see, this is not Cuba's historic hotel the way I want to see her:
The New York Times Magazine explained modern Havana thoroughly, and photos of this now- defunct historic landmark are as much of a comparison as I can stand to note here but I hope you will read their piece as it is relevent to our times as we consider what doors to open with Castro's Cuba. The agony and pronounced differences between the western world and Cuba (not unlike much of the real Caribbean) are stark and quite frankly, wholly unimaginable on the north side of Key West. Unmistakeable and a little heart-breaking.
I hope you will take the photo tour of both the Nacional and the Breakers above and wonder, as I do, what might have been for Havana, for Cuba, and for the humanity there if only everything had been different.
“If it is true that every Cuban knows how to read and write, it is likewise true that every Cuban has nothing to read and must be very cautious about what he writes”