14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 19 January 2018 — Every night during the ’90s there were knocking sounds from the abandoned hotel San Carlos, which borders the market in the historic center of Cienfuegos where Joaquín Rodríguez worked as custodian. There were hardly any vestiges left of the navy blue of the façade and fragments of the cornices on the roof threatened passers-by on one of the busiest roads in the city.
“People took the tiles, the slabs on the walls, the toilets, they took out the rebar and even the bricks to use in building other things. The hotel became a ruin and the first floors were turned into a public bathroom and a place for all kinds of indecencies,” says Rodríguez, now retired.
Last Sunday, the renovated San Carlos hotel was reopened with a four-star rating, after almost 21 years of neglect. The property has been restored after an agreement signed in 2005 between the Cuban State and the Spanish hotel company Meliá, the terms of which are unknown.
“The San Carlos Hotel dates from 1924. Its owner, Antonio Mata, who also owned the now-destroyed Hotel Ciervo de Oro, decided to invest 60,000 pesos at that time to provide the then-prosperous city one of the most modern buildings in the province of Las Villas,” explains Alicia, a local historian, speaking to 14ymedio.
The architect who completed the building, José Joaquín Carbonell, gave it the eclectic touch that characterizes the city by mixing various architectural styles. Later the property grew with the construction of another two floors, the last of which was the Roof Garden, a social club ofCienfuegos’ Republican.
For a long time, the San Carlos was the tallest building in the city. In the Roof Garden, a large room with large windows and excellent views of the bay “exquisite social meetings were held,” explains the historian.
The hotel had a total of six floors and 48 rooms when it was confiscated by Fidel Castro’s government at the beginning of the Revolution. Thereafter it became the property of the State, which did not allocate sufficient resources for its maintenance.
In the 1980s, a reconstruction process began that was scheduled to be completed on 26 July 1984. At that time, every province was completing some project to commemorate the assault on the Moncada barracks on that day. In the case of The San Carlos, the reconstruction was halted and the hotel closed its doors forever.
In July 2005, the historic center of Cienfuegos was declared a World Heritage Site. “Since that year, interest in knowing about our city has increased, as it is the first of the cities built in the nineteenth century to achieve this recognition,” emphasizes the historian.
That same year, recalls Joaquín Rodríguez, a state-owned construction company fenced off the busy San Carlos Avenue (it stayed that way until last month) and began to repair the building. Cimex, the state company that assumed responsibility at that time, was engaged in safeguarding the essential elements of the structure to prevent it from collapsing. In 2009, the Ministry of Tourism ordered a work stoppage “due to the economic difficulties of the country,” according to local press reports. In 2017, the state company Gran Caribe restarted the project under a collaboration agreement with Meliá.
Yuri Quevedo Pupo, investment director of the Real Estate Tourism Company in Cienfuegos, explained to the local press that the hotel has begun to operate with just 20 of its 56 planned rooms. The central lobby, the lobby-bar and the bar service in the Roof Garden are also open.
According to official data, the province of Cienfuegos has 1,497 rooms in the private sector (in some 703 guest houses), plus 861 rooms in 11 state hotels.
The price of one night in the newly-opened Cienfuegos hotel starts at $182 for the simplest rooms. A bedroom with views of the city costs $191, while a suite reaches $216. None of the rooms have wifi service.
Meliá manages all of the hotels in Cienfuegos: Jagua, Palacio Azul, Perla del Mar, La Casa Verde and La Unión. According to González Garrido, only one site has been granted to another operator, Iberostar. Meliá, which has been in Cuba for 25 years, manages 40 hotels on the island overall.
The old Educator’s House, which was falling apart in the gorgeous Tureira peninsula, will become the Amanecer hotel and what was once the School of Hospitality and Tourism will be transformed into La Punta Hotel.
According to Joaquín Rodríguez, this weekend in Cienfuegos “dozens of painters” tried to embellish the building that functions as the municipal headquarters of the Communist Party next to the San Carlos hotel. “They are painting just the facades of the houses on the routes where tourists walk from the beach, but nobody looks inside.”
“I do not understand how they have money to build hotels, while a retiree who worked their whole life for the Revolution has a pension of just 253 [Cuban] pesos a month [about $10 USD],” complains Rodríguez, a victim of Hurricane Dennis that hit Cienfuegos in 2005.
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