A Glance at 1960 Havana / Iván García

To go back to the Havana of 50 years ago, I haven’t used a time machine, rather a telephone directory from 1960 that a collector of magazines and old books sold me for 50 pesos (2 dollars).

The first novelty was to find that the Spanish Embassy was on Oficios, a street less central than its present location on Cárcel and Zulueta. And that the ambassador was Juan Pablo de Lojendio Irure, Marqués de Vellisca (San Sebastián 1906 – Rome 1973), posted in Cuba since 1952.

This Spanish diplomat became famous because on January 22, 1960, just past midnight, he showed up in the television studio where Fidel Castro, in a live appearance, accused him of helping Catholic priests set up clandestine printing presses and of protecting counterrevolutionaries.

Lojendio, an adventuresome Basque, was watching this speech in his residence, and at hearing it, shot out like greased lightning, headed for the Tele Mundo channel. He interrupted the program and got in Castro’s face like nobody had ever publicly done until then. The transmission was cut off. The guards took him out of there and in 24 hours he had to abandon the country.

Of great interest, at least to those of my generation, is to discover the great number of companies — national and foreign — that existed in that era. Many with English language names, like McCann Erickson de Cuba S.A., General Electric Cubana, or Pan American World Airways.

Something that is hardly surprising if one recalls that a year after the bearded ones came to power, Cuba was still the seat of American firms like Coca Cola, Esso, Shell, Goodyear, Dupont, Firestone, Sinclair, Swift, and US Rubber, among others. Or banking entities like The Chase Manhattan Bank, The Bank of Nova Scotia, and The Royal Bank of Canada.

To the younger drivers of “almendrones” (old American cars), you’ll find it difficult to believe that in 1960 — only in the capital — you could find various automobile dealers: Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, Buick, Fiat, Volkswagen … and if one wanted to rent a car, you could do it at Hertz Rent A Car, at Infanta and 23.

Cubans who today have to buy — in foreign currency — soaps, deodorants, shampoos, colognes and detergents, in the first years of the revolution, for pesos, you could even buy toiletry products made by the two great national businesses, Crusellas and Sabatés, and by the foreign Revlon, Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Avon, among others located in the capital.

Also in Havana were located the five principal breweries of the island: Hatuey, Cristal, Polar, Tropical, and Cabeza de Perro. In Guanabacoa, Miller High Life had an office.

In that directory appear the names, addresses, and phone numbers of 131 cinemas and 3 drive-ins in Havana. On the main cinematographic circuit debuted “Our Man in Havana”, a film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Graham Greene, filmed in April of 1959 in locations around Old Havana and starring Alec Guinnes and Maureen O’Hara.

In 1960 not only was Ambassador Lojendio expelled from Cuba. Also having to go were the Bacardí Family, owners of the distillery and rum factory that, in 1862, in Santiago de Cuba, had been founded by the Catalán Don Facundo Bacardí Massó.

The revolutionary government nationalized all of its facilities, but it couldn’t prevent Bacardí from being the best rum in the world. Although today it is produced in Puerto Rico.

Iván García

Photo: Peter Stockpole, Life Magazine, 1959. The actor Alec Guinness during the filming of “Our Man In Havana”, in Sloppy Joe’s, a bar situated on Zulueta and Ánimas. Since its founding in the 1920s, its owner, the Galician José Abeal Otero converted it into one of the preferred tourist and military spots for Americans who, before 1959, traveled to the island. Among its more famous clients was the writer Ernest Hemingway.

Translated by: JT

September 8, 2010