14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 20 August 2022 — I walk up and down Obispo, the main street in the historic center of Old Havana that has been, for decades, a commercial and tourist artery of unparalleled importance on the Island. Now, the main hotels located on that street are closed and without visitors, a situation that extends to other areas once full of people with sunglasses and souvenir sellers.
With its large central courtyard and stately entrance, the Florida hotel offered a colonial experience in Old Havana, close to the nearby bars and restaurants. But after the pandemic, its doors didn’t reopen, and now it seems like an empty shell that the custodians are trying to preserve from deterioration.
Nearby, the Ambos Mundos hotel attracted travelers last August under the magnetism generated by the American writer Ernest Hemingway, who stayed in one of its rooms. But neither on its extensive terrace on the fifth floor, nor in its colorful lobby nor in the old elevator are the voices of guests heard anymore. The place is also “temporarily closed” by thick chains at the entrance of the mythical building.
The employees of the Armadores de Santander hotel, on Luz street, pounce on clueless passers-by, no matter if they are foreigners or Cubans, to pressure them to have lunch. It’s the only way to guarantee a tip, however small it may be. And if the would-be future diner refuses to read the menu, he can earn a couple of insults.
With humility, the custodian of the once-imposing Telegraph hotel has heard that “they plan to open it soon, perhaps in October, but who knows.” Another worker, on his knees next to the service door, confesses to praying “to the eleven thousand virgins” for the hotel’s prompt reopening.
The doors of the famous Hotel Sevilla — where the protagonist of the novel Our Man in Havana is recruited to be an agent of the British secret service — are blocked by a strong crossbar. The shops of the commercial arcade, which communicates with the establishment through a gate on Prado Street, are open. The gate, of course, is closed, and a Creole “spy” guards it.
Another complete closure, with sticks used as crossbars to immobilize the door, is the Plaza hotel, still majestic on its corner of Zulueta street, guarded by Virtudes and Neptuno. For its part, the Gran Hotel Bristol, located on Teniente Rey a few feet from the Capitol, is still waiting for its opening, announced with great fanfare by the authorities.
In another hotel colossus, the Inglaterra, the clientele is in search of lunch at any price. But there are no tourists, only Cubans: a bad sign for the waiters who hope for a tip.
Also on Prado, the Parque Central hotel awaits in vain the arrival of sweaty and hungry foreigners. The restaurant staff sees time go by extremely slowly and arranges the suitcases of some customers, who are leaving very soon.
The Deauville hotel, on Galiano and San Lázaro, has not reopened since its closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Through its windows, a brigade of workers was observed this week repairing the entrance. Asked about the date of reopening of the establishment, someone who looked like the construction manager limited himself to making a gesture with his hand while venturing: “At least until next year, I think.”
The luxurious Paseo del Prado hotel, recently acquired by the Canadian firm Blue Diamond, is open but “uninhabited.” The company’s aggressive campaign to get hold of different establishments on the Island contrasts with the calamitous state of tourism. The same goes for the Packard, where you can see few guests in the lobby and just two foreigners in the “infinity pool.”
No traveler enjoys staying at the Manzana Kempinski hotel, which is open but under repair. The noise of cranes and excavators makes the summer bitter for customers, who also don’t enter the very expensive boutiques on the ground floor of the building.
Businesses that fed on tourists staying in Old Havana have also closed. Café París, on the corner of San Ignacio and Obispo, is in absolute silence. This place, where the songs of the Buena Vista Social Club were repeated all day like a stuck record, hasn’t returned to toasting with its “baptized” drinks of distilled rums, and nor is there work for the musicians, who earned endless tips under its roof.
Some boys joke that in La Mina [The Mine] “nothing is exploited anymore.” In better times, the restaurant workers lived up to its name by excavating the pockets of tourists. It’s said that serving drinks on that corner of Obispo and Oficios Street was a guarantee of ascending two levels in social class. Some bartenders literally became millionaires by dispatching watered-down mojitos and low-alcohol cuba libres.
Indispensable in the national cartography of alcoholism, La Bodeguita del Medio looks more like a deadly dump than the gastronomic legend it was. A brief reading of its menu, with pork at 1,050 pesos and Cuban-style lobster at 700, is enough for the customer to opt for fasting.
It’s better to go to La Vitrola, a private restaurant whose terrace expands onto the Plaza Vieja. But not even all tourists dare to eat there, where the combination of several monthly salaries — for a Cuban — is not enough for a lunch.
If the body demands at least one sip of coffee, it won’t be possible to go to El Escorial, whose employees devour their food while playing with their cell phones. Once he gives up on decent food, the necessary infusion and the unfindable cigar, the hungry pedestrian will stumble upon the less touristic circles of Havana’s hell: the killer money changers of Cathedral Square, the dying pigeons on San Francisco, the horde of taxi drivers with improvised carriages, and the foreign exchange sellers, who complete the fauna of the historic center.
There is no choice but to abandon the area, where the remains of the past of a sparkling, effervescent, tropical city are fading. It’s a Havana that exists only in old photos and in the silhouette of its closed hotels.
Opposite them, suspiciously, rise the construction of luxury hotels that doesn’t stop, like the brand new Grand Aston or the so-called Torre K, highly criticized by the specialists. The origin of the funds for these works, carried out by the Gaesa military conglomerate, remains opaque.
Translated by Regina Anavy
COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.