Of all the buildings which demonstrate the turbulent history of Cuba place there is one that stands out, Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Located on a small knoll overlooking the entrance to Havana Bay, this strikingly stylish building stands testament to Cuba’s historical ‘shifting Sands’ style relationship with its’ powerhouse neighbours to the north, the USA.
Originally built in 1929-30 through a joint agreement with the Cuban government and U.S. based banks, American companies designed and built the Nacional. As soon as it was completed, American tourists flooded the hotels spacious reception areas, dining rooms and gardens.
It was the place to be in Havana. The Nacional was frequented by film legends like Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and Ava Gardner. Nat King Cole would play the season here, even Winston Churchill listed it amongst his favourite places to be and photographs of the stars still decorate the walls of the hotels’ café bar.
Hotel Nacional is inextricably linked to the mobster years. In 1946 Lucky Luciano called a summit at the Nacional at which the carving up of Havana was on the agenda. In 1955 the Nacional’s casino and nightclub were opened. Managed by the notorious gangster Meyer Lansky, millions of dollars were generated by or laundered through its’ doors, becoming synonymous with the greed and corruption Castro was so determined to overthrow.
With Castro in power, the fate of the Nacional was sealed and the casino was closed as the American owners fled north, losing millions of dollars.
The hotel fell into disrepair. and for many years was the reserve of visiting Russian diplomats. With the collapse of the USSR in the 1990’s, the Cuban government decided to restore the Nacional to its former glory. After a $64 million dollar face lift, it is once again open for business, attracting a new flock of tourists, travellers, celebrities and diplomats.