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two “grande dame” hotels in palm beach fl and havana
and some related stories.
by gonzalo fernández

The Breakers Hotel is an historic hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, United States. First known as The Palm Beach Inn, it was opened on January 16, 1896 by Henry Flagler, an oil, real estate and railroad tycoon, to accommodate travelers on his Florida East Coast Railway. It occupied the beachfront portion of the grounds of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, which Flagler had opened beside Lake Worth in 1894. But because guests began requesting rooms "over by the breakers," Flagler renamed it The Breakers in 1901. The wooden hotel burned on June 9, 1903 and was rebuilt, opening on February 1, 1904. Rooms started at $4.00 a night, including 3 meals a day. Because Flagler forbade motorized vehicles on the property, patrons were delivered between the two hotels in wheeled chairs powered by employees. The grounds featured a 9-hole golf course.

But on March 18, 1925, The Breakers burned again, the fire started by an electric curling iron left on. The architectural firm of Schultze and Weaver modeled its 550-room replacement after the Villa Medici in Rome, this time abandoning wooden construction for fireproof concrete. Built by 1,200 construction workers, the hotel reopened on December 29, 1926 to considerable acclaim. The lobby's ceiling was painted by Alexander Bonanno, a classically trained New York City artist who taught at Cooper's Union. Today, the hotel and grounds occupy 140 acres (57 hectares) beside the Atlantic Ocean. 1

While respecting our rich heritage, The Breakers has spent $250 million over the past decade in renovations. 2

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is an historic luxury hotel located on the Malecón in Havana, Cuba. It is an eclectic mix of architectural styles. The Hoterl Nacional opened in 1930. 3

It is placed in a centric junction of the Vedado neighborhood. This "grande dame" hotel was designed by the same architects (Mckim, Mead & White) who designed The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, which it closely resembles. Note the prior quote giving the design credit of the Breakers to the architectural firm of Schultze and Weaver. Hotel National stands atop a small cliff, with spectacular views of the ocean and Havana. 4

I have two stories somehow related to the Hotel Nacional.

1. A coup d’etat was staged by a 32 year old sergeant, Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar, on September 4, 1933. Sergeants, under the leadership of Batista, Pablo Rodríguez and Eleuterio Pedrazar, took control of their units, relieving all army officers from their duties.

The army officers that had been dismissed began lodging at the National Hotel, on a hill overlooking the “Malecón,” a seaside road alongside Havana city. The hotel was practically empty. Its guests consisted mainly of tourists, however foreigners were choosing not to come to a city where chaos reigned. It became sort of a headquarters for the removed officers, which eventually included representatives of the navy.

The government put forces loyal to it around the hotel. There were approximately 400 officers in the hotel compound. On October 2nd, the forces loyal to the government launched an assault The battleship “Patria” fired its guns from a point close to the coast in front of the hotel’s hill and against the hotel itself. The officers ran out of ammunition and capitulated at the end of the day. They had two dead and 22 wounded in combat; ten other officers were killed by their captors after surrendering. From what I have read, there was not an officer insurgence plan. Some of them brought their wives with them. They only had 40 riffles and did not hoard a large cache of ammunitions. It seems to me that it was a spontaneous episode with their intention limited to pressing their demands for reinstatement in the armed forces.

2. I married Teresa Rodríguez in 1955 and we went to live in an apartment at the Altamira building, across the street from Hotel Nacional. We had good times at the Hotel Nacional going a couple of times to its night club, The Parisian. Other times we went to its cafeteria which offered good food at prices we could afford. My wife and I would walk through the lobby, admiring the beutifully decorated ceiling, the marble floors and the splendid furniture. That was short-lived.

After receiving a presidential pardon from Fulgencio Batista on May 15 1955, Fidel Castro and his younger brother Raúl went to Mexico City. They organized a small revolutionary group of men that sailed from Mexico and landed on Oriente province. They were defeated by Batista soldiers. Fidel, Raúl and ten others were able to recoup and moved up into the Sierra Maestra mountains. Castro was joined by country and city supporters and received firearms, ammunitions and other logistics through a network of people opposing Batista. Castro’s small group became a strong guerrilla force.

There was ample support from underground groups in the cities with many armed actions taken against Batista armed forces. Batista police in the cities imposed strong repressive measures, including assassination of revolutionary prisoners they had captured at raids of their hidden locations.

One night, sometime in 1957, we got a call from my mother who lived several miles away. Batista policemen had been there looking for me. They had my mother’s home address where I had lived before getting married. My mother advised me that she gave them my new address. My wife and I left our apartment in a hurry and went to the home of my wife’s parents, a few blocks away, where we stayed overnight. We were given a room on the second floor, facing 19th Street. The house was the second from the intersection with L Street. We were alarmed throughout the night as we could hear cars approaching, thinking that it was the police as they screeched to a stop. It was in fact only drivers speeding their cars who suddenly pressed on the brakes at the stop sign on L Street. Needless to say, we did not sleep that night.

Next morning, I went to my office and told this story to my boss. I told everybody that I was not involved in any subversive activities. One of my coworkers, Angel Berisiartu, told me that he knew an army Colonel that could help me out. He called his friend who confirmed that he was willing to talk to me. His name was Felipe (Chino) Mirabal. He had been second in command to Colonel Antonio Blanco Rico at the army intelligence unit, “Servicio de Intelligencia Militar, SIM.” He had been downgraded and put in charge of the building where army uniforms were made, in San Ambrosio barracks. I went there and was led into his office, sitting right in front of him. He was dark skinned with slanted and piercing eyes. First thing he asked me was, “Are you involved in any subversive activity?” I answered no. He said, “Listen. If you are involved, leave my office now, get in touch with friends and seek political asylum in a foreign embassy.” He talked to me for some time in a shrewd but soothing manner, telling me stories. For instance, he explained that Blanco Rico always stood on the wrong side of doors of any house they were searching. He would suddenly interrupt and ask, his piercing eyes looking straight into mine, “Are you sure you are not involved?” He would continue telling that any person searching a house would always stand on the side opposite to the door’s hinges with their guns drawn. If they stood on the door’s hinges side, any person inside could shoot straight into them. Then, with a sudden interruption, he would repeat, “Are you sure that you are not involved?” Finally, he made a few telephone calls and told me, “I am sending you to see Colonel Mariano Faget. If you are involved, don’t go there, seek political asylum instead. Mariano knows a lot.”

My father-in-law went with me, but stayed a block away. It was the Anti-communist Bureau of Investigations barracks, located on the corners of 23rd and 32nd Street s, on a hill before crossing the bridge to the Kohly subdivision. I was received by Colonel Faget at his office. He was very well dressed in a business suit and wore a silk tie. I explained to him that the police had been looking for me, that I had been a member of the Youth branch of the Orthodox Party and that I was not involved in any subversive activities. He was looking at some papers on his desk. He said, “Let me call the unit that was looking for you to know why they wanted to arrest you.” He called for a policeman who escorted me downstairs from the reception area, through a narrow stairwell. He asked me to sit down on a bench in a room.

A few minutes later, a young man was pushed into that same room by two undercover officers dressed as civilians. They started interrogating him. From what I heard, the young man had aroused the suspicions of the secret police that had been checking guests in the small hotel where he was staying in downtown Havana. They found that he was carrying $800 in cash. He had no relatives in Havana and was a bank employee in Holguín, a city some 600 miles away. One of the interrogators was a slim, short young man. The other was a man in his fifties. They took turns asking questions. The short guy would shake him up asking what that money had been intended for. The young man replied, “I was taking a vacation.” The short guy said, “That doesn’t fly with me. How much is your monthly salary, $80? We found you were holding ten times that amount!” The older guy would speak to him persuasively, saying, “Son, don’t try to fool us; when I was young, I did subversive work against Machado. You know, it was foolish. You were bringing this money to give it to Aguilera. Where is he?” Aguilera was the General Secretary of the trade union of Bank Workers and had been underground for sometime. Despite being nervous, the young man persisted with his story all the time saying, “I saved money to come to Havana for a vacation.” After half an hour or so, they pushed the young man away through a side door.

The young man sticking to his story made me think of a plot in A Farewell to Arms.5 Frederic and Catharine had illegally entered Switzerland by rowing across a lake from the Italian side. The Swiss border guards arrested them and questioned Frederic. “Why do you come here? For the winter sports. We are tourists and we want to do the winter sports. . . I do not think they believed a word of the story and I thought it was silly but it was like a law court. You did not want something reasonable, you wanted something technical and then stuck to it without explanation. . .”

I had arrived at Colonel Faget’s office sometime around 1 PM. I could see that the day light was fading. I was afraid of staying there, recalling the stories I had heard of police retaliations when they had gathered suspects in police stations and killed them. Faget walked fast through the room where I was. I stood up and said, “Colonel, what about me?” He replied, “Oh! You are still here! Well, you can go. We have not found anything wrong with you…but be careful. If you do anything against us, Ventura or Carratalá would come after you.” Ventura and Carratalá were repressive officers that were known for torturing and murdering people involved in anti-Batista activities. After Colonel Faget left the room, I didn’t know what to do as I was left alone. A man entered the room and told me to leave. I went up the narrow stairway, walked across the reception room, went down a very wide outdoor granite stairwell, and walked one block to where my father-in-law was waiting. He had a headache as my detention had caused him to be concerned for five hours. When I was in the police room downstairs, I had been afraid, but did not panic. Somehow I felt that I would get out from there unharmed. I kept wondering about the fate of the young man that had been interrogated in front of me.

Other students, friends of mine, had also been detained by the police. It happened that policemen caught a friend, Chilo Martínez, distributing flyers calling for resistance to the Batista dictatorship. They found an address book in his shirt pocket. Police went after all people in his list, which included my bachelor’s home address.

A few months later, I joined an underground cell of the Civic Resistance Movement, (“Movimiento de Resistencia Cívica,”) nationally led by Manolo Ray. My cell leader was Jesús Vázquez Méndez. My duties entailed distributing propaganda flyers and collecting monetary donations among my coworkers. I was working for Procter and Gamble’s Cuban subsidiary at that time. Its offices were located at walking distance from my home.

From time to time, I would go to the CPA offices of Jesús Vázquez Méndez, where I would get propaganda flyers for distribution at my P&G offices. I used to wear a large sport pair of shoes. I would put half the flyers inside one shoe and the other half inside my other shoe. I would leave the flyers in my mailbox, picking them up in the morning. I would walk to the Hotel Nacional, past its lobby, and out into a back area that had an exit through an elevator leading to the La Rampa building, at the street floor. My office building was across the street. I don’t know if that was an exercise in futility but I felt safer by checking if there was someone following me by ensuring that no one was coming out of the Hotel Nacional door that I used when walking towards the elevator.

I lived in agony all that time, particularly after our son was born on January 8, 1958. I was always afraid of being caught by Batista’s police and being murdered by them. It was a terrible thought, my wife left alone with one child a few months old. I felt a great relief when Batista fled the country on December 31, 1958.

As far as The Breakers is concerned, I have a trivial story to tell. In 1980 I went there with my wife to attend an ITT Controller’s conference. It called our attention the close resemblance of The Breakers to the Hotel Nacional. We had a good time at company expense.

1 Source: Wikipedia.
2 Source: The Breakers website.
3 Source: Wikipedia.
5 Source: www.umbrellatravel.com.
6 Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929, excerpts from 1957 edition, p. 267.

This article includes excerpts from my book “Cuba’s Primer,” Lulu, 2009. www.cubasprimer.com


Gonzalo is a business consultant. He is one of the coauthors of The Handbook of Financing Growth, Wiley, Second Edition, 2009, Marks, Robbins, Fernández, Funkhouser and Williams. In Cuba's Primer, Lulu, 2009, he writes with the conviction and knowledge of a personal witness.

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Billboard magazine reports that Gloria Estefan is the first woman that reach position No. 1 in the Latin Song group, in her debut with her song "Hotel Nacional."

Hotel Nacional is one of the two "grande dame" hotels in this article.

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