On a scorching Saturday afternoon, behind a sign reading “Manager’s Office” Antonio Martínez – ill with the flu – was waiting for me in his office. Despite having a fever, the director of Cuba’s Hotel Nacional received me, as my visit concerned Fidel, well more than Fidel, of the mark left on the establishment by the leader of the Cuban Revolution.
I wrote it once before: this hotel has seen it all. The hour I spent talking with Tony, as he is affectionately known, was enough to confirm it. According to the Hotel Copacabana’s first director, when he arrived at the Nacional almost two decades ago, he had little hotel experience, and had no idea of how the institution would show him the global importance of the leader of the Cuban Revolution.
“Despite the fact that since a teenager Fidel has been my example, and I feel a great sense of admiration for him, I could never have imagined that he would be of such special interest and have such a great impact on visitors from all over the world, be they tourists, important figures from the world of culture, the arts or science, or heads of state and government. The hotel is without a doubt a unique witness to these displays of admiration for Fidel,” noted Tony to Granma International.
Without empty praise, and well aware of Fidel’s merits, Tony, a law graduate with a Masters in Tourism Management, stated, “What the Comandante irradiates is amazing and marks those who meet him. In addition to the many stories still guarded within the walls of this emblematic Cuban hotel, Fidel’s visits are especially remembered.
While he describes himself as a strong Fidelista, Tony recognizes the challenge of maintaining this 100% Cuban managed, architectural gem of a 5 star hotel. The establishment’s over 400 rooms sleep between 500 and 600 guests every night, the majority from the United States, who bring with them one million questions about Cuba, the Revolution, and Fidel.
A long time ago you said that every time Fidel visited, the hotel would come alive. Why were his visits so special?
Simply because Fidel is Fidel and he leaves a permanent mark wherever he goes. Every time he visited, the building would be filled with a revitalizing energy, felt by everyone, from the first guest to the last member of staff; while his presence would be missed after he left. At some point we decided to display the written records of his visits, which following the public’s positive reaction and interest in the exhibition, was turned into a permanent display.
The same happened with a portrait we hung in the lobby, which became an unexpected special type of place where everyone who passes by pauses to stop. Just like when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited or the Russian or French President, to cite just a few recent examples.
On the other hand I have met several world renowned celebrities, who ask a barrage of questions about him, even before arriving at their room, such as: what’s he like, where does he live, what is he doing now, does he come to the hotel?
Some of those figures belonged to the U.S. government visiting during times of severe crisis in relations between the two countries. I remember many were eager to meet him and after doing so – either in or outside the hotel – would joyfully show me a photo of the encounter. Others left disappointed, having been unable to see him.
What is most striking to you about the link between Fidel and the hotel in the early years of the Revolution?
It’s worth noting what they did; offering rooms in the Hotel Nacional to 900 campesinas who learned to read, write and sew in what was formerly the Ana Betancourt School, founded by Fidel in 1960 and the first volunteer teachers in preparation for the national Literacy Campaign.
It represented a huge change, that what had previously been the mafia’s playground until 1959, then became a space for education.
Likewise, the residents of Vedado caused a great commotion when Fidel and Soviet Astronaut Yuri Gagarin, appeared together at the hotel, three months after Gagarin had become the first man to fly into space.
Tell me a little-know anecdote, something that has never been reported…
I would have to mention the visit by three times Heavy Weight Champion of the World and great admirer of Fidel, Muhammad Alí. At the end of the 20th century the late Cassius Clay, as he was known at the time, met three times Cuban Olympic Champion Teófilo Stevenson, at the hotel.
When I met these two giants of boxing, I saw that Ali’s hands were shaking and I asked him about Parkinson’s disease; his response surprised me: “Do you know why I’m like this? Because we African Americans don’t have a Fidel.” Pointing to Stevenson he stated, “Look how Fidel takes care of him.” I had to abuse myself a lot to become Champion.” I had a photo of the Comandante, and Ali insisted that a photo of himself with the picture of Fidel and next to Stevenson be taken.
What else can you tell us about other guests who have expressed their admiration for Fidel?
Many personalities and famous people are interested in meeting and learning about Fidel, they want to find out what he means to Cuba and what he is like. I could mention a few individuals such as Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Barbara Walters, Robert Redford, Harry Belafonte… However, I recall in particular a conversation I had with U.S. actor Kevin Costner, who traveled to Cuba to present a U.S. film about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember it like it happened today, the respectful way he spoke about Fidel and how much he wanted to embody him on film.
Then I asked him about the benefits playing Fidel Castro would have for his career. And Costner, who I believe is an intelligent man, told me that Fidel was an exceptional figure around the world, renowned for his struggle, his beard, his popularity among the people, his knowledge about the United States and Latin America.
I was also surprised by Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense during the October 1962 Crisis. Who could imagine that a man with such a job would have such respect for Fidel, above all for his bravery during the October Crisis.
Meanwhile, the last three Chinese presidents that have stayed at the hotel have shown great admiration, respect and fondness for Fidel, something genuinely significant.
These few examples and the many others I could mention are the reflection of this standard of which, as a Cuban, I am proud, and is called Fidel.
What is the most important thing Fidel has taught you?
Fidel always accompanied my generation, who being very young joined the Revolution. I think that if we talk about the resistance of the Cuban people, we must talk about Fidel. The greatest legacy that he has given me is that of a Communist who puts ideas into action, who is humane and knows how to see each person’s worth.
Under the management of Antonio Martínez, The Hotel Nacional – built in just over a year by U.S. construction firm Purdy & Henderson and inaugurated in 1930 – has won dozens of awards and nominations in the World Travel Awards; was voted Best Hotel in the World in 2002 by Mundo Viajes; was declared a National Monument; has been included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and declared Cultural Heritage of the Nation.