Stephen McGinty: Cuba comes in from the cold

The laid-back charm of Cuba will soon change as dollar-rich American tourists start to flood in. Picture: Getty

The laid-back charm of Cuba will soon change as dollar-rich American tourists start to flood in. Picture: Getty

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THE DECISION by presidents Obama and Castro to normalise relations is a momentous one – but it means the Cuba Stephen McGinty remembers will probably soon be just a bittersweet memory.

I was swimming in the pool of the Hotel National in Havana, beneath a Caribbean sky once light blue, now bruised with darkening clouds, when a beautiful woman in a blue dress suddenly dived straight in. A dozen clean strokes later and she approached a fellow swimmer, a portly, middle-aged man, to whom she began making an offer which he would have been wise to refuse.

After a week in Havana, it wasn’t hard to recognise the genuine couples from those for whom a financial arrangement had been struck. At lunch, the genuine couples tended to look quite glum. It was February 2005 and I was visiting Communism’s Caribbean outpost to research a book, Churchill’s Cigar, about the prime minister’s love affair with rolled tobacco, and was staying at the Art Deco hotel, whose eucalyptus-scented gardens overlooked the Malacon, the famous ocean boulevard, to the blue sea beyond, and whose previous guests included Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, not to mention gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Seigel.

It was to the presidential suite of the Hotel National that Churchill had retired after arriving in the country in February 1946 for a week’s holiday. At a press conference, so packed with members of the public that one journalist later fumed in print, “It was not a press conference, it was a market stall”, Cubans were delighted to see that the famous Churchill cigar was not a prop for posturing but was properly lit. When asked about the nation’s celebrated export, Churchill said: “I, sir, will be the big propagandist… Cuba will always be on my lips.”

The BBC correspondent Steve Gibbs had kindly introduced me to William Rakip, a “fixer” who would become my indomitable guide, arranging a car and driver and escorting me around the city and surrounding countryside as we sought to track down any leads to both Churchill’s visit in 1946 and the Cuban businessman Antonio Giraudier who became his private cigar merchant, sending gifts of cigars three times a year until the great man’s death in 1965. Giraudier was a beer baron who produced Polar beer – according to the British ambassador at the time, “the only bad beer in Cuba”.

Over a few days, William and I searched through the old newspapers in Havana’s library, and tracked down Giraudier’s elegant town house with the red-tile roof terrace and a “G” carved into the brickwork. It was from here that he fled to Miami, like many businessmen, in 1960 following the arrival of Fidel Castro and the revolution. We found the office and former cigar factory of Joaquin Cuesta at number 59 Animas, just off Havana’s central tree-lined boulevard and a couple of hundred yards from the Gran Hotel Inglaterra, where Churchill had stayed in 1895, when he spent his 21st birthday under fire during the Spanish-Cuban war.

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The one place William didn’t accompany me, and where even the driver was reluctant to go, was the home of the former American ambassador. The revelation of the past week in which president Barack Obama and president Raul Castro tore down the last frayed fabric of the Iron Curtain and agreed to normalise relations between both nations gave the impression that there was no US diplomatic presence in Havana. In fact, every tourist driven in from the airport was usually told by their taxi driver to “wave to George Bush” as they passed a grim, grey edifice surrounded on each corner by soldiers from the Cuban army. This was the American embassy, whose roof was a tangle of satellite dishes.

At the time of my visit, the US presence was led not by an official ambassador but by a senior diplomat from the state department, Michael E Parmly, who was known as the chief of mission. The British ambassador had told him about the subject of my researches and so, one afternoon, I received a call at the Hotel National from an American diplomat inviting me to afternoon tea. For the first and only time in my life, I felt like a character in a novel by Graham Greene. First, I had to take my passport over to the embassy, which involved passing the armed Cuban soldiers – not easy when one lacks even rudimentary Spanish – and then, once I had been vetted and collected the address, I had to persuade the driver to take me.

He had been warm and funny during the whole trip, but now he just looked worried. “I’m going to get picked up and spend all day answering questions” … presumably by the Cuban security services. He hummed. He hawed. He said: “All right, but I’m not taking you right up to the door.” In the end, he dropped me off at the corner of a long street shielded on both sides by trees and said: “It’s down there.” I must have walked for ten minutes before coming upon a vast iron gate behind which lay a beautiful building with two outstretched wings and a vast carved eagle on top.

As I was to learn from Mr Parmly over drinks in the garden, where a tennis court sat on one side and a small pool on the other, the house had been built in 1942 as a retirement home for president Roosevelt. The lift was specially designed to comfortably fit the president’s wheelchair but he died before ever visiting. It was here that Churchill was served a frozen daiquiri in a cut-glass goblet by R Henry Norwed, the American ambassador in 1946. I thought, this week, of my tour of the house’s marble floors and elegant antiques, and wondered who the first full ambassador for more than 50 years would be, and if he’d appreciate that the house was once considered the finest residence outside of the White House.

In 2005, Cuba was barely flirting with capitalism, a chaste stroll but barely even touching hands. Local homes were allowed to set up as restaurants, but for those in the know, everything was accessible, as I discovered a few evenings later after receiving an invitation to dine with Sir David Tang, the Chinese businessman who, as part of his empire, sold Cuban cigars in the Far East. After a day spent riding on the back of a moped around cigar factories, it was a pleasant surprise for myself and the directors of Hunters & Frankau to be collected by what was, we were told, the only stretch limousine in the country.

Looking back, I can appreciate the pleasure of visiting Cuba when president Castro remained in power, when the streets of Havana were clogged with cars that predated the revolution of 1959 and Che Guevara gazed down over the palm trees and cracked, colonial buildings. Yet there was no avoiding that people were frightened of saying the wrong thing, frightened of the state, and that freedoms you and I took for granted such as access to the internet were tightly restricted. There was poverty but also a great deal of pride in what the Castro brothers had achieved, for, as more than one person said: “Castro made us. We were Spanish, then we were American and now we’re Cuban.”

A wave of change is now set to sweep over the islands in the next decade or so, and those faded apartments on the Malecon may soon be selling for millions of dollars. The lifting of the US embargo means that American tourists will soon flood in and will be able to depart with Cuban cigars, but no more than $100 worth. A decade ago, as I wandered into the duty-free at the airport, minutes before my departure, I discovered that the cigars were not less expensive, but more. When I asked why, the sales assistant shrugged and explained I should have bought them earlier. A fair point.

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