Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America

By Dennis Merrill | Go to book overview

FOUR
Paradíse Lost:
Castro’s Cuba

The ‘‘magical charm of a tropical night, the rollicking rhythms of the Cuban countryside,’’ the 23 March 1958 Havana Post gushed, ‘‘colorful dances that range from the African-derived ‘guaguanco’ to the dignified ‘danzon,’ dinner and dancing climaxed the opening of The Havana Hilton Hotel.’’1 The long-delayed extravaganza drew an eclectic crowd. In addition to the Tropicana Club’s corps de ballet, the three hundred invited guests included television and radio talk show host Tex McCrary, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Time magazine’s Frank Shea, Serafino Romnaldi of the AFL-CIO, and William H. Bowe from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Hilton executives even arranged for an ‘‘official blessing’’ of the new building by Havana’s Manuel Cardinal Arteaga.2

Located in fashionable Vedado, the Hilton towered over the city. Some thirty stories high, it ranked as the tallest building in all of Latin America and attested to Cold War Cuba’s special claim on modernity. The twenty-fourmillion-dollar edifice boasted 588 rooms and 42 suites, all equipped with circulating ice water and three-channel radios. Central air-conditioning, a ballroom with banquet facilities for twelve hundred, multiple restaurants with shiny, stainless-steel kitchens, including the street-level Trader Vic’s and the rooftop Sugar Bar cocktail lounge, bespoke the hotel’s lavishness. Designed by the Los Angeles–based Welton Becket and Associates, it blended suburban U.S. and European motifs more than Cuban, with its imported Italian blue mosaic glassworks, courtyard graced by a Spanish fountain, and California-inspired swimming pool surrounded by cabanas.3

At a gala dinner held on 27 March for Cuban and foreign dignitaries, Conrad Hilton delivered one of his signature histrionic orations: ‘‘To say that Christopher Columbus was a world traveler must be something of an understatement,’’ he remarked, ‘‘I am very happy today that four hundred and sixty six years later Hilton Hotels has discovered Cuba.’’ Addressing the ideological

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