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Cuban Revolution: Cuba’s Hotel Nacional: the iconic site that hosted Jean-Paul Sartre, Muhammad Ali and Yuri Gagarin | USA

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By January 1, 1959, the Havana Hilton, Riviera and Capri hotels had all been built, but the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was still considered the national hotel of the country. Within hours of the Cuban Revolution, the US crime figure Meyer Lansky, known as the “mob’s accountant,” telephoned one of his closest confidants in Cuba, Jaime Casielles, and asked him to hasten to the Nacional. “Lansky knew that [former Cuban president Fulgencio] Batista and his family had fled the country. He said to me: ‘Jaimito, we need to go around all the casinos and collect the money before the hordes are out on the street.” Everything on the island had changed.

For over a year the Nacional remained in the hands of its American owners but it wasn’t long before conflicts with the new government arose and the aristocrats and Hollywood stars started to disappear, although a new clientele would arrive to bear witness to a new era. On February 20, 1960, French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir checked into the Nacional, having been invited to Cuba by the editor of Revolución magazine, Carlos Franqui. Their objective was to see first-hand the political process that was unfolding.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Fidel Castro in 1960.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Fidel Castro in 1960. Cortesía del State de Alberto Korda.

“We lived in one of the best neighborhoods, in the Hotel Nacional, a luxury fortress, flanked by two crenelated square towers. Of its guests, who came from the United States, only two qualities were required: wealth and taste. As these are rarely reconcilable, if they possessed the first it was assumed, with few inquiries, they had the second,” Sartre would write on his return to France. “I turn the air conditioning up all the way to enjoy the cold of the rich. With 30 degrees in the shade, I go to the windows and watch with sumptuous shudders how those that are passing by perspire. It has not taken me long to find the reasons behind the still indisputable supremacy of the Nacional. It was enough to open the curtains when I arrived: I saw long, graceful ghosts stretching toward the sky.”

The palm trees. The same ones that had dazzled Lucky Luciano and other famous guests. But Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had not come to Cuba for the trees. The following day, the couple left for Santiago and from there they went to Holguín, where Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro was inaugurating a school in what had once been a military barracks. There they met the Cuban leader and Argentinian guerilla Che Guevara.

The Hotel Nacional, which is included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World list.
The Hotel Nacional, which is included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World list. Yander Zamora.

Once back at the Nacional, they were told that Guevara would grant them an audience in his office at the National Bank, the institution he headed, at midnight. “I was still lucky,” recalled Sartre. “Journalists and foreign visitors are received warmly and at length, but at two or three in the morning.” That meeting was immortalized by the photographer Alberto Korda and later described by Sartre in one of the articles he published over the following months in France Soir, and later compiled in the book Hurricane Over Sugar.

“The night did not enter that office. In those men in full wakefulness, the best of them, sleep did not seem to be a natural necessity but rather a routine that they had more or less freed themselves from. I don’t know when Guevara and his colleagues sleep. I suppose it depends: performance decides; if it dips, they stop.” Sartre was also surprised and moved by the youth of the revolutionaries – Castro was 33 and Guevara, 31. “The biggest scandal of the Cuban Revolution is not expropriating farms and lands, but to have brought boys to power,” he said. “Given that a revolution was necessary, circumstances dictated that youth should carry it out. Only youth had experienced sufficient anger and angst to undertake it, and had sufficient purity to carry it out.”

Guevara told them that night that Cuba’s was a “contrecoup revolution,” and Sartre came to the conclusion that it was a process with an ideology “free from elaboration,” perhaps “the most original revolution in the world,” based on “a direct democracy.” When he was asked in an interview what that meant, the author of Being and Nothingness replied: “This Fidel Castro who is continuously on the move in a helicopter or automobile; who often speaks three times a week on the television for hours on end; who explains everything his government does; who discusses every realization; who listens to the peasants and takes note of their complaints; who opens schools in forgotten corners and who argues passionately with his ministers: this is direct democracy.”

Part of the trench system dug on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Part of the trench system dug on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yander Zamora.

Sartre and Beauvoir traveled all over the island, often accompanied by Castro, and on one of those journeys, one of the great anecdotes of their trip took place. Arriving at a popular tourist spot they asked for a lemonade. It was lukewarm and Fidel complained, asking why Cubans should be subjected to such poor service. The woman replied that her refrigerator was broken and the person who was supposed to fix it had not turned up. As Fidel continued to ask questions, the woman cut the conversation short with a phrase that augured what was to come: “You know how it is.”

On March 4, the explosion of La Coubre in the port of Havana was clearly audible from the Hotel Nacional. The French steamer was anchored there with a cargo of 76 tons of weapons and ammunition for the revolution: 136 people were killed and the following day, during the memorial, Castro gave a famous speech during which for the first time he used his slogan “Homeland or death.” In the stand that day were Sartre, Beauvoir and the main leaders of the revolution, and it was there that Korda took his signature photograph of Guevara, with his beret and defiant gaze, which turned the guerrilla into a global revolutionary icon.

The French intellectuals remained in Havana until March 15, 1960, and a week after they departed the Nacional was expropriated. When Sartre and Beauvoir returned, in October of the same year, the hotel had started to fill with literacy teachers, frontline revolutionary workers and rural villagers from the mountains who had come to Havana to study. The guests at the Nacional were no longer America’s rich and famous.

Fidel Castro and Yuri Gagarin during the cosmonaut’s visit in 1961.
Fidel Castro and Yuri Gagarin during the cosmonaut’s visit in 1961. CORTESÍA DEL HOTEL NACIONAL

In July 1961, three months after his trip into space, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin arrived in Cuba and met several times with Castro, exchanging caps and participating in the events to mark the anniversary of the 1953 assault on the Moncada barracks. Before delivering his welcome speech, Castro asked Gagarin: “How long did it take you to go around the earth?” The cosmonaut replied: “An hour and a half, comandante.” Fidel smiled and said: “Then start counting.” Today, a bust of Gagarin adorns one of the bars in the hotel, in front of portraits of Venezuelan leaders Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro and the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio da Silva, who have all been guests.

The same gardens at the Nacional where Gagarin had strolled were filled with anti-aircraft batteries and trenches a year later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The location of the hotel, on Taganana Hill, made it a key strategic point for the defense of Havana if the situation had escalated, something which did not occur due to the removal of Soviet warheads from the island by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, without consulting Fidel. This did not go down well with the Cuban leader and soon crowds of protestors thronged the seaside promenade on Havana’s shoreline, chanting: “Nikita, sissy, you don’t take away what you’ve given.”

As the revolution became more radicalized and the US imposed its embargo, the Cuban economy was Sovietized and tourism became viewed as an evil, while culture on the island entered its gray quinquennium. The jailing of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971 on charges of “subversive activities” provoked the rupture of a section of the Latin American and European intelligentsia with the revolution. Among the first signatures on a letter of protest over the Padilla case were those of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Top left and bottom: images taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Top right: a tractor donated by employees of the Hotel Nacional during the Land Reform of 1961.
Top left and bottom: images taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Top right: a tractor donated by employees of the Hotel Nacional during the Land Reform of 1961. CORTESÍA DEL HOTEL NACIONAL

By the mid-1980s Cuba was welcoming only 150,000 tourists per year, half of them from Socialist countries, and the hotels were falling into disrepair. A story did the rounds: a hotel guest was showering when he felt the bath move beneath his feet. Fearing an embarrassing episode, he wrapped himself in a towel and went downstairs to complain. “Look, knowing how things are here, you’re lucky you didn’t end up in the lobby,” the receptionist told him.

A lack of maintenance also started to tell on the Nacional and it was forced to close its doors from 1990-92 to carry out a vast remodeling. When it was reopened, Cuba was in the midst of an economic crisis due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which was known as the “Special Period.” Attracting tourists and foreign currency had become a national priority. Cubans were prohibited from staying in hotels so that rooms could be reserved for dollar-paying guests. The crisis hit Cubans hard, with power outages lasting 12 to 14 hours a day and a scarcity of food, medicine and public transportation exacerbated by the toughening of the US embargo. Some American humanitarian organizations started to send aid to the island and one of these missions, in 1996, was headed by US boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Half a million dollars’ worth of medical supplies were distributed and among the party was the US journalist Gay Talese, who had been commissioned to produce a report. In Ali in Havana, Talese recounted the difficulties encountered on that five-day trip, where the former heavyweight champion was feted as a hero wherever he went.

Ali’s hands shook and he could hardly speak due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease, but he was friendly toward his admirers, who stopped him in the great lobby of the Nacional to ask for his autograph. “It took him 30 seconds to write his name on whatever card or piece of paper,” Talese said. “But he wrote it in full, ‘Muhammad Ali.’ He didn’t just write ‘Ali’ to save some time. He has never short-changed his fans.”

The night before they were due to return to the US, Castro invited the group to the Palace of the Revolution. Ali and Fidel mocked up a few punches for the cameras and, as they were leaving, Ali’s wife Yolanda Williams told the Cuban president he would be welcome in their home if he ever visited the US. Castro said that he had been to the US before, to participate in a United Nations General Assembly, but he had not been allowed to leave his hotel room. “But things change,” he added.

However, Fidel Castro was mistaken. Things did not change, tensions mounted and a year later a bomb went off in the Hotel Nacional.

English version by Rob Train.

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The drama behind the Anglo-Irish Treaty

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On December 6th 1921 a document was signed that would shape Ireland for at least a century.

Throughout October, November and early December of 1921, tense negotiations on the future of the island took place in London after years of conflict.

The Irish team, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, were untrained and badly prepared. They lacked clear instructions or guidance and had no agreed counter-proposals prepared. They were not even a united team.

They also faced some serious British political talent, including the prime minister Lloyd George and future prime minister Winston Churchill.

In the early hours of the 6th of December 1921, the talks reached a dramatic climax at Number 10 Downing Street.

With the British under increasing pressure to get a deal done, an ultimatum was issued: sign or face war again.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. Its aim was to bring the curtain down on the war in Ireland and while it did mark the end of the War of Independence, it sparked another conflict almost immediately – the Civil War.

It also set the scene for the partition of Ireland with the devastating consequences that was to have half a century on from the signing of the Treaty.

Countless books, plays and even a Hollywood film have been made about the Treaty but what is it legacy and why is it an important story to tell?

Playwright Colin Murphy, historian Micheal O Fathartaigh, author Gretchen Friemann and Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy talk to In The News about the Treaty, the negotiations and the impact the document has had on Irish history.

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Lewis Hamilton wins chaotic Saudi GP to draw level with Max Verstappen

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After chaos, needle, misunderstanding and some absolutely uncompromising racing, it took a cool head to prevail and Lewis Hamilton duly delivered, his win at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ensuring there is now nothing in it going into the Formula One season finale.

Beating title rival Max Verstappen into second, the pair are now level on points after a race of complexity and confusion fitting perhaps in a season that has been impossible to predict. The two protagonists endured an ill-tempered race and both left with differing views, Hamilton accusing his rival of being dangerous and Verstappen aggrieved. What it made clear is that neither will leave anything on the table next week in Abu Dhabi.

The investigations and debriefs will go on long into the night after this staccato affair interrupted by red flags, safety cars and the two leaders clashing repeatedly on track but ultimately and crucially for his title hopes it was an exhausted Hamilton who came out on top.

Hamilton had gone into the race trailing Verstappen by eight points, they are now level. The lead has changed hands five times during this enthralling season, which has ebbed and flowed between them but of course Hamilton has experience in tense showdowns, pipped to his first title in the last race of 2007 and then sealing it in a nail-biting showdown in Brazil a year later.

Verstappen is in his first title fight but has shown no indication of being intimidated, instead eagerly grasping his chance to finally compete and he still has it all to play for despite his clear disappointment at the result at the Jeddah circuit.

Hamilton admitted how hard the race been. “I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough,” he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean. It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us.”

Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington credited his man with how he had handled it, noting: “It was the cool head that won out”. It was a necessary skill beyond that of wrestling with this tricky, high speed circuit, given the incidents that defined the race as it swung between the two rivals.

Hamilton held his lead from pole but an early red flag due to a crash left Verstappen out front when Red Bull had opted not to pit under a safety car. Thus far at least it was fairly straightforward.

When racing resumed from a standing start Hamilton, off like a bullet, had the lead into turn one but Verstappen went wide and cut the corner of two to emerge in front. Esteban Ocon took advantage to sneak into second only for the race to be stopped again immediately after several cars crashed in the midfield.

With the race stopped, the FIA race director, Michael Masi, offered Red Bull the chance for Verstappen to be dropped to third behind Hamilton because of the incident, rather than involving the stewards. In unprecedented scenes of negotiations with Masi, Red Bull accepted the offer, conceding Verstappen had to give up the place, with the order now Ocon, Hamilton.

Verstappen launched brilliantly at the restart, dove up the inside to take the lead, while Hamilton swiftly passed Ocon a lap later to move to second.

The front two immediately pulled away with Hamilton sticking to Verstappen’s tail, ferociously quick as they matched one another’s times. Repeated periods of the virtual safety car ensued to deal with debris littering the track and when racing began again on lap 37, Hamilton attempted to pass and was marginally ahead through turn one as both went off but Verstappen held the lead, lighting the touchpaper for the flashpoint.

Verstappen was told by his team to give the place back to Hamilton but when Verstappen slowed apparently looking to do so, Hamilton hit the rear of the Red Bull, damaging his front wing. Mercedes said they were unaware Verstappen was going to slow and the team had not informed Hamilton, who did not know what Verstappen was doing. Hamilton was furious, accusing Verstappen of brake-testing him. Both drivers are under investigation by the stewards for the incident and penalties may yet be applied.

Verstappen then did let Hamilton through but immediately shot back up to retake the lead but in doing so went off the track. He was then given a five-second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage and a lap later Verstappen once more let his rival through, concerned he had not done so sufficiently on the previous lap. After all the chaos, Hamilton finally led and Verstappen’s tyres were wearing, unable to catch the leader who went on to secure a remarkable victory.

It was all too much for Verstappen who left the podium ceremony immediately the anthems concluded. “This sport is more about penalties than racing and for me this is not Formula One,” he said “A lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with.”

Both teams had diverging viewpoints on the incidents but both must now look forward. After 21 highly competitive races, the last a febrile, unpredictable drama, the season will be decided in a one-off shootout where both drivers have without doubt earned their place but just when the respect between them appears at its lowest ebb. – Guardian

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Covid testing rules for all arrivals into State come into force

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New Covid testing rules for travellers arriving into the State have come into force today.

At the start of the week the Government announced that all incoming travellers except those travelling from Northern Ireland will have to present a negative test result in order to enter the country irrespective of the vaccination status.

The move came in response to concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The test requirements were due to be introduced from midnight on Thursday. However the system was postponed at the last minute to midnight on Sunday in order to allow airlines prepare for checks.

For those with proof of vaccination they can show a negative professionally administered antigen test carried out no more than 48 hours before arrrival or a PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival. Those who are unvaccinated must show a negative PCR test result.

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary had described the move as “nonsense” and “gobbledygook”.

Meanwhile more than 150 passengers have departed Morocco for Ireland on a repatriation flight organised by the Government.

The 156 passengers on the flight from Marrakech to Dublin included Irish citizens as well as citizens of several other EU countries and the UK.

The journey was organised after flights to and from Morocco were suspended earlier this week until at least December 13th, amid fears over the spread of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.

The repatriation flight on Saturday was operated on behalf of the Government by Ryanair.

Responding to news of the flight’s departure, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney hailed the efforts of the Irish Embassy in Rabat in the operation, tweeting: “Well done and thank you!”.

On Saturday the number of Covid patients in hospital has fallen to 487, the lowest level in almost four weeks, the latest official figures show. The number of Covid patients in hospital fell by 41 between Friday and Saturday. There were 5,622 further cases of Covid-19 reported on Saturday.

Tweeting about the latest hospital figures on Saturday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the “plan is working – 3rd doses, masks, test & isolate, physical distancing. Thank you for what you are doing. Please don’t lose heart. Let’s all have a safe Christmas.”

The figures come as the Government on Friday announced its most wide-ranging introduction of new restrictions this year after “stark” warnings from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to take immediate action in the face of the threat from the Omicron variant.

From Tuesday until at least January 9th, indoor hospitality will be limited to parties of up to six adults per table, while nightclubs will be closed and indoor events limited to half a venue’s capacity. Advice has been issued that households should not host more than three other households in their home, while the use of the vaccine pass is to be extended to gyms and hotel bars and restaurants.

Trinity College immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill said the main reason for the new restrictions was the new Omicron variant, and he thought they were needed as the “next three to four weeks are going to be tough”. Speaking to Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ radio, he said it was “strange” that restrictions were being introduced when things are stabilising, with the lowest hospital numbers since November 6th.

Prof O’Neill said he was “hopeful” at news that the Omicron variant may have a piece of the common cold virus in it which could make it more like the common cold.

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