Hilton: Nothing to Claim

Ciro Bianchi Ross – Juventud Rebelde

Translation: IcarusCuba LLC – credit requested for redistribution

The media frenzy over Paris Hilton’s recent visit to Cuba for the Cigar Festival was pretty predictable. The heiress to one of the world’s largest hotel chains didn’t limit herself to visiting Havana, but traveled to Soroa and Cayo Largo as well, and everywhere she went, people who came in contact with her were impressed by her down-to-earth, easygoing nature. When she visited Varadero, she stole the show at the International Hotel’s cabaret, where she went on stage, grabbed a congo, and accompanied the orchestra before dancing along with the entertainers.

The Hilton chain was founded by Conrad Hilton, Paris’s grandfather, in 1919. By 1958, its operating capital was $196 million dollars. Some of the hotels in its portfolio were the property of the chain, while others operated under management contracts. Conrad was married for a time to the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor and was also a father-in-law to the actress Elizabeth Taylor. The Waldorf Astoria, the Stevens, and Plaza hotels in New York also belonged to Hilton, along with the Statler chain and the Hotel Castellana in Madrid.

It’s said that Hilton will be lodging a claim against Cuba for the family hotel. I’m not certain whether the source for this rumor was the rich, beautiful and volatile heiress herself, or a clueless journalist. But the fact remains that Hilton has nothing to claim from Cuba, because the Habana Libre hotel, originally called the Havana Hilton, was operated under a lease agreement with the chain, but was never its property.

The Havana Libre was, is, and will always be Cuban.


The construction of the hotel, occupying an entire city block bordered by L and M Street and 23rd and 25th Avenue – some of the most coveted real estate in the city – came about as the result of a long process. Mario Lazo, from the Lazo & Cubas law firm, on the 9th floor of Motor Center at 23rd and Infanta – where the Ministry of Foreign Trade has been housed for many years – headed the negotiations. He used the 1948 contract signed by the Hilton chain with the government of Puerto Rico as his template for the hotel’s construction. Through that agreement, Hilton was to manage the hotel built by the Puerto Rican government, which would retain ownership and two-thirds of the profits.

Lazo managed to interest Hilton in the idea, but couldn’t get much enthusiasm out of the Cuban government. He was similarly unsuccessful with any of Cuba’s autonomous agencies and struck out with the sugar industry’s pension fund. It was the pension fund for the gastronomy workers that would finally finance the project, via its deposits and loans to be obtained from quasi-state banks. Francisco Aguirre Vidaurreta, the Labor Minister during the Grau government and owner of the Kasalta restaurant, presided over the fund. The dictator Fulgencio Batista offered his immediate support and the project took off. By now it was June, 1953, and Jorge Cubas, the co-owner of the Lazo & Cubas law firm, obtained financing from the Trust Company of Cuba. The Bank for Social Economic Development (Bandes) and Cuba’s Industrial and Agricultural Development Bank (Banfaic) – both quasi-state banks – also provided loans.

The cost of the project was originally estimated at more than 21 million pesos. In the end it cost more than 24 million. The Frederick Snare Corporation handled construction, while the architectural firm Arroyo & Menéndez managed the design.

The hotel had two openings. The first was an informal one, on March 19, 1958, with 300 invited foreign guests, among them Hollywood stars like Esther Williams and Ann Miller. The official opening took place three days later, and was attended by Martha Fernández, the First Lady of the Republic. Batista was a no-show on both occasions, although he scurried to receive Conrad Hilton at the government palace.

Cuban / Non-Cuban

The 1950’s saw the construction and opening of a series of hotels in Havana.

The residential hotel Rosita de Hornedo, with 172 apartments and two penthouses, owned by Liberal Senator Alfredo Hornedo y Suarez and named after his second wife, Rosita Almanza, opened its doors in 1957. Hornedo y Suarez also owned the El País and Excélsior newspapers as well as the Mercado Único in Havana, and other properties in the area: the Blanquita theatre, currently the Karl Marx, and the Casino Deportivo beach club, now the Cristino Naranjo social club.

Another hotel of the era was the Capri. With 18 floors and 217 rooms, it opened on December 1, 1957. It belonged to Jaime Canavés, a Spanish expat living in Havana since 1913 and owner of the construction company that carried his name, and which built the hotel. Canavés signed a 20 year lease with the Sheppard S.A. company, which also owned the Ponce de León and Leamington hotels in Miami. Sheppard was to pay 210,000 pesos in annual rent for the Capri.

In 1958, the Flamingo opened, with 72 rooms. It was also built with Cuban capital at a cost of 700,000 pesos. More than a million pesos of Cuban capital built the Hotel Copacabana (124 rooms) in 1952, the only hotel apart from the Comodoro that also functioned as a private, membership-only club. The Hotel Vedado, with 120 rooms and an investment of a million and a half pesos, is also Cuban, as is the Hotel Bruzón, built for 150,000 pesos.

Batista was the principal owner of the Colony Hotel on the Isle of Pines, opened on New Year’s Eve, 1958. The International, in Varadero, built with U.S. capital in 1949, was acquired by a Cuban consortium in 1956. The six-story Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos did not open until 1959. It belonged to José López Vilaboy, beneficiary and pal to Batista and the family that owned the Palacio de Valle, across the street.

Unlike the aforementioned properties, the Hotel Riviera was built with foreign capital, specifically that of the Sicilian-American mafia, although officials in the Batista dictatorship also backed the operation. With 21 floors and 368 rooms – surpassed only by the Havana Hilton – it opened on December 10, 1957, attended by Cardinal Manuel Arteago, who blessed the facility, Rafael Guas Inclán, Vice President of the Republic, Justo Luis del Pozo, Havana’s mayor, and more than a few government ministers. The hotel cost 12 million pesos with the land costing another 1,253,000 pesos. Its owners were contemplating the construction of another hotel, to be called The Monaco.

Who’s Who

Nicolás Arroyo Márquez and Gabriela Menéndez, the architects on the Havana Hilton, were a distinguished couple, with professional studio and offices on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street, in Miramar. Along with General Roberto Fernández Miranda, Batista’s pet brother-in-law and Director of Sports, Arroyo was the co-owner of Codeco Construction, which handled government projects under Batista’s rule.

He was the architect on the expansion of the Biltmore neighborhood and the extension of Fifth Avenue. Among other projects, he was also the architect for the Ruston Academy, the National Theater at Civic Plaza (now Plaza de la Revolución), small private medical clinics, and the 10 de Marzo Naval Hospital.

As Batista’s Minister of Public Works, he was the dictatorship’s last ambassador to the U.S., where he took advantage of the opportunity to improve the diplomatic headquarters. As a matter of fact, in Washington’s archives, 2630 16th Street is noted as “one of the most imposing and enigmatic residences” in the city; a building “whose origin was lost in the turbulence of two world wars, international intrigues, and a revolution.” According to the limited information on record, the Cuban Embassy in Washington – currently the Cuban Interests Section – was built in 1917 as a residence for Ambassador Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the son of one of Cuba’s founding fathers. Nicolás Arroyo would touch it up. Despite his fleeting presence, he managed to decorate it with so many precious antiques that The Diplomat magazine called it “one of the most beautiful diplomatic residences in the capital.”

Mario Kuchilán wrote many years ago in these same pages, and later in a book, that Mario Lazo, of the Lazo & Cubas law firm, was the CIA’s number one man in Havana. He would have had reason to know. At the very least, Lazo was more clued in to Washington’s decisions with respect to Batista than the ambassador himself, and it wasn’t all that unusual either. As Batista was on his way out, it was Lazo who told the ambassador which way the wind was blowing.

Lazo & Cubas was the firm that represented the United Fruit Sugar Company in Cuba. It also represented the United States during the Second World War and negotiated the establishment of the nickel plant at Nicaro and later, at Moa, as well as the Air Force base at San Antonio. They were the legal advisers for the American Chamber of Commerce in Cuba; a collection of 180 U.S. firms established in the country. The office had 35 attorneys and nearly 80 employees.

Francisco Aguirre Vidaurreta – who as we already pointed out, was the president of the gastronomy workers pension fund that underwrote what is now the Habana Libre – was arrested in the first few days of January, 1959, for his ties with the Batista dictatorship and shady union dealings. Hoping to find refuge at an embassy, he slipped out of his house at dawn one morning, hiding on the floor between the front and back seats of a car. The militia captured him right away.

A Million Dollar Casino

At one point, the Havana Hilton was planned for the city block bordered by Prado, Trocadero, Ánimas and Zulueta. In order to put it in Vedado, the builders would need to convince Laura Bertini, the widow of the aforementioned Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, to leave her home at 23rd and M. A small fortune helped to convince her.

Santos Trafficante controlled the casinos at the Sans Souci cabaret and the Comodoro and Capri hotels. Meyer Lansky operated the casino at the Hotel Riviera, perhaps the most luxurious of all in Havana at the time. At the Havana Hilton, the brothers Roberto and Mario Mendoza, along with Clifford Jones, the former lieutenant governor of Nevada, paid a million dollars for the casino concession to prevent it from falling into the hands of Joe Barbera and Frank Erickson, accused of murdering Albert Anastasia in New York. Anastasia was killed in the crossfire between mafia families fighting to control gaming in Havana.

The Retirement and Social Assistance Fund for Gastronomy Workers, which owned the hotel, had leased it to the Hilton chain for 20 years, based on a contract where the fund kept two thirds of the gross receipts, with a guaranteed minimum of 250,000 pesos annually.

(With additional reporting by Guillermo Jiménez.)



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