Along Havana’s malecon, the curved promenade besides the sea, the Hotel Nacional sits like a medieval fortress. Built in 1930, with Moorish turrets, it rises six floors high to face Miami. This plush hotel was home to many international guests: JFK and Sinatra came for orgies, while Jean-Paul Sartre and Nelson Mandela stayed in solidarity. Its most notorious resident, however, was Meyer Lansky. During Batista’s reign Lansky used the Nacional as his headquarters, where he carved up Havana with casinos controlled by the Mob. ‘Casino capitalism’ was rife – gambling, windfall profits, the corruption of the elite, the enforcement of payback debts. It was an ugly model that collapsed once Fidel Castro and ‘the bearded ones’ emerged from the Sierra Maestra. It’s now a model that persists on a global scale, evident in rampant speculation, the acquisition of toxic debts, dubious loans and the enforcement of repayment by the IMF. Cuba has resisted both versions and no better symbol exists than the Cuban flag hanging down the Nacional, on which Fidel’s imposing silhouette is superimposed, underlined by ‘The Triumph of 50 Years of the Revolution’.
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