Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Havana: A Moveable Feast Trapped in Time
February 11, 2016 -- It's high noon on Monday and here in Old Havana, at the Bar de Oro, a six-piece band is making mellow music. Couples glide around the dance floor. The barkeep mixes $4 mojitos for a full house of thirsty revelers.

The rest of the world is here, soaking up the sunshine and the rum from the government-owned Havana Club Brand. They savor handmade Cuban cigars ($3 and up) and down inexpensive, flavor-drenched cuisine. And there's music, music, music everywhere.

After more than 50 years of embargo, U.S. businesspeople and entrepreneurs are coming to the Cuba party late. And things aren't necessarily improving as relations thaw. Yes, the American Embassy has reopened, but there's no ambassador and precious little other help. I tried contacting the embassy three times by phone. I got lost in the voice-mail maze.

But do not be deterred. You can hire your own Havana "envoy" for $100 a day and he comes with chauffeured transportation and local wisdom included.

On a recent Havana visit, I "retained" Ernesto Amador, a 45-year-old entrepreneur with a spotless Hyundai and an iPhone packed with hundreds of names, numbers and e-mail addresses. He officially bills himself as a "guide," but Amador is far more. I found him to be a Cuban historian, sociologist and self-styled economist. He is understated, punctual, persuasive, patient and pit-bull tenacious. He also changes U.S. dollars into Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) with a minimal bite (7 percent) compared to the 13 percent extracted by government-owned banks.

Meanwhile, back at the Bar De Oro, an El Al flight attendant and her pal, both from Tel Aviv, were deciding whether to dance. "I wish I had the courage to get out on the floor, but I don't," said Yael, the flight attendant. "And we've already had five mojitos because the cocktails are really well-made and so inexpensive."

Their reluctance is strange because both served obligatory time in the Israeli army after graduating from high school. "I was a tank commander," said Yael. Jenn, now a nurse, was assigned to unconventional weapons. "I know this sounds weird, but we had fun in the army."

That's when Ernesto explained it to me. "In Cuba, a Mojito is a woman's drink and often not strong," he whispered. "It's not surprising they had five and can still stand up."

Havana on a Monday is a tamer version of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. Costumed characters, mimes and buskers roam the narrow, ancient streets. They delight in "scaring" tourists and children. The price of the fun is a tip of a few CUCs. Even the musicians and singers in bars and restaurants are not paid by the house. They pass the hat among the customers after a half-dozen songs.

Havana also has its sober side.

I dropped by the Habana Riviera, a waterfront hotel built in 1957 by mobster-gambler Meyer Lansky. Today, with décor frozen in the 1950s, the 21-story, 352-room Riviera looks like a movie set.

The Spartan staff in the government-owned property shuffles around like badly directed extras in a mobster movie. The lone front desk clerk, eating her lunch, begrudgingly got off her chair, but barely cracked a smile. "A single is 120 CUCs, a double's 180 CUCs," she recited robotically. When I declined the room rate, she turned and shuffled back to her sandwich.

On the other hand, Havana's grandest hotel, the Moorish Hotel Nacional de Cuba, is a five-star palace with smiling, efficient staff. Also fronting Havana Harbor and "protected" by massive iron cannons installed when Spain controlled the island, the eight-story, 457-room hotel caters to the affluent international visitor. Opened in 1930 and meticulously preserved, it doubles as the city's social and political showcase. A king-bedded room is $280 a night, steep by Havana standards, but I got the nagging feeling that the rate is not set in cement.

As a saloon fanatic, I hit the hotel's ornate, high-ceilinged bar. The walls are plastered with delicate portraits of the famous and flamboyant who, I was assured, passed through and stopped long enough for a drink. Among the artistically honored: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, Secretary of State John Kerry, former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and Paris Hilton, whose family operated the Havana Hilton before the embargo.

Day barman Carlos Rafael--"people call me Moro"--looks like a young Harry Belafonte. Wearing a starched white shirt, black vest and bow tie, he plies his trade behind a long, cherrywood bar. "Yes, a shot of Havana Club Maxima [rum] is $1,700, but it is a generous shot," he explains. He claims it goes well with a $20 Cohiba that resides in a glass humidor on the back bar.

Rafael is a good storyteller, but don't expect him to regale you with long, detailed, indiscreet dramas. He deals in tidbits.

"The actress Susan Sarandon said to me, 'I will prepare my own Mojito, you just show me how to do it,' " he says. Robert Redford, who made a movie here, "likes very dry Beefeater martinis and our old Wurlitzer jukebox." Other notables who passed though for a libation include Kevin Costner, director Roman Polanski, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Surprising trivia factoid: "Hemingway never came to the Nacional bar," Rafael insists.

Speaking of Hemingway, his favorite Havana haunt, the El Floridita Bar, is chockablock with tourists nonstop. Papa is there on his corner stool, carved in bronze, putting up with an endless parade of selfie-takers.

Two bartenders are robo-filling a long line of glasses with fresh-squeezed lime daiquiris. They fetch a stiff-for-Havana $6 tab. And do not expect the barmen to offer tales of their most celebrated customer or his special drink, a Papa Doble, aka a double daiquiri.

Meantime, the lead singer of El Floridita's five-piece band puts down her microphone and picks up an offering basket as if she were in church. A group of us dug deep. After all, we could have been tapped for a cover charge.

This column is Copyright © 2016 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.