David Tang chills out in Havana with the worlds friendliest dictator
David Tang chills out in Havana with the world’s friendliest dictator
‘The Pope going to stay here,’ Juana-Maria boasted. ‘Why didn’t he?’ I asked. ‘Too many bugs,’ she said, disappointingly. ‘So are there many bugs?’ I asked. ‘No, no, no,’ she assured me, hesitantly. ‘No electric bugs. The Vatican security wrong.’ ‘Ah – no electronic bugs! I see,’ I said, as if it mattered. ‘I’ll take it for the week… but no cockroaches please.’
That’s how I came to stake the largest mansion in Havana. Juana-Maria was the elegant woman in charge of letting out a handful of houses renovated by the Cuban government. That was five years ago. Since then, I have always stayed at La Mansion, as it is properly known.
It’s a splendid colonial mansion, complete with a wonderful garden and an extremely civilised swimming pool next to a palladian pavilion. There are seven en-suite bedrooms, each with gleaming marble. Then there is astaff of eight: cook, butler, laundry maid, housemaids, gardener, and security. It’s as good as they come in the whole of Cuba. It’s as good as they come anywhere. I feel like Noel Coward every time I sweep into the drive in a half-collapsed 1959 convertible Cadillac.
Havana is an incurably romantic city. Music and dancing abound, and although the food leaves a lot to be desired, it is a beautifully both preserved and unpreserved city. A Dr Leal almost single-handedly kept most of the splendid Spanish heritage, turning huge stucco buildings into enterprising offices and hotels and restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
The exoticism of the place, augmented by the legends of Hemingway and Fidel, not to mention Che Guevara, is charged with history. Columbus landed there 500 years ago and took tobacco back to Europe. Even today, you can see the might fort guards the impressive harbour alongside the Malecon, the crescent shaped embankment constantly beaten by dramatic 20 foot waves.
Everyone of course smokes Havana cigars, and their factories have more or less remained the same for hundreds of years. When you visit the Partagas factory, you can almost hear Carmen being sung in the background. And everyone dances like snakes. The salsa is the staple diet. There is no place on earth where there are more gyrating hips. And even among all the privations, everyone sings and smiles – what else is there to do? With all these attractions, I have brought a lot of friends to visit Havana.
Once I chartered a small plane from Miami to Havana. I had always though that this was not possible. But I met an American operator who assured me that this was what he did regularly. So I enrolled. What he didn’t tell me was that all passengers had to register and declare themselves missionaries or persons who were going to visit Cuba for ‘religious services’. When I arrived with Bianca Jagger, she rather freaked out, as did I. We suddenly had cold feet about signing declarations, but in the end we just did it for the hell of it.
Yet I have to tell it was one of the least troublesome flights I have ever taken in my life. The US custom and immigration officers as Miami could not have been nicer nor more polite – probably because they thought Bianca was Nicaraguan nun and I a Chinese Buddhist monk! Mind you, that was pre-9/11. When I tried to get in touch with the operator after that, I wasn’t able to find him. He had vanished, maybe to Guantanamo Bay.
Another highlight of my various visits to Cuba was meeting Castro in the early hours of one morning in a refrigerated room with the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn and the Duchess’s mother, Lady Kennard (probably the Queen’s best friend). Mrs Philips, as she was mostly known, was probably as grand as they come, with most of her daughters commanded and becoming duchesses.
I had put in a request to see the president, and at 1am, I was told he would see us. We scrambled from our falling eyelids and sped towards an unknown destination. We were ushered into a room whose temperature must have been 0 degrees C. At 2am, more or less frozen in our summer wear, the great man finally arrived. He had impeccable manners and apologised to us. Not many heads of states would have been so polite!
Our conversations spanned almost every subject under the stars. Lady Kennard could not stop asking questions (one on serial killing), and we had a particularly animated exchange when Castro got to the subject of Dunkirk. He thought that the British effort was one of the best examples in the history of human endeavours. Castro was clearly an Anglophile.
When we left at 4.30am, we were tired, but exhilarated. To crown the rendezvous, Castro, that very dawn, sent us each a box of special Cuban cigars, all beautiful packed in boxes of 100s.
Of all my meetings with Castro, this was the most impressive, and I was glad that it was shared with my British friends. Viva Cuba!