Before we get into the team’s activities from today, a quick update on what’s happening around Havana.
Today started off with a bang. As part of its period of mourning for former President Fidel Castro, Cuba fired off a 21-“gun” (cannon shells) salute at 9 a.m. ET from the Fort of Saint Charles — where the guys visited on Thanksgiving Day — into the port of Havana.
The shots from the fort could be heard from our hotel room patios, which we estimate to be about 7-10 miles away from the fort.
After the 21 shots, a single blast could be heard coming from the fort at the top of every hour today and until 9 p.m. The tribute will continue through tomorrow leading up to the public ceremony at 7 p.m. in Revolution Square.
We also learned that upward of 45-60 countries will have dignitaries attending tomorrow evening’s event, and many of them will be arriving in Havana tonight or tomorrow and will also be staying at our hotel, the Melia Habana.
As you probably saw in the news today, American Airlines and Jet Blue began direct service from Miami to Havana (we flew from Houston to Miami to Varadero). Many of the American Airlines staff who made that trip possible are staying in our hotel tonight.
As I began writing this update, the hotel lost power for about 90 seconds at 7:30 p.m. ET. Power outages are common in Cuba; it’s the first we have experienced, and it occurred when the team was at dinner at Sloppy Joe’s in Old Havana.
Our day began with a tour and lunch at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
The National Hotel of Cuba opened in 1930, when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans, especially during Prohibition.
The hotel has had many important guests, including Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Keaton, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura stayed at the hotel while visiting Cuba on a trade mission in 2002.
In December 1946 the hotel hosted the Havana Conference, an infamous mob summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and attended by Santo Trafficante Jr., Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and many others. Francis Ford Coppola memorably dramatized the conference in “The Godfather Part II.”
By 1955, Meyer Lansky (known as the “Mob’s Accountant”) had managed to persuade Batista to give him a piece of the Nacional. That same year Pan Am’s Intercontinental Hotels took over management of the hotel. Alphons Landa, a prominent Washington attorney, represented Pan Am and arranged for other clients and friends to acquire pieces of the hotel ownership at the same time. Investors would lose everything when Castro came to power. Lansky planned to take a wing of the 10-story hotel and create luxury suites for high-stakes gamblers. Batista endorsed Lansky’s idea even though there were objections from American expatriates such as Hemingway. Under Lansky’s impetus, a wing of the grand entrance hall was refurbished to include a bar, a restaurant, a showroom and a luxurious casino. It was operated by Lansky and his brother Jake, with Wilbur Clark as the front man.
Castro closed the casino in October 1960, almost two years after his overthrow of Batista.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters at the hotel to prepare the defense of Havana from aerial attack. The hotel was built on the site of the Santa Clara Battery, which dates back to 1797. Part of the battery has been preserved in the hotel’s gardens, including two large coastal guns dating from the late 19th century, one of which is pictured colorfully here.
After walking through the hotel’s hall of fame and grounds, the team dined in an outdoor restaurant and had chicken and beef with white and dark rice, black beans and squash. After the lunch, the team used the hotel’s expansive back lawn to stretch their legs with a soccer ball and football.
After a short drive, the team toured the Church and Square of St. Francis of Assisi. Located just across the street from where cruise ships port, it includes the church, shopping, hotels and living quarters for families. At about 3 p.m. one of those loud top-of-the hour shots went off — we were a mere mile or two from the fort — and pigeons darted around the square.
Also, an elementary school was letting out for the day (see the last photo in our Flickr photo gallery for today).
There is also a statue in the square of a French beggar who died in the 1980s. The beggar would only accept money if he could provide the donor a service, such as drawing. He was famous enough locally that municipalities in Havana agreed to erect the statue in his memory.
It is said that if you step on the beggar’s right foot, grab his left index finger and stroke his beard, it will bring you luck. Not to lose out on the opportunity, coach Graham reached out and said, “I’ll do anything for a victory.”
While the team was touring Havana, assistant coach Scott Shepperd trekked south and went fishing in the Bay of Pigs. The Texas native’s goal was to land a bonefish. He not only did that, but he also caught a Cuban lemon shark.
Way to go, Shep!
According to Wikipedia, Lemon sharks are found from New Jersey to Southern Brazil in the tropical Western Atlantic Ocean. They also live off the coast of West Africa in the Southeastern Atlantic.
This species of shark often occupies the subtropical shallow waters of coral reefs, mangroves and enclosed bays, exactly where coach found this guy (pictured).
As we were getting ready to post this update tonight, we noticed that Revolution Square is fully lit up, and we can now see it from our hotel room — even better so with our binoculars, which were initially packed and intended for our baseball games.
Mouse over the picture below to open the Flickr photo gallery arrow buttons and view more images from the day.
If the photo gallery doesn’t appear or open, click here.
Fun fact of the day: Dominoes, not cards of any sort, is the national game of Cuba.