By: Nick Miroff
HAVANA — In the coming weeks, when American hotel executives arrive to take over management of Havana’s iconic Hotel Inglaterra, chef Jorge Luis Bormey will become one of the first Cubans to work for a U.S. company in nearly 60 years.
Americans dominated Havana’s hotels and casinos until Fidel Castro’s bearded rebels threw them out and took over the properties, depicting the U.S. owners as exploitative capitalists.
Bormey isn’t too concerned. “I’m excited,” he said. “We’re pioneers.”
The Inglaterra, where Bormey has spent 15 years frying bananas and stirring pots of black beans, is one of the three properties the Starwood Hotels & Resorts chain will operate in a trailblazing arrangement that blows the biggest hole yet in the U.S. trade embargo first imposed in 1960.
The deal reached by Starwood, which Marriot is attempting to acquire, was possible only with specific approval from the Obama administration, and it represents a sea change in the thinking about the best way to bring change to Cuba rigidly-controlled, one-party system.
Instead of blocking off the forces of American capitalism, the Obama administration now wants them to come flooding in, and leave it up to the Cuban government to deal with the consequences. Critics say Castro officials will know how to extract the financial benefits without ceding political control or allowing a Cuban middle class to develop that could demand greater freedoms.
President Obama is due to speak Monday afternoon at a business summit held in a Cuban state-owned brewery along Havana’s waterfront, to an audience of American CEOs, Cuban small business owners and government officials. The cruise line operator Carnival Corp. was also preparing to announce a deal with the Cuban government, according to sources with knowledge of the arrangement.
The gathering takes place in plain sight of the former Texaco oil refinery that Castro nationalized in 1960 after its American managers refused to process a shipment of Soviet crude. The U.S. retaliated by cutting Cuba's sugar quota, and relations spiraled downward from there, as the government took control of virutally all commercial property on the island-- down to the popsicle carts and shoe-shine stands.
Monday's summit, against the backdrop of huge American and Cuba flags, seemed to signal the beginning of a business comeback.
Obama’s visit is expected to trigger a cascade of new commerce between the long-time foes, as the administration pushes the legal boundaries of the trade sanctions and increasingly renders them meaningless. Prior to his trip, Obama also lifted restrictions on Cuba’s ability to use the U.S. dollar in international financial transactions.
Only Congress can fully lift the embargo, but deals like the one Starwood has reached, which is believed to include the settlement of a $51 million claim against the Castro government held by the company.
“I think it’s become clear that it’s a matter of when, not if, the embargo will be lifted,” said James Williams, executive director of the anti-embargo lobbying group Engage Cuba. “These major brands are showing that they believe that too. They wouldn’t announce these deals if they thought they would be rolled back.”
Though the president’s stated goal of allowing increased trade and travel was to benefit the Cuban people, Starwood’s management contract will make it a direct partner of Cuban state firms, including the military-run tourism company Gaviota.
Starwood chief executive Thomas B. Mangas said it was “very proud to bring our experience” to Cuba and to be “at the forefront” of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy.
Some of the Cuban staff at the Hotel Inglaterra said they were a bit worried about whether Starwood would let them keep their jobs, but they were mostly excited to start working with their American bosses. The Cuban government will retain ownership of the physical property, but it will be up to Starwood to run the place.
A Cuban national landmark, the hotel first opened in 1886, advertised as “the best appointed house in the city.” A young war correspondent named Winston Churchill stayed there in 1895 when Cubans launched an uprising against Spanish colonial rule.
Ania Mastrapa, the public relations manager who doubles as the hotel's unofficial historian, said the Starwood executives fell in love with the property when they first visited a few months ago.
"Everyone knows that they're going to bring improvements and raise the standards of the hotel," she said. Mastrapa said she was confident the new managers would want to keep her. "I've worked here 20 years," she said. "Who else could tell the story of this place with so much affection?"