Creation of the Havana Hilton Hotel
With the easing of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, I contacted my friend Curt Strand in Aspen, Colorado to recall the creation of the Havana Hilton Hotel which opened in 1959. Curt was president of Hilton International from 1968 until 1986. In response to my request, he wrote the following:
You asked for a war story about the Havana Hilton.
It took a long time for us to negotiate the lease. This was before we came up with the concept of a Management Contract.
The Cubans had many great qualities, but punctuality was not one of them. It was nothing for them to schedule a meeting for 10 am and walk in at 1 pm with no apology. In addition, I had to negotiate a second agreement ̶ a labor contract ̶ with the same group because the Lessor was the pension fund of the hotel workers union. We had to devote a whole day to one meeting so this went on for about two years ̶ 1955 to 1956 with two years of construction to follow. The result had to be spectacular in order to compete with the famous National Hotel.
The hotel opened in February 1959. Fidel Castro entered Havana a few weeks later and he, having just come out of the mountains, was very impressed. In fact he was so impressed that he stayed in the hotel for weeks. Not in the Presidential suite, as you might expect, but in the kitchen. Literally. On a cot.
In fact he liked the hotel so much he nationalized it very quickly and it became the Habana Libre. Cuba still owes Hilton a lot of money!
Shortly after they took power the Castro government killed Mr. Aguirre, the head of the Hotel Workers Pension Fund with whom I concluded the lease and the labor contract.
P.S. You can read Curt Strand's fascinating memoirs of his career at Hilton International in my book, "Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry" in the chapter about Conrad Nicholas Hilton.