The Mystery Owners of the New Hotel in Crumbling Centro Havana
The protagonists are an American-Venezuelan musician, a mysterious Anglo-Saxon investor and the shadow of Mariela Castro.
The neighbors of the hotel Cayo Hueso, in Centro Habana, watched with intrigue, for months, the remodeling of the building located at Aramburu 253, at the corner of Neptune. Little by little, the property — built in the 1930s and in decline, like all its surroundings — was becoming a luxurious establishment, judging by what could be glimpsed through the windows of the ground floor.
Nothing, however, reported its future use, and the only sign it displayed was the work license number written on a piece of cardboard and poorly hung on a window. The gossip began to flow without confirmation: a yuma had bought the property and was turning it into a hotel.
And not only that, but he had bought other houses and planned to relocate everyone who lived there.
If it was true that the project was for an American, in any case he had to be influential. In this regard, several residents of the place tell another anecdote. One day a cement truck was parked in front of the building, and a police patrol car arrived to ask the construction workers for identification. One of them phoned someone, and, after having a brief conversation, passed the device to the policeman: “Someone wants to talk to you.” “The policeman changed his expression, apologized, and they never bothered the workers again,” says a neighbor who asks for anonymity.
Thus, a name began to be repeated during the last few weeks by the neighbors. They dared to say that behind the project, headed by two American businessmen, was none other than Raúl Castro’s daughter. “There the meter is running, but it’s not for the Americans. That’s not theirs, but Mariela’s,” the residents said confidently, insisting they saw her on Friday inside the building.
True or not, no one saw Mariela Castro last Saturday, when the hotel was inaugurated and several unknown people were cleared. To begin with, its name: Tribe Caribbean Cayo Hueso (Key West).
On its webpage, where you can now book a room for 150 to 550 dollars a night — booking a full floor costs 1,000 — the “founders” appear: an American investor, Chris Cornell, and music producer Andrés Levín, born in Venezuela but with a US passport. In Cuba, Levin is known for participating in several cultural projects such as the Havana Biennale, in addition to his marriage to Cuban-American singer Cucú Diamantes.
Hence, he was the most recognizable figure on Saturday, at an unusual “neighborhood” inauguration party, which lasted six hours and included an exhibition by photographer Juan Carlos Alom, the sale of items by private businesses such as the Clandestina brand and musical performances. “Here in Cuba this is not allowed for just anyone,” commented a young man, who stopped humming what they were singing on the stage: El Necio [The Fool], by Silvio Rodríguez, to the rhythm of salsa.
Levín, with a cap and characteristic dark glasses, came and went, smiling, greeting with familiarity the neighbors gathered in front of the street stage, for whose installation the traffic on Aramburu Street between Neptune and San Miguel was closed off.
Nearby was a bus with the electronic sign “PROTOCOL” in capital letters, and the various Lada vehicles with drivers normally used by public officials, parked nearby, were obvious.
A group of young people dressed in T-shirts saying “Tribe Caribe” prevented people from entering the hotel and monitored the movements of the curious.
Tribe Caribe is a company registered on April 30, 2021, in Florida, with the address 1521 Alton Road 460, in Miami Beach. Levín and Cornell both appear as directors. The company, linked to the world of music, affirms that it “promotes and distributes exceptional original Caribbean content,” according to its website, and is “a proactive force, a voice and an educator in the continuous emergence of the rich cultural offerings of the Caribbean.”
On the hotel’s page, Chris Cornell points out that he is “a long-time professional entrepreneur and investor in arts, creative businesses and impact projects, who provides momentum and entrepreneurial spirit to the project,” and who “has directed all the important decisions of restoration, construction and design of the hotel, and is deeply aware of how these decisions affect the neighborhood, the local cultural identity and the preservation of the artistic heritage of Cayo Hueso.”
Of that mysterious investor, with unknown biography and background, there are no traces other than his alleged signature in the office in North Palm Beach, Florida, where the Tribe Caribe company was created. Of course, his name and surname coincide exactly with those of the famous singer of the Audioslave band, the first American rock group to play live in Cuba, in May 2005, at a venue none other than in the Anti-imperialist Bandstand, and for hundreds of thousands of fans on the Havana Malecón.
Levín emphasizes that he has been nominated for 26 Grammy awards — he won one in 2009 for the recording of the musical In the Heights — and that he has “propelled initiatives and produced numerous cultural events in Cuba, including TEDxHabana.”
Founder of the Afro-Cuban band Yerba Buena, the producer has collaborated, as mentioned on the official website, with artists such as Miguel Bosé, Aterciopelados, Orishas, David Byrne, Caetano Veloso, D’Angelo, Julieta Venegas and Tina Turner.
In addition, he is the producer of several film projects such as Amor crónico, directed in 2012 by the Cuban Jorge Perugorría, with whom he has a personal friendship, according to the photographs that show them together and messages.
An actor who prefers not to give his name and who was in business with Levin years ago, tells 14ymedio that both had agreed to collaborate on several projects, but that the producer cut off all communication after the artist’s participation in the demonstration on November 27, 2020 in front of the Ministry of Culture.
At that time, the actor attended two parties organized by Levín. One, in a house that he had rented in the municipality of Playa, near 5th Avenue, and another, in Siboney, where the mansions expropriated by the main architects of the Revolution are located, to celebrate the birthday of the producer’s father.
The source did not see, on any of these occasions, “anyone who was a heavyweight in politics,” but just “plain show business.”
But if he is associated with Mariela Castro, it is because Levín himself appears on social networks next to her, for example, in an “anti-homophobia” gala held in 2016. The Spanish singer Marta Sánchez, who performed on that occasion, also posted on Facebook about it: “Thank you Cuba for so much love and recognition! Thanks to Mariela Castro for that support to those who choose in this country to love as they want! Thanks to Andrés Levín for counting on me!”
In addition, the producer himself mentions Raúl Castro’s daughter in an interview granted in 2016 to Tablet, a magazine on issues of the Jewish community (the producers’s roots, whose parents, “very left-wing” according to their own description, were Argentines exiled in Caracas).
“It seems to me that I was at a dinner with you a few years ago and there were secret service people there and one of the Castros was with us or something like that. What happened?”, asks the interviewer, to which Levín replies that he does not remember well, but that it would surely have to do with the TEDxHabana event, in which he collaborated with “designers, programmers, artists and scientists” of the Cuban LGTBQ community.
“One of the most advanced LGBTQ sex education programs in Latin America is led by Mariela Castro,” says the musician, who recognises having collaborated with her “on many projects related to culture and education.”
And then Levín unravels into praise for the Cuban people, whom he affirms “have a lot of potential and desire to prosper and are very different from what people think,” and who have “things that most of the world doesn’t have”: “Healthcare and education. Eleven million educated people. It is the most educated country in the world,” he says.
Tribe Caribe Cayo Hueso is offered precisely as a cultural project: “We continue a 25-year mission to preserve and pay tribute to Afro-Cuban culture and its musical legacy, we celebrate multi-generational artistic expression, and we come to share our exclusive access to a side of Cuba that visitors and guests could not experience on their own.” Not a word about the business purposes, nor the obvious opulence that the project exudes, nestled in the depleted heart of Centro Habana.
Translated by Regina Anavy for Translating Cuba