Carlos Aponte and the Hotel Sevilla
There is one thing Cubans and EstadoUnidenses alike seem to agree on, and that is that the embargo must and will end, and that soon.
The feeling that the current People-to-People and other licensed tours are just a trickle of what will soon become a flood seems, like it or not, nearly unanimous. Witness two articles that recently appeared in the New York Times Sunday newspaper: one on where to find good restaurants in Havana, and the second on buildings in Havana that were designed by U.S. architects before the Revolution. The latter article has a slideshow featuring some of Havana’s most beautiful buildings, but it also reinforces the typically EstadoUnidense idea that the end of the embargo will mean that Cuba will become an extension of the U.S. itself. Like Key West, but with a Latin flair, or like Puerto Rico, but cheaper.
The confident tone of possessiveness makes me think back to a newspaper story I read when I was a teenager, a story that has always stayed with me and was part of what made me want to see Cuba. The article was by Richard Harding Davis, sometimes dubbed a “yellow journalist” for his romantic style.
He wrote this piece in 1897 for Hearst’s New Journal. "The Death of Rodriguez" describes the execution of a Cuban peasant, less than twenty years old, fusilladed to death for rising up against the oppressors of his day. It comes from Davis’s larger work, Cuba in Wartime, about the Spanish American war of 1898.
You can read The Death of Rodriguez here.
The story vividly expresses a very Cuban characteristic, an almost medieval quality of being rooted to the very land and soil they were born in, a quality that us nomadic EstadoUnidenses who see our homes primarily as investments are hard put to understand.
Like the peasant Rodriguez, Aponte, though exiled from Venezuela the last eleven years of his life, had a similar feeling about fighting for the liberty of Venezuela, a battle he waged at every opportunity, using anything that came to hand as a weapon, from his belt to the media. One of his most well known battles of this type occurred at the Hotel Sevilla in old Havana.
One side of the hotel faces the Paseo del Prado, a long pedestrian walk edged by trees, perfect for enjoying the Caribbean breezes on a hot summer evening.
The hotel itself is one of those buildings mentioned in the article of U.S. architectural influences on Havana because it was renovated by American architects after it was purchased by an American company.
It has a fabulous penthouse dining room with some of the best views in the city. Here is a picture of diners in that room from 1924.
1924 is the same year that Carlos Aponte arrived in Cuba, an exile from the Gomez dictatorship in his native Venezuela. He started out working at a bar in Santiago, but quarreled with his employer because he refused to take tips from the impoverished peasants that frequented the bar. In order to avoid further altercation he went to Havana where he joined a community of other exiles from the Venezuelan dictatorship. José Antonio Quintana García, in his book, A Paso Vivo: Carlos Aponte en Cuba, details Aponte’s adventures in Cuba. He takes special pleasure in describing Aponte’s penchant for getting into high profile spats which would then send him into hiding. One of his most well known encounters was with Vallenilla Lanz at the Hotel Sevilla.
Laureano Vallenilla Lanz was in his mid-fifties at the time of the encounter. He had held various political positions in Venezuela, including head of the Venezuelan Senate from in 1920 and again in 1923. At the time he ran afoul of Aponte, in 1927, his main utility to the Gomez regime was as its propagandist. As editor of the El Nuevo Diario from 1915 to 1931, he was the unofficial spokesman for the Gomez dictatorship. As if that weren’t bad enough, in 1919 he published a book now considered a classic of Latin American positivism entitled Democratic Cesarism, in which he argued that Venezuelan history and the collective evolution of the Venezuelan people from colonial times on left them in need a dictatorial leader, a “necessary gendarme,” as they could not think for themselves.
Starved for news of his native country, Carlos Aponte must have read El Nuevo Diario and heard reports of the dictatorship’s iniquities from other exiles. Quintana García quotes Francisco Laguado Jayme, another Venezuelan revolutionary who would later be assasinated in Havana in March of 1929. Jayme wrote that Vallenilla Lanz was the one who put the “delinquent ideas” into the mind of the “obtuse dictator” who simply carried them out, leading to “death, dishonor, assassination, perscution and exile suffered by the Venezuelan people.”
Vallenilla Lanz had stopped in Cuba briefly, on his way to Germany where he was going to get medical care. When he arrived in Cuba he was received with full ceremony by the Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba, and the event was covered by the press, leaving the community of Venezuelan exiles in a rage. Aponte had to do something about it and came up with a plan. His friends advised him against it, since the Venezuelan ambassador had a close relationship with the Cuban government, but Aponte didn’t listen.
On May 25, 1927, he carried out his plan, and waited for Vallenilla Lanz at the door of the Seville Hotel, on the side of the Moorish facade designed by Antonio and Rogelio Rodriguez and inspired by the Lion’s courtyard in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Aponte waited until Vallenilla Lanz returned from some dinner engagement late in the evening, and when he saw him arriving he pulled off his leather belt, folded it over, approached Vallenilla Lanz and whipped him multiple times across each side of the face, until Vallenilla Lanz fell down and fainted, more out of shock than real injury. The hotel security guard, not having witnessed what happened, held both of them until the police arrived; the officer that came was no less than General Pablo Mendieta, chief of the Cuban National Police, (Mendieta’s involvement might by apocryphal) who released Vallenilla and took Aponte to the police station. Vallenilla Lanz’s cronies wanted to have Aponte extradited back to Venezuela, which would have meant a sure death sentence, but his friends intervened – some had connections at the police station – and changed the penalty to a fine. Aponte left for Mexico the next day, in the company of the Mexican ambassador to Cuba, according to an article written by Pablo de la Torriente Brau, Aponte’s friend, that appeared in El Mundo.
The event shows Aponte’s capacity for rage, righteous indignation, recklessness and aggression, but it also shows that he knew how to fight fire with fire: Vallenilla Lanz was a propagandist, but the fact that he had been whipped in public by an exile, as if he were a recalcitrant mule, made all the papers. Some newspapers, like Diario de la Marina, on May 26, claimed that Vallenilla’s Lanz’s son had come to his defense by throwing a camera at Aponte from the car, hit Aponte in the face and gave him a split lip. Quintana Garcia doesn’t give this story any credence. El Mundo, on the same day, claimed that Vallenilla Lanz refused to go to the police station and simply handed Aponte his business card which showed he was in the country on diplomatic business, another story Quintana Garcia discredits. The magazine America Libre published a long editorial applauding Aponte’s actions and pointing out the role of intellectuals and writers like Vallenilla and who collaborated with the Gomez regime.
Yellow journalism is often credited for propelling the U.S. into the Spanish-American War, which is considered the first media driven war. Thirty years after that war revolutionaries like Aponte showed that they had learned well the value of media in their efforts and the value of manipulating it. The event also shows us multiple aspects of Aponte's character: aggressive, filled with righteous indignation, a good manipulator of people and press, a homesick exile with a wicked sense of humor.
References: A Paso Vivo: Carlos Aponte en Cuba, José Antonio Quintana García, Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial Oriente, 2008. www.cubaliteraria.com