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Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction

Ever since Columbus first stepped foot on Cuban soil and called it the “loveliest land that human eyes have ever seen,” visitors have pictured the island as a veritable Eden. Promising Paradise showed how twentieth‐century Cubans drew from a variety of sources—Spanish colonial heritage, Caribbean culture, and Afro‐Cuban music and dance—to forge new identities designed to appeal to both national pride and American tourists, who began visiting in large numbers after the First World War. Between 1919 and the 1959 revolution, the Cuban Tourist Commission, along with artists, graphic designers, photographers, and performers, contributed to shaping Cuba’s image as both a vibrant, modern nation and a tropical playground. Photographs, posters, and promotional literature promised visitors warm winter breezes; the sweetness of sugar, the scent of tobacco, and the flavor of rum; the rhythms of rumba, mambo, and Afro‐Cuban jazz; the comfort of glamorous hotels; and the excitement of Havana’s casinos, nightclubs, and other entertainments. Music and dance were especially fertile grounds for defining what it meant to be Cuban, drawing visitors to the island while “Cubanizing” the music scene in the United States. Drawn primarily from a gift made by Vicki Gold Levi consisting of more than one thousand photographs and printed ephemera, this exhibition examined how Cubans and Americans encountered and imagined each other and highlighted the rich cultural exchanges that resulted.

Promising Paradise was organized by The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, curated by Frank Luca and Rosa Lowinger, and made possible by: Vicki Gold Levi and Dr. Alexander Levi; Bacardi USA, Inc.; Arthur Murray International; Terra Group; Trina Turk; Brickell Bank; Marsh & McLennan Agency; AIG; BankUnited; Dr. Felipe Del Valle M.D. P.A.; and the Cuban Research Institute at FIU. We gratefully acknowledge Gold Levi for her donation of objects from Cuba that inspired this show.


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"A dazzling array of artifacts" . . . "feast your eyes."

Also covered by:

  • Metropolis
  • Modern Magazine
  • Ocean Drive
  • The New York Times


With writing by curators Frank Luca and Rosa Lowinger

  • Cubanness

    During the decades after the independent Cuban Republic was established in 1902, intellectuals, artists, and tourism promoters alike wrestled with the question of what it meant to be Cuban. Patriotic pride, the legacy of Spanish colonialism, Afro‐Cuban culture, and the influence of the United States all combined to shape the identity of the young nation. The people’s love for sports and games of chance reflected this mixing of influences, with gambling, cockfights, jai alai, baseball, boxing, and dominoes vying for popularity. Cuban and American architects and builders worked collaboratively on many projects, generally favoring modernist trends popular in the United States and Europe over colonial styles. For their part, nationalist intellectuals and artists looked to Afro‐Cuban music and dance for an authentic expression of Cubanidad (Cubanness).

    Cuban Commodities

    A number of commodities, especially sugar and tobacco, have helped shape Cuban society and culture. The cultivation and processing of sugar fueled an insatiable demand for African labor during the era of slavery, and it remained the top export well into the twentieth century, with important byproducts such as rum and molasses. Originally cultivated by indigenous peoples, tobacco became the second most important export, and Cuban cigars were recognized as the best in the world. Coffee and a wide variety of tropical fruits were also key exports for the American market. Photographers and artists drew inspiration from the people who cultivated, sold, and processed these commodities as icons of Cuban identity. Photographers aimed for social realism in their images of cane cutters, tobacco rollers, and street vendors, while commercial illustrators often romanticized these workers. Tobacco advertisers and cigar box label designers associated their product with its Indian originators, or with gambling, music and dance, and beautiful women of Spanish heritage.


    Havana had hosted annual Carnival celebrations when Catholic Spain ruled the island and continued to do so during the republican era. Between 1926 and 1931, these Carnival festivities, balls, and spontaneous street performances were transformed by the government into parades, pageants, and productions that drew thousands of tourists each winter season. City officials repeatedly banned African drums and dances from the events, but the popularity of the raucous, colorfully costumed Afro‐Cuban comparsas rendered these bans unenforceable. The chic Havana department store El Encanto even sold Carnival outfits to vacationing tourists interested in participating rather than watching from the grandstands. Carnival was a major theme in both fine art and tourism advertising. Artists and graphic designers alike depicted Afro‐Cuban revelry on the streets. But tourism promoters also sold the appeal of Carnival to U.S. audiences through imagery that emphasized Cuba’s Spanish traditions, sometimes featuring women coquettishly peering out from behind a fan.

    Popular Music and Dance

    In the early twentieth century, the Cuban Republic labeled the sacred ceremonies of the Afro‐Cuban religions Santería, Palo Monte, and Abakuá as “barbaric.” The government discouraged the use of musical instruments associated with these rituals, such as bongo drums and maracas. Certain musical traditions, including the comparsa de congas celebrations performed by poor urban black and mixed‐race people during Carnival, were forbidden in Santiago de Cuba and Havana well into the early 1920s. Later in the 1920s and in the next decade, however, Cuban artists and intellectuals had reclaimed Afro‐Cuban music and other traditions as defining elements of the nation’s culture. Within a few years, the government funded National Tourist Commission began actively promoting comparsas and Afro‐Cuban musical festivals, and rumba dancers frequently appeared on the cover of the popular magazine Carteles. Although racial prejudice was prevalent in both Cuba and the United States in this period, American advertisements more typically stereotyped persons of African heritage than did material published in Cuba.

    Independence and Interdependence

    National pride centered on the figure of Cuban poet, intellectual, and independence activist José Martí. While Cuban patriots celebrated their independence with images of Martí and la República and flag‐inspired fashion statements, the country’s close ties to the United States came across in Cuban‐orchestrated spectacles, parades, and magazine cover illustrations. Even the neoclassical capitol building erected in Havana during Gerardo Machado’s presidency to proclaim the country’s independence bears a close resemblance to the U.S. Capitol.

    Cuban Pastimes

    Cubans developed a legendary appetite for gambling during the first decades of the republican period. Many played the lottery or the illegal numbers game la bolita, which was especially popular among the poor and working classes. The penchant for betting extended to horse races, cockfights, and other sporting events. Chess was a popular pastime, while dominoes was a passion. Cubans also loved to bet on jai alai matches, a sport originating among Spain’s Basques, and were avid fans of boxing and baseball, which were as popular on the island as in the United States.

    Modernizing Havana

    American investors and engineers influenced the development of early twentieth‐century Havana, and Cuban city planners and architects fully embraced the modernist architectural styles popular in the United States and Europe. While a Spanish colonial structure—the sixteenth‐century El Morro fortress—is arguably the city’s most prominent landmark, Havana’s most defining feature is the Malecón, a seven‐kilometer seaside promenade that was begun during U.S. military rule in 1901. Extended by subsequent administrations all the way to the Almendares River, the promenade is punctuated by memorials. Before the onset of the Great Depression, Secretary of Public Works Carlos Miguel de Céspedes pushed forward important sanitation, highway, and other infrastructure projects, and in the 1950s, some of the most modern hotels and structures in the world were erected in the Cuban capital.

  • Cocktail Time in Cuba

    During the First World War (1914–18), U.S. investors scouted Cuba’s potential as a vacation destination for the wealthy. American travelers began to arrive in the 1920s, drawn to the island by modest postwar steamship fares, beaches untouched by winter frosts, and upscale amenities such as Oriental Park, a thoroughbred horse racetrack, and yacht, golf, and tennis clubs. After Prohibition took effect in the United States in 1920, Americans were attracted to Havana as a city that billed itself as an exotic, hassle‐free place to drink and gamble. Although tourism dropped off significantly during the Great Depression and Second World War, Cuban posters and travel brochures and Hollywood movies continued to portray the island as a dreamy tropical playground. These marketing efforts bore fruit after the Second World War, when middleclass visitors flocked to Havana to see its glamorous nightlife for themselves.

    Touring Cuba by Sea, Air, and Automobile

    Travel between the United States and Cuba was easy and inexpensive between 1919 and 1959. Steamship companies offered cheap fares to the island, and ferry service even allowed travelers to bring their cars. In the late 1920s, Pan American Airways took advantage of U.S. government subsidies and incentives to pioneer new routes to Latin America, including from Key West and Miami to Havana. The development of larger, long‐distance planes during the Second World War allowed for direct travel to Havana from New York and other American cities. After the war, middle‐class tourists, who could now afford quick trips that in the 1920s and 1930s had been available only to the wealthy, began to travel to the island. Cuba and the Caribbean became ideal destinations for vacationers–close to home, yet exotic.

    High Society in Havana

    Between 1924 and 1931, Cuba experienced a surge in tourism, with tens of thousands of Americans arriving each winter. These mostly affluent, luxury‐loving visitors enjoyed golf and tennis, betting on roulette and horseracing, lounging at the stylish La Playa beach resort, dancing and sipping daiquiris at the rooftop garden of the Sevilla‐Biltmore Hotel, or simply taking a romantic stroll along the Malecón. By the decade’s end, Habaneros began encountering more budget‐conscious travelers among the six hundred thousand Americans who came between 1928 and 1932—that is, until the Great Depression and growing social strife on the island reversed the trend. When socialites from the United States began to arrive like migratory “ducks” in the winter, illustrators and satirists such as Conrado Massaguer and Andrés García Benítez created witty depictions of the visitors’ real or imagined encounters with Habaneros. Illustrations sponsored by the Cuban Tourist Commission or American advertisers invariably portrayed vacationers as graceful and debonair, but the covers of popular Spanish‐language magazines offered a more comical and critical view of tourists and their interactions with Afro‐Cubans.

    Prohibition and Tourism

    In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Because Americans could no longer legally drink at home, “thirsty” tourists began flocking to the island of rum, rumba, and roulette. New bars and drinking establishments popped up all over Havana, and notable American saloon owners, such as Ed Donovan and Pat Cody, relocated there—competing with corner bodegas, which sold groceries and tobacco while serving food and drink. In the late 1920s, there were more than seven thousand bars in the city. Tourism advertisements, photographs, and even the cover art and lyrics of sheet music left no doubt that Havana was the place where serious drinkers should go. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but by then Havana’s reputation as a world‐class vacation destination for lovers of spirits and gambling was firmly established.

    Sloppy Joe's Bar and El Floridita

    A native of Spain, the well‐traveled barman José García settled in Havana in 1919, soon after the passage of Prohibition in the United States. García opened a bodega on the corner of Zulueta and Animas Streets. The establishment’s carefree atmosphere earned it the nickname Sloppy Joe’s, and it became popular with Ernest Hemingway, and other American celebrities and tourists. El Floridita, a high‐end restaurant and cocktail bar famous for its seafood and frozen daiquiris, was another favorite haunt of Hemingway and vacationers.

    A Party with Bacardi

    During the era of Prohibition (1919–1933), the only cocktails available in the United States were in illegal speakeasies—where no amount of honey or fruit juice could mask the bitter flavor of cheap spirits. In Cuba, on the other hand, good rum was easy to come by. Originally consumed by plantation slaves, sailors, and pirates in the seventeenth‐century Caribbean, rum was rebranded as a gentleman’s drink after the enterprising Bacardí family worked to filter, distill, and age it in oak barrels. The cuba libre (rum and Coke), created after the Spanish–American War of 1898, remained popular in the twentieth century, but it was the daiquiri (named for the town in eastern Cuba where it originated) that won tourists’ hearts in the 1920s and after. Facundo Bacardí’s recipe entailed squeezing half a lime onto a teaspoon of sugar, adding a shot of Bacardí rum, and mixing the ingredients in an ice‐filled cocktail shaker until the outside was frosted. The drink was then served in a tall, chilled wine glass or flute filled with shaved ice.

    Gambling on the Gamblers

    In 1915, Harry (“Curly”) Brown invested in Cuba’s potential to become a winter retreat for horseracing enthusiasts by opening Oriental Park in the Marianao suburb of Havana. After the First World War, other American investors and wellconnected Cuban politicians followed suit, and the national legislature passed a 1919 tourism promotion bill that authorized several gambling ventures. Thus were born the Gran Casino Nacional de Marianao and Havana’s fame as the “Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere.” In the 1950s, a scandal broke after influential tourists complained about being cheated in “razzle‐dazzle” scams. President Fulgencio Batista invited his friend Meyer Lansky, a mobster and gambling impresario, to come in and clean house. Lansky and his associates, recognizing that a perception of honesty was essential to the popularity of games in which the house always won anyway, imported American croupiers, trained locals, and enforced fair gaming practices.

    Building Booms

    American investors and politically connected Cubans often worked together to build the highways and hotels needed to accommodate the increasing number of visitors, especially in the 1920s and 1950s. Fulgencio Batista, who took the presidency by military coup in 1952, established the Bank for Economic and Social Development, which provided approximately half the capital expended in new hotel construction over the rest of the decade. Batista also encouraged foreign investment in new hotels and renovations by offering casino concessions to those committing one million dollars or more—an offer his U.S. mob associates eagerly accepted. As a result, hotel room capacity doubled between 1955 and 1958, with the Cuban hospitality industry union financing a joint venture with Hilton Hotels International and Meyer Lansky clandestinely funding the building of the chic Havana Riviera.

    Shopper's Paradise

    Shopping went hand‐in‐hand with travel, which resulted in a thriving industry in Cuban‐themed souvenirs, including ashtrays, scarves, castanets, maracas, and handbags made of alligator skin and palm straw. Beyond the trade in tourist trinkets, Havana had high‐end shops and department stores, such as El Encanto, that catered to Cubans and foreigners alike. Wealthy and middle‐class Cubans also frequently traveled to the United States on special shopping junkets, such as the ones advertised in The Seahorse, a shoppers’ guide to Miami published by the P&O Steamship Line.

  • Nightlife

    Nightlife was the lifeblood of mid‐twentieth‐century Havana. Cabarets and bars were present throughout the city, showcasing the best of Cuba’s wildly popular music and dance scene, performers who became internationally famous, and venues whose design and architectural styles expressed the nation’s modern spirit. Like Paris in the 1890s and Berlin in the 1920s, Havana garnered a reputation for being an all‐night city, the original “what happens here, stays here” location, with clubs and bars to suit all price ranges and predilections. Nightclub extravaganzas and posh cabarets, such as the Copa Room in the Riviera Hotel, marketed primarily to the wealthier tourist trade; locals tended to favor the dozens of smaller venues found in urban basements, on the road to the airport, and along the coast. Typically, these clubs stayed open until three or four in the morning. Their mainstays were live music and dancing to the new rhythms of the day—the lightning‐speed mambo and the tamer cha‐cha‐cha.

    Cuban Performers

    Cuba’s capital resounded with musical groups ranging from septets, sextets, and the larger conjuntos that featured African‐derived percussive instruments alongside brass, piano, and guitar. The music gave rise to local singing stars such as the Trio Matamoros, Rita Montaner, “Bola de Nieve” (Ignacio Villa), Miguelito
    Valdés, Celia Cruz, Celeste Mendoza, and Olga Guillot, to name but a few. These artists were featured on Cuban radio stations, which opened as early as 1922, and later on television. By the 1940s, they began to play in the United States, especially New York, where the sounds of congas, maracas, and the tres (a guitarlike, six‐stringed instrument whose sound defined the son) could be heard from Broadway to Harlem.

    Sans Souci, Montmartre, and the Parisien

    Among Havana’s top‐tier clubs were Sans Souci, Montmartre, and the Parisien at the Hotel Nacional. These nightclubs had extravagant revues with star headliners (such as Marlene Dietrich, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, and Cab Calloway), and casts of dancers and showgirls. With music provided by forty‐piece swing bands alternating with Cuban conjuntos, the venues catered to wealthy tourists and an upper echelon of Cuban society that celebrated weddings, anniversaries, and quinceañeras there. The nightclub business was fueled not just by entertainers, but also by casinos—many owned or clandestinely operated by American mobsters. The Montmartre and Parisien were under Jake and Meyer Lansky’s control, while the Tampa mobster Santo Trafficante, Jr. took over operations at Sans Souci from Norman Rothman, another American organized crime figure.

    Paradise Under the Stars

    Havana’s premier casino‐cabaret was the Tropicana, a suburban venue and the brainchild of Víctor de Correa, who had founded the Eden Concert nightclub in the 1930s. The club’s heyday began after 1950, when gambler and impresario Martín Fox purchased the property and added new structures considered to be the finest modern architecture in midcentury Cuba. These included the legendary 1952 glass and concrete‐walled indoor nightclub Arcos de Cristal (Crystal Arches), designed by the American‐educated architect Max Borges Recio (Cuban, 1918–2009). An outdoor performance space completed the following year, Bajo las Estrellas (Under the Stars), featured a modern abstract sculpture set among trees and catwalks where showgirls paraded. Nicknamed “Paradise under the Stars,” the nightclub hosted celebrities such as Nat King Cole, who rumbaed in the dressing room with the performers; Liberace, who dined on a table decorated to resemble a piano; and Joan Crawford, who visited the club during her honeymoon with PepsiCo chairman Alfred Steele.

    Tropicana Nights

    Tropicana’s undisputed genius was its cantankerous, sharp‐witted choreographer Roderico (“Rodney”) Neyra. He staged two blockbuster revues each night, and changed the shows every three months, with themes as far‐flung as Italian light opera, Mexican folklore, and the Japanese tea ceremony. Rodney’s most famous annual production was the reenactment of a toque de santo, a ceremony in which initiates are possessed by the spirit of the Afro‐Cuban deities, known as orishas. Gambling revenues from the club’s casino and the underground bolita bank run by Martín Fox funded the elaborate productions and allowed costly costumes to be imported from Europe, internationally renowned entertainers to be booked, and dancers to be recruited from as far away as Singapore. Stars such as Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, and the greats of Cuban music—including Olga Guillot, Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve, Celeste Mendoza, Miguelito Valdés, and conguero and Dizzy Gillespie collaborator Chano Pozo—performed in these productions.

    Local Venues

    The city’s music and dance scene thrived in dozens of smaller venues, including the Bambu Club and the Ali Bar, located along the road to the airport, where the great bolero singer Benny Moré had a regular gig. These were mainly rustic joints featuring live music and a show that might consist of a simple four‐piece conjunto and a pair of dancers. Unlike the elaborate restaurants of the casino‐cabarets, these locales primarily offered only drinks and saladitos—something salty to keep you drinking well into the night. Though over time they began advertising to the growing tourist trade, these venues were mainly for local people, serving as favorite after‐hours hangouts for performers who worked at the larger nightclubs.

    Body Culture

    Provocative physical sensuality was a mainstay of Cuba’s mid‐century nightlife. Bodybuilders, dancers, and showgirls whose entire job was to sashay seductively onstage were celebrated in television advertisements and magazines and on carnival floats. Tropicana’s star choreographer, Rodney, selected showgirls with figures shaped like una guitarra—a guitar—which meant wasp waists with wide hips and thighs. For male thrill‐seekers interested in more revealing shows of flesh, Havana offered burlesque and striptease acts at the Folies Bergere or the infamous Teatro Shanghai, as well as even more explicit entertainment where—according to a 1929 guidebook—the “salaciously inclined may witness startling scenes in the flesh or by means of moving pictures.”

  • The Cuban-American Experience

    Cuba and the United States were both shaped by the close cultural ties established during this period. Even as Havana marketed itself as a sophisticated “Monte Carlo of the tropics” to attract tourists, Cuban performers created a music scene as vibrant—and exportable—as American jazz. Hollywood film and television promoted the country’s image of tropical glamour, while celebrities such as Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, and Celia Cruz helped to spread Cuban music and dance crazes. The popularity of rumba, Afro‐Cuban jazz, mambo, and cha‐cha‐cha spawned unique musical fusions and inspired the proliferation of Cuban‐inspired nightclubs across the United States. Although Cuba‐U.S. diplomatic relations ended soon after the revolutionaries took power in Cuba in 1959, the impact of these two cultures on one another has proven indelible.

    American Celebrities in Cuba

    Both American and Cuban tourism promoters recognized the important role that movie stars and other celebrities had in influencing public opinion. Hollywood producers made sure that famous actors and actresses starring in films set in Cuba were photographed at landmarks or hotspots in Havana. Visits to Cuba by American models or movie stars always turned heads and generated good publicity.

    Cuban Music in Film

    While wealthy socialites frequented Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s, other Americans experienced Cuba vicariously on the silver screen. Hollywood’s fascination with Cuban music began early with musical romances such as The Cuban Love Song (1931), starring Lupe Velez; Rumba (1935), starring George Raft and Carole Lombard; and Week‐End in Havana (1941), featuring Carmen Miranda and Cesar Romero. Most of these productions were light on plot and heavy on music and dance numbers—they come across as thinly disguised travel advertisements. These films and their successors in the
    late 1940s and 1950s—including Luxury Liner (1948), featuring the Xavier Cugat Orchestra; Holiday in Havana (1949), pairing Desi Arnaz with Mary Hatcher; and Cha‐Cha‐Cha Boom! (1956), starring bandleader Pérez Prado—introduced Latin American stars to a U.S. audience and fanned the flames of the Cuban music craze in the country.

    Hollywood's Love Affair with Cuba

    Hollywood films encouraged Americans to travel to Cuba both physically and vicariously. Musical romances from the 1930s through the 1950s introduced American audiences to the people, culture, and music of Cuba, often refashioning Cuban rhythms to conform to American preferences. Mexican actress Lupe Vélez describes the supposed origins of the popular hit song “The Peanut Vendor,” in The Cuban Love Song; while American actress Jane Powell dresses up the same tune with operatic trills in Luxury Liner; Pan‐Americana presents Miguelito Valdés, Cuba’s original “Mr. Babalú,” singing his signature song “Babalú‐Ayé”; Affair in Havana marks the Hollywood debut of singer Celia Cruz; Cha‐Cha‐Cha Boom! features band leader Pérez Prado bringing the mambo to New York; and in an episode of I Love Lucy, American comedian Lucille Ball travels to Havana to provide a comic lesson in cigar‐rolling.

    Musical Fusion

    Cuban and North American dance and music were transformed as they encountered one another. Rumba, a sensual Afro‐Cuban phenomenon originating in 1920s and 1930s Havana, inspired a stylish ballroom dance taught to Americans—along with mambo and cha‐cha‐cha—at such establishments as the Arthur Murray Dance Studios. Percussionist and composer Chano Pozo traveled to the United States in 1948 and collaborated with legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on the creation of Afro‐Cuban jazz. Cuban musicians Machito, Mario Bauzá, and René Hernández brought mambo to New York City, where it was embraced at popular venues such as the Palladium, which featured mambo contests on Wednesday nights. Cuban‐inspired music became the rage in dance clubs that popped up in nearly all major American cities. Mambo also was reinterpreted by American composers and singers, such as Perry Como in “Papa Loves Mambo” and Rosemary Clooney in her hit “Mambo Italiano.”

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Selected Works: Promising Paradise

For complete caption information, click on the image to view each object on Flickr.

Recommended Reading

  • Dick Cluster and Rafael Hernández, The History of Havana (2008)
  • Vicki Gold Levi and Steven Heller, Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design (2002)
  • Rosa Lowinger and Ofelia Fox, Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub (2016)
  • Helio Orovio, Cuban Music from A to Z (2004)
  • T. Philip Perry, Terry’s Guide to Cuba, Including the Isle of Pines, with a Chapter on the Airways and the Ocean Routes to the Island: A Handbook for Travelers (rev. ed., 1929)
  • Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, The Havana Guide, Modern Architecture 1925–1965 (2000)
  • Joseph L. Scarpaci, Roberto Segre, and Mario Coyula, Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis (rev. ed, 2002)
  • Rosalie Schwartz, Pleasure Island: Tourism and Temptation in Cuba (1999)
  • Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004)
  • Basil Woon, When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba (1928)