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Historic saloon rises from ruins

A half-century later, Jose Rafa Malem remembers the balmy breezes blowing through the bar's arching porticos, the grain of the tall wood stools, the whiff of Pedro Domecq brandy on his father's breath.

And how could he forget the tangy ground-beef-and-tomato-sauce sandwiches synonymous with what was then one of Havana's hippest hangouts, playfully dubbed Sloppy Joe's? "I ate so many, I got tired of them," said Rafa, a 59-year-old Havana native who grew up to become a bartender.

Soon, Rafa will be able to relive those boyhood memories as the original Sloppy Joe's reopens in Havana's historic quarter, giving residents and tourists from all over the chance to belly up to the same bar that served thirsty celebrities such as Rock Hudson, Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway.

It's part of an ambitious revitalization project by the Havana City Historian's Office, which since the 1990s has transformed block after block of crumbling ruins into rehabilitated buildings along vibrant cobblestone streets.

The effort has helped finance Cuba's socialist present by drawing tourists fascinated by its pre-socialist past, from colonial palaces of the 18th century to celebrity hangouts of the 1950s.

"For the people of this city, I think it's very interesting and very important to rescue a place that has so much history and is so recognized around the world," said Ernesto Iznaga, manager of the born-again Joe's, which will be run by state-owned tourism concern Habaguanex. "To restore it to how it was before."

The Canadian Press


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