I spent fourteen months from 2015-2016 in the army, completing the military service that, in Cuba, is obligatory. There I stopped being Alejandro. They suddenly converted me into Soldier Suárez Placeres: first shooter of the second platoon of the first company—which was known, as if it were a macabre joke, as the elite company—of one of the infantry battalions of the Occidental Army.
I found, in those days, a sliver of freedom in going to the post office of Mariel—the town where my military base was located—to pick up the newspaper. Few places have such a magical air as that coastal town. I knew that I was walking the same streets and seeing the same sea that many years before Ernest Hemingway had traversed. In that piece of land converged a great number of religious beliefs and traditions. Frequently, I would see some ritual being realized in the afternoon in the middle of the street, or I could enter the small bookshop that, – as a wonderful surprise, had important titles that were almost nonexistent in Cuba. Nevertheless, what most attracted everyone’s attention was, without a doubt, the Palacio de Rubens, which is popularly known as the Castillito del Mariel.
Few places have such a magical air as that coastal town. I knew that I was walking the same streets and seeing the same sea that many years before Ernest Hemingway had traversed.
The edification looks impressive situated on the Loma del Vigía, the tallest point of the town. The Palacio de Rubens is located within the military base. Its structure – despite the years it has weathered – served as a refuge in moments of rest, or as a space of peace, for us soldiers when we sat on its balconies and lost ourselves in silence observing the synchronized movements of the giant cranes of the port, as if they were huge, docile beasts of iron.
Many legends surround the palace and its rooms filled with ghosts. Some are so old that no one knows how they began, while others were the fruit of the invention of some soldiers with fertile imaginations. The most-told legend described a love story. A merchant sailor had constructed the palace and gifted it to the love of his life as irrefutable proof of his feelings. One afternoon, the sailor set out on his last journey before starting a life with his love. She thought would wait for him for a few months with her heart full of desire, and when he walked in through the door, she would trap him in her arms and never let him go again.
The building of the castle took place from 1905-1908, and it was supposed to function as a casino; however, Rubens never obtained the government permits required.
The ship, however, was surprised in the high seas by a storm and the sailor’s destiny was more ill-fated: the ship sank with no survivors. His love’s wait passed from months into years, and from years into a lifetime. The walls of the palace became darker and the air asphyxiating. The hug she had been planning to give her sailor since the supposedly temporary goodbye never occurred. Her sanity left her just like her sailor and she stayed forever waiting in a limitless loneliness. According to some, sometimes one could see her ghost standing on the balconies overlooking the sea, hoping that she would see her sailor’s ship on the horizon; and her screams, products of the unimaginable pain of lost love, can still be heard in the halls of the palace at night.
The historical studies and archives, on the other hand, tell a completely different tale that is undoubtedly less beautiful. Horacio Seymour Rubens was a lawyer born in New York in June of 1869. He was linked to the Cuban independence movement, becoming a leader of the legal defense of the immigrant Cuban cigar makers in Cayo Hueso in 1894, who were being persecuted and jailed for having declared a strike. He was also the legal advisor for the Cuban Revolutionary Party in the United States and defended the interests of the independentists on the island in the wake of the boat seizures of the Fernandina Plan. During the military intervention he became the commissioner of the revision of codes and laws, finances and elections, and defended the American monopolies in Cuba during the Republic, to which he had always been linked. It was precisely Horacio Rubens who was responsible for the construction of the palace.
The building of the castle took place from 1905-1908, and it was supposed to function as a casino; however, Rubens never obtained the government permits required. The palace was without purpose for many years, until there was an attempt to use it as a hospital for lepers. Nevertheless, the position of the castle on such high ground made it difficult to bring water to it, making it impossible to function as a hospital. In 1912, it was bought by a woman from el Vedado, who never gave it a use, either.
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With the foundation of the National Marina of War, there was a petition to the Major General of the Liberatory Army, Mario García Menocal—who was president of the Republic of Cuba at the time—to use the Palacio de Rubens as an academy to train personnel because though it had an owner, it was in total disuse. Menocal ordered that it be bought or confiscated.
There is no record of how the National Marina of War became the proprietor of the palace, as with the overthrow of Gerardo Machado in August 1933 all the archives of Mariel’s city hall were burned. However, it is known that in 1916 the government took over the palace, beginning classes after making the necessary modifications at the beginning of 1917. In 1936, edifications around the castle were built to expand the academy, and it was around this time that the staircase was built. The Naval Academy was located there until 1977, when the palace again fell into disuse. Today, it is still abandoned.
On the interior walls of the castle shine, like scars of war, thousands of poems and graffiti that soldiers have left as a demonstration of their desire for freedom, or like signals that will never reach their lovers.
The staircase of the Palacio de Rubens reaches from the skirt of the Loma de Vigía and winds up to its highest point with 264 steps, before opening into the entrance of the castle which, like a fantastic beast, devours it. On the first level is an interior courtyard, and on its floor extends a compass rose pointing north with a fleur-de-lis. On rainy afternoons, the water runs down the columns and falls onto the patio from the eaves, torrents of water and anguish that hit us in the chest and the centenary structure of the castle, which is three stories high. On the fourth floor is the observatory where on the ceiling some constellations are drawn, as if it were a second night sky. From the window one can see the infinite ocean. The robotic movements of the port are a tired spectacle that seem to be an extension of the solitude that the castle gives off.
On the interior walls of the castle shine, like scars of war, thousands of poems and graffiti that soldiers have left as a demonstration of their desire for freedom, or like signals that will never reach their lovers. Some of the castle’s rooms serve only as small warehouses or, better said, trash rooms for the military base. The marble used to make the interior stairs has almost completely disappeared because of the activities of thieves. The staircase is practically destroyed because of the erosion of the hill and the torrential rains, although undoubtedly, the excavations conducted by the military have played a part in this as well. Although huge cracks run through the walls of the castle, and many towers have crumbled, the palace is still standing, defying hundreds of years and abuse, a remarkable accomplishment.
The Palacio de Rubens persists at the top of the Loma de Vigía, and whoever sees it is infected with a deep sadness, and becomes strangely enchanted by its mysterious beauty. The solitude that surrounds it, the ghosts that walk through its halls, the legends that its walls cover, the cracks that grow in its structure, make the anguish of this castle a cry of love and loss. A beautiful and sad palace on the edge of collapse, as if it were a distant House of Usher that intones a song of death.