BUENOS AIRES – Cafe Tortoni has survived various crises during its 150-year history.
It remained open despite a yellow fever epidemic in the Argentine capital that claimed the lives of thousands of people in 1871, violent disturbances outside the establishment during the severe 2001 financial crisis and the heavy hand of multiple dictatorships.
Only COVID-19 has managed to impose silence on the establishment, as has also been the case at other iconic, decades-old bars and cafes throughout Latin America.
Inaugurated in 1858, Cafe Tortoni’s clientele has included acclaimed authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Alfonsina Storni and Federico Garcia Lorca, as well as painter Benito Quinquela Martin and tango icon Carlos Gardel.
Maximiliano Zecca, one of its current waiters, now wonders if the spirits of any of those artists might be watching over the place during the months-long coronavirus crisis.
“I hope they’re hovering about,” he said, “and lending us a hand.”
Just 42 years younger than the republic itself, Cafe Tortoni has been a witness to key moments in Argentina’s history.
“People died here on the corner,” Zecca said of the tensest days of the 2001 crisis, when Cafe Tortoni had to close shop briefly due to clashes between demonstrators and police on Avenida de Mayo. Numerous customers and employees remained inside the establishment while the violence was raging, but the cafe opened as usual the following day.
“Let’s hope it lasts another 162 years. That’s why we’re all standing tall in this situation; El Tortoni is pure history,” said the waiter, who is already preparing the main hall for its long-awaited reopening, although its former 300-person capacity will have to be reduced to just 70, with the tables separated by a distance of two meters (6.5 feet).
Like Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires, Cafe Lamas in Rio de Janeiro, Cafe Brasilero in Montevideo, El Floridita in Havana, Salon Malaga in Medellin and Cafe La Habana in Mexico have been temporarily shuttered along with thousands of other non-essential businesses worldwide during the pandemic.
Prior to the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns, Cafe Lamas had only closed its doors on two other occasions: during the 1904 Vaccine Revolt and after the August 1954 suicide of President Getulio Vargas, who had been one of that establishment’s most loyal clients.
It stayed open throughout the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, the hyperinflation of the early 1990s and the deep economic recession of 2015 and 2016.
Always a sober and discreet cafe, Cafe Lamas began operating on April 4, 1874, in the Largo do Machado square at the border of the Flamengo and Larangeiras neighborhoods on Rio’s south side.
A popular gathering place for the Brazilian jet set, it has always been closely linked with the world of politics.
Some of its customers have been presidents – Eurico Gaspar Dutra, Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira and Itamar Franco. But Vargas, who governed from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954, was the most famous of them all.
“Lamas was located in Largo do Machado and the (presidential) palace was located 500 meters from there, and Getulio … would stop over for a while at Lamas to have tea at around 4 or 5 in the afternoon,” said Milton Brito, a member of that cafe for more than three decades, recalling the era when Rio was still the nation’s capital.
He said he can’t say for sure what political strategies were devised at Lamas’ tables but that political parties and even prominent soccer teams were founded under its roof.
Referring to the coronavirus crisis, Brito said it hit the cafe like a “bucket of cold water” and that although people’s lives are paramount and the situation is complicated, he believes “we have to move forward.”
Unlike other iconic establishments facing the specter of a permanent shutdown, El Floridita, Havana’s most emblematic bar, appears to be in a uniquely privileged position since it is government-run and is seen by the Communist Party authorities as a key tourist destination and an important source of hard currency.
The former hangout of late American writer Ernest Hemingway during his time in Cuba, El Floridita every year welcomes more than 250,000 customers, some of whom have included world-famous figures such as former US President Barack Obama, late film stars Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich and professional baseball and soccer players.
Although its survival appears guaranteed, Cuban authorities have not yet indicated if they will reduce the cafe’s capacity or take other steps to ensure social distancing.
The coronavirus crisis is weighing much heavier on Salon Malaga, a famed cafe-bar of the northwestern Colombian city of Medellin that is nestled among other businesses in the downtown district.
“Malaga would have been full today and with a live band playing,” said Cesar Arteaga, the manager of that eatery considered a historical landmark and a mandatory stop for music aficionados. “We’re enduring, holding on.”
Founded in 1957 by his father, Gustavo Arteaga, Salon Malaga has long been a gathering place for music lovers, musicians, teachers, journalists and writers. Its illustrious clientele have included famed Colombians such as painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, former President Belisario Betancur and filmmaker Victor Gaviria.
Salon Malaga, however, has endured trials and tribulations before and trusts that it can also outlast the coronavirus pandemic. Four years ago, a fire nearly destroyed its collection of more than 7,000 vinyl records, said Arteaga, who added that the toughest test of all was the Medellin “mafia war” of the late 1980s “when they started setting off bombs all over the city.”
“Whatever happens, Malaga can’t close, no matter what we have to do. This is a tremendous legacy; it would not only be a loss for the Arteaga family, but for all of Medellin.”
Mexico’s City’s Cafe La Habana is another locale that is steeped in history but which now – as the Aztec nation faces a tough battle to get the coronavirus under control – has heavy metal shutters covering its giant storefront windows.
An unusual silence reigns at this establishment located at the corner of Calle Morelos and Avenida Bucareli and which currently is only offering a coffee pick-up service.
Open since 1952, it has long been a preferred spot for journalists and even is said to have served as a pre-Cuban Revolution meeting place for Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
“They were here. They were seated near the entrance to the right,” Benito Arce, a regular customer who has remained faithful even during the pandemic, told EFE.
Two other notable customers were a pair of Nobel Prize in literature recipients – Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mexico’s Octavio Paz.
During its nearly 70-year history, Cafe La Habana has survived two large earthquakes – in 1985 and 2017 – and constantly changing administrations.
“It’s sad to see it like this, closed, but we have to withstand whatever comes,” Arce said.
Yet another iconic establishment facing an existential threat is Montevideo’s Cafe Brasilero, which was founded in 1877 and is located in the Uruguayan capital’s historical district.
That establishment has long relied on tourists for 50% of its business, but now with Uruguay’s borders closed it has to make do with whatever income it receives from local residents.
It is perhaps best known as the second home and refuge of Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015), who would sit at a table near the window to reflect, watch people walk by and draw inspiration.
“Until the end Galeano would come and was always looking out the window. He would write, drink coffee. He was always thinking. It was a place of relaxation, planning. The cafe gave him the opportunity to plan his writings,” Cafe Brasilero’s owner of 11 years, Santiago Gomez, recalled.
Gomez nostalgically remembers Galeano’s disappointment when the establishment shut its doors for a week one summer.
“He said, ‘please don’t close,’” the owner recalled laughing. “‘And if you’re going to close you need to notify me.’”