WASHINGTON — Abdo Ballester always has a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. When he greets you, you feel as if you are his best friend. And he means it. And he loves his community.
He is known as The Mojito King and The Soul of Solstice, but Abdo Ballester is so much more and has many stories to tell. Born and raised in Cuba he has much to share about what it was like before, during, and after the Cuban Revolution, which overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista and put power in the hands of Fidel Castro. During his rule from 1959 to 2008 Cuba changed drastically and has never been the same. But Ballester remembers it before that coup.
“I came to this country in the ’50s,” he explains. “I am the youngest of four and after the revolution my parents sat us down and asked which one of us would like to study abroad. Another plantation owner had sent his children to the United States and my father wanted to do the same.
“I jumped at the opportunity. I was suffocating in a Cuban society where my father was very involved in being part of the upper class and all that goes with it. It becomes a lot of pressure — you have to behave properly. I was 16-years-old and just had this idea that I wanted to see the world.”
And so he came to America and never saw his parents again.
“Americans received me like I was a jewel,” Ballester continues. “I never heard the word ‘immigrant.’ At boarding school I was the only Cubano, so I was like the mascot and I enjoyed it tremendously. In those days, people would embrace you. So many people helped me become what I am today. I am eternally grateful to this country.”
“In those years they didn’t want children my age to come here from Cuba. So my father arranged a tourist visa for me and I came here illegally.”
One of Ballester’s dreams was to work for the United Nations, which he eventually did. He was a representative for the Foundation for A National Tribunal to the UN for 28 years and given a mandate to implement a permanent International Criminal Court.
“The new ICC that came after the Nuremberg Trials, tries individuals who commit major violations, crimes against humanity, against peace, and violations of human rights,” says Ballester.
“I was thinking of what my parents and other people went through in Cuba under Castro and I wanted to do my part to help. People don’t realize that dictators have a philosophy. Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Castro in Cuba. If you can divide the country, that’s when dictators take that opportunity to make promises that everything’s going to be great. There will be reform and everything will be taken from the rich and given to the poor. Castro promised every year for 30 years that the economy was going to be better. There were a lot of Cubans who agreed to have a socialist democracy. Dictators want to control and to be in charge. He was a real demagogue, giving speeches for four or five hours. It’s a very dangerous thing.”
Ballester did return to Cuba about 13 years ago. He serves on the board of the Cuban Arts Fund, and was invited to attend the International Dance Festival in Havana. Founded in 1998 the organization is committed to supporting artists of Cuban ancestry and providing public programming aimed at creating a broader appreciation for the Cuban arts and its global impact. Sponsored by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, 10 board members went to Cuba, as well as Damian Woetzel, whose father Robert was Ballester’s mentor for many years. Damian Woetzel is now president of Juilliard.
“Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso was our guide and she was marvelous, but everything was so changed it was heartbreaking,” Ballester recalls.
He has not returned since then and has made his life in Washington, Connecticut, for 20 years and is an integral and vital part of the community. He is the retail manager of the shop at The Mayflower Inn and Spa and is an active member of the Washington Art Association.
“I love the Washington Art Association and that’s why I want to help them in any way I can. I believe that everyone should give back to their community. Because of my relationship with the Cuban Artists Fund I was able to bring a group of Cuban artists to the WAA for an exhibition and a lecture. The Cubans have been isolated from all forms of art and having had a policy of restricted traveling for so many years, they have not been exposed to the kind of artistic talent we have here in the United States.”
And, of course, we cannot forget his stellar reputation as founder and king of Summer Solstice. Once again, on Saturday, June 22, he will don one of his crazy balloon hats, a colorful jacket and start mixing those Mojitos.
“This is an old family recipe and people love it, but I can’t reveal its secret ingredients,” laughs Ballester. In addition to the famous drink, local restaurants will be providing food, including a traditional Cubano sandwich from the Mayflower.
For Ballester it is an occasion to raise money for the WAA and to remember the happier times of living in Cuba.
“I remember carnival time. It was such a happy occasion, where rich and poor would mingle, we’d conga and each park would have orchestras and bands, and dancing in the clubs. I wanted to see more of that, so when the occasion came up 11 years ago as a board member of WAA, I decided that I wanted to recreate what was cut off from my life as a result of the revolution.”
He has indeed done that — and even more. With Actress Christine Baranski as his sidekick, Ballester supplies Brazilian dancers shaking the place up with their feather and flesh. Conga lines reign and the Mojitos flow (Ballester claims he makes them stronger every year.) A good time is had by all — especially the fabulous host.
Ballester will be speaking about his life and Cuba at the Gunn Memorial Library, 5 Wykeham Road, Washington, on June 11, at 6:30 p.m.
For registration and more information, visit www.gunnprograms@
For tickets and information about Summer Solstice visit www.washington