History of the Present: Havana

In the looming post-Castro era, Cuba’s capital faces profound social and economic challenges.

This is the second article in an ongoing series, “History of the Present: Cities in Transition.”

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Havana, viewed from an El Vedado high-rise. The Hotel Nacional, by McKim Mead and White, is in the foreground. In the distance is the mouth of the harbor, guarded by Castillo del Morro. La Habana del Este lies beyond. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

On a warm late summer afternoon a year ago, I sat with Mario Coyula Cowley on the jalousied terrace of the residence in Havana where he had lived for decades with his family. Mario had long been one of Cuba’s leading architects and urban planners, and he and I had had met professionally years earlier; family connections and shared interests led to a valued friendship. The elegant apartment, spacious and filled with art — much of it created by friends — occupies the top floor of a 1950s apartment building in the leafy, formerly old-money neighborhood of El Vedado. This domestic setting, inherited from an aunt, was a reminder that Mario Coyula was an exceptional member of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia who chose to remain in Cuba after the revolution and apply his talents to the grand socialist experiment.

From the years of turmoil that led up to the Cuban Revolution, Coyula emerged as a charter member of the idealistic generation of the 1960s. He was a student activist at the University of Havana and later served in the engineering corps of the rebel army; after the triumph of Fidel Castro and his comrades, in 1959, he devoted himself to the design of the new socialist Cuba. His long career led him to multiple positions at the top of the profession, including dean of the school of architecture, director of the Office of Architecture and Urbanism of Havana, and founding president of the city’s Monuments Commission. In 2013 Coyula was awarded the Premio Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural, the country’s highest honor for cultural contribution. I doubt there is any individual who knew — or loved — Havana more than Mario Coyula. Shortly before my visit Coyula had served on a government commission to map the future of Havana — a topic that is of vital importance as Cuba faces unknowable social and economic changes as it moves toward a government that will, for the first time in more than half a century, not be headed by a Castro brother or, for that matter, anyone of the founding revolutionary cohort.

I asked Mario if his participation on the commission gave him reason to be optimistic. “No,” he said bluntly. He referred ruefully to the long shelf of planning documents that had been gathering dust in his office for years — well-considered plans that could have better prepared Havana for the future but which were not realized due to lack of funds and failure of political will. Now, he explained, Havana is poised between two conditions of equal mortal peril. “On the one hand, not enough money, which is the present state, and on the other, too much money, too fast.” 1 Lack of resources prevents the Cuban government from halting the physical collapse of the city, which progresses at an alarming rate, notwithstanding the showpiece restorations in Old Havana (to which I will return later). At the same time, the flood of North American investment that will follow the inevitable lifting of the punitive U.S. embargo could set off equally dangerous forces of uncontrolled development. 2

Havana is poised between two conditions of equal mortal peril.

In his last years, after retiring from his official position as chief planner for Havana (he died on July 7, 2014), Mario Coyula became increasingly candid in his criticism of the government policies — and negligent inaction — that led to the aesthetic and environmental degradation of his beloved La Habana. The architectural historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez shares Coyula’s disillusion. The author of numerous scholarly texts on Cuban architecture, and a close friend and colleague of mine, Rodríguez is the unrivaled expert on Havana and its built environment. 3 That he was born in 1959 and grew up entirely under socialism gives Rodríguez a generationally distinct perspective on the past and future of the city from that of the elder Coyula. In a recent conversation, however, he echoed Coyula in lamenting the neglect and “ignorant new money” which are despoiling El Vedado, where he, too, lives. Graceful old residences, unprotected by any meaningful regulations, are being badly altered, and significant monuments are allowed to crumble. Eduardo Luis’s main professional concerns center on Havana’s 20th-century architecture and he is frustrated by the spotty record of its preservation; so much is in peril of being lost. Yet another architectural colleague, who preferred not to be identified in this piece, is harsh: The physical and social deterioration of Havana pains her beyond toleration, she told me. As recently as ten years ago she had been optimistic about the future of the island nation, but no more. In her view the system is now so dysfunctional that meaningful change can only be the equivalent of another revolution, and she fears traumatic social disruption like that which has convulsed parts of the former Soviet Union and provinces in China.

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El Vedado residences, with unfortunate alterations, ca. 2013. [Photos: Belmont Freeman]

The problems that beset Havana are in fact rooted in one of the defining characteristics of the Cuban Revolution. From its beginnings in the mid 1950s, in the Sierra Maestra mountains near Santiago de Cuba, the 26th of July Movement was fundamentally anti-urban. 4 The insurrectionist propaganda of the rebellion celebrated the peasantry and denigrated Havana as the locus of political corruption and social evil — an accusation not hard to justify, as the regime of Fulgencio Batista had devolved into a brutal kleptocracy in league with North American organized crime, which thrived on the city’s notorious vice industries. Havana had long been a rich city. A huge portion of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the capital, and it never had slums on the scale of those in Mexico City, Caracas, or Rio de Janeiro. Cuban poverty, before the revolution, was preponderantly rural. Some biographers have argued too that Fidel Castro had a fraught relationship to the metropolis. A country boy from Oriente province, though the son of a wealthy landowner, he reportedly resented the superior attitude of the Havana sophisticates when he enrolled at the university in the mid 1940s.

By the time Castro and his guerilla fighters, supported along the way by the rural population, marched west from the Sierra Maestra and entered Havana in triumph in January 1959 — just days after Batista fled the country by plane, reportedly with several hundred million dollars — the overarching goals of the revolution were clear. For the young socialist government, the improvement of the capital was not a priority. On the contrary, the major focus was the restructuring of the rural economy and the redistribution of assets to the provinces. The early 1960s saw not only the expropriation of agricultural land (including large tracts owned by North American corporations) and the establishment of state-owned sugar mills and other collective enterprises, but also the construction of schools, clinics, and recreational facilities in every town and village across the island. This laudable and transformative program of rural improvement formed the basis for socialist Cuba’s exemplary health and literacy statistics and the solid backbone of popular support for the revolution. The elevation of living standards in the countryside — along with restrictive policies on mobility — has also helped spare Havana the mass migration that has stressed so many other urban centers in developing countries.

To be sure, early revolutionary policies did not leave the capital totally ignored. Havana in the late 1950s was still on the high roll of a postwar boom that had transformed and modernized the city. High-rise apartments and swanky hotels had sprouted on the oceanfront in El Vedado, and affluent new neighborhoods in the western suburbs — Miramar, Country Club, Biltmore — had filled up with sleek modernist houses. In 1958 a tunnel under Havana harbor was completed, opening up the historically isolated eastern reaches of the city, near the Morro Castle, for development. Such private real estate activity was brought to an abrupt halt by the revolution. In rapid strokes speculative development was banned, unimproved land was expropriated, and the construction industry was nationalized. All at once the socialist government became the only client for architects and builders — but it was an eager and ambitious client. Within weeks of taking power, the Castro regime embarked on a far-reaching program that would deliver on political promises with the construction of workers’ housing, schools, medical facilities, recreation centers and other social service facilities.


Top: The Malecón in 1956, with new high-rise construction [Photo: Album de Cuba] Bottom: The Malecón in 2014, looking towards El Morro. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

Fidel Castro did not, however, attempt to remake the capital with bold urban design, as earlier rulers had done. After the island achieved independence from Spain, in 1898, the presidents of the early Cuban republic (and the governors that the United States imposed on the nation between 1898 and 1909) embarked on a series of monumental construction projects. They oversaw the erection of civic structures including the capitol, presidential palace, and railway station, as well as major engineering works such as Havana’s glorious oceanfront esplanade, the Malecón. In the 1920s the dictator Gerardo Machado engaged the French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier to redesign the city with wide boulevards, lush parks, and a new civic center on the Loma de los Catalanes, south of the historic core (and completed in modified form decades later by president Batista as the Plaza de la República; now called Plaza de la Revolución.) In the mid ’50s, Batista sought to make his own imprint on the city with a plan commissioned from Josep Lluís Sert and Paul Lester Wiener of Town Planning Associates, which would have destroyed a vast swath of Old Havana to make way for a new financial district, erected a grandiose new presidential palace between the Morro and Cabaña fortresses on the east side of the bay, and created a bizarre artificial island for hotels and casinos in the ocean off of the Malecón.

It is fair to say that Fidel Castro’s most positive contribution to the design of the capital was to cancel such megalomaniacal schemes. For the most part, post-revolution planning eschewed slum-clearing urban renewal in the historic center 5 — a strategy popular elsewhere in the world in the 1960s — and the ministries of housing and construction focused on more surgical insertions of new structures into established neighborhoods, on the repurposing of existing buildings for new uses, and on large-scale developments on the periphery, like the residential new town La Habana del Este, built at the eastern terminus of the harbor tunnel, the new campus Ciudad Universitaria José Antonio Echeverria, to the south, and the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, built on the grounds of the former Havana Country Club.

Paseo del Prado, ca. 2013, designed by Jean Claude Nicolas Forstier and Raúl Otero, 1929. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

La Habana del Este, designed by Hugo D’Acosta, Mercedes Alvarez, Mario González, et al. [Photo: Courtesy of Eduardo Luis Rodríguez]

Ciudad Univeritária José Antonio Echeverria, designed by Humberto Alonso, Fernando Salinas, José Fernánez, et al. [Photo: Courtesy Eduardo Luis Rodríguez]

Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas, designed by Ricardo Porro, 1961–1965. [Photo: courtesy of Eduardo Luis Rodríguez]

What would prove far more transformative than any of the new construction of the 1960s or the Soviet-era projects that would be built in the ’70s was the wholesale conversion of the pre-revolution housing stock. The early real estate reforms of the socialist government divested landlords of rental properties, which became state-owned. A property owner who remained in Cuba through the revolution was entitled to remain in his or her primary residence, but those who fled the country (expecting, as I often remind people, to return within a year or two after this latest political aberration was corrected) were declared “absentee owners” and compelled to relinquish their houses. Thus were thousands of buildings — from mansions to modest middle-class dwellings in Havana’s most comfortable neighborhoods — nationalized and subdivided into apartments, either officially, by government intervention, or informally, often by the agency of a relative or servant of the former residents who had stayed behind to look after the property.

A perfectly typical case is my mother’s family home in El Vedado, a few blocks from the Coyulas’ apartment. Built in 1910 as a one-story neoclassical villa, modernized and expanded in 1948, the house is large but hardly grand. I have hazy, childhood memories of the place from family visits in the ’50s. My great aunt was living in the house with one of my mother’s sisters at the time of the revolution. In 1960 they quit Havana to come live with my family in suburban Washington, D.C. (my mother having been in the U.S. since her marriage to an American during World War II), leaving the house in the care of her trusted chauffeur. As her exile grew unexpectedly into years and decades, Pancho the chauffeur died and the property passed to state ownership. I visited the house on calle 29 in 2000 with my mother, then eighty years old and returning to Havana for the first time in forty-five years. A friendly tenant invited us in, eager to learn about the family that had lived there before. The place was well maintained, with the main house divided into four apartments — two on each floor — plus a fifth unit at the back of the patio, created from the garage. It made sense, my mother thought; pleased, at least, to see the property appreciated by current residents. Multiply this story many times over and the result was the rapid transformation of a wealthy quarter into a dense popular neighborhood. In a real sense this was a rational and cost-effective response to a housing shortage — not unlike the postwar subdivision of thousands of townhouses in Manhattan that would radically alter, albeit through capitalist market forces, the demographics of New York City.



Top: The author’s former family house on calle 29, El Vedado, Havana, ca. 1928; in the view on the left, the author’s mother (right) is on the patio with her siblings. Top right: Street view, ca. 1928. Bottom: The house in 2000. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

Today new and strange market forces are primed to reconfigure the city yet again. Raúl Castro, who assumed the presidency of Cuba in 2006, after the retirement of his ailing brother Fidel, is widely considered to be more pragmatic and results-oriented than his doctrinaire older sibling. For years Raúl was head of the Cuban military, which, in addition to its traditional functions of defense and state security, administers major commercial enterprises in construction, import-export, tourism, and other sectors. With Raúl Castro as CEO, the military has been the most effectively functioning, and revenue-producing, institution in Cuba. Now, as president, the younger Castro has initiated a variety of measures aimed to gradually dismantle fifty years of state monopoly on economic activity. Private enterprise, though tentatively and at small scale, is being encouraged, both to generate revenue and to shift workers off the state payroll.

In the past couple of years, cyclically updated government bulletins have listed the types of private businesses that Cubans are allowed to own and operate, including hairdressing, baking, automobile repair, furniture making, and tailoring. In many instances, of course, the “reforms” simply acknowledge, and tax, commercial activity that was going on anyway, on the black market; but the economic landscape in Cuba is undeniably undergoing dramatic transformation. Even before Raúl’s presidency, for instance, Cubans were permitted to operate small restaurants, called paladares, which had to be located in owners’ homes and employ only family members. Today new regulations relax restrictions on the size of such establishments as well as on menu offerings and employment practices. On each of my recent trips to Cuba I have been impressed by the many new restaurants that have opened in Havana, and by their culinary ambition. Private bars and clubs are popping up all over town. In March, friends took me to Espacio, the latest hot spot: a club housed in a villa in Miramar, handsomely appointed with contemporary paintings. The well-dressed, artsy Cuban clientele — la farándula — were enjoying 2 CUC beers and 4 CUC mojitos (cheap by international standards but beyond most Cubans’ budgets) alongside in-the-know foreigners. Later that night at Escaleras al Cielo, a discotheque in a 19th-century warehouse on the edge of Old Havana, the largely gay and lesbian — and Cuban — revelers danced beneath a laser light show that would impress a crowd in New York or Madrid. While an enterprising Cuban might pull together the 20,000 CUCs needed to open a simple café, it is clear that many of these new businesses are funded by off-island capital. A couple I know renovated and expanded their restaurant, one of the most elegant in Havana, with the help of an investment by Parisian friends. The Obama administration’s lifting of limits on remittances by Cuban-Americans to family in Cuba has, in timely fashion, helped fuel the new start-up economy. Some Cubans in Miami have organized an informal development bank to channel seed money to budding entrepreneurs on the island, hoping to get in early on the action and to nourish the growth of a capitalist society.

Another economic innovation that promises to alter the face of Havana is the newly instituted legal mechanism for Cubans to buy and sell their homes. For many years the residential real estate market in Cuba has functioned somewhat like a limited-equity cooperative. People typically owned their apartments or houses, but when they died or moved out the property would be transferred to a new owner at a government-fixed price. Ever adept at circumventing official regulations, Cubans had evolved an elaborate system for trading homes, with cash payments being passed to level out differences in size, condition, or location; but such transactions were complicated and risky. Today the once ubiquitous signs on buildings, se permuta (for exchange), have been replaced by se vende (for sale.) The nascent residential real estate market in Havana is tumultuous, with price structures and benchmarks yet to be established — not to mention a home mortgage industry. One can go online and peruse Revolico, a Cuban equivalent to Craigslist, and see scores of listings ranging from a few thousand CUCs for rooms in a decrepit part of town to several hundred thousand for a house in a desirable neighborhood.

Residences in buildings from the 1950s are the most highly prized. In contrast to just a year ago, conversations in bars and at parties in Havana often circle around to real estate — who knows of a house for sale; who is looking to move; what crazy price so-and-so is asking for her apartment — just like in Manhattan. In March of this year I spent an illuminating day with a newly minted real estate broker who showed me a selection of houses for sale in Havana, including a large, impeccably maintained residence from the mid-1950s in desirable Nuevo Vedado. The seller, an older Cuban woman who had lived in the house for many years but was now in Mexico, was asking $600,000. In Siboney, an exquisite mid-century modern house, partially gutted for renovation, was being flipped by a Spanish investor (through a Cuban intermediary) for $300,000. An 18th-century house in Old Havana could be delivered vacant if the buyer made individual deals with each of the four families that lived there.

There’s a wrinkle in the budding open market, however: No ordinary Cuban, who might earn the equivalent of forty dollars a month, could dream of acquiring any of these properties, yet Cuban law prohibits their sale to non-Cubans. So who is buying these homes? When I first started traveling to Cuba as an adult, in the 1990s, it was axiomatic that any house in Havana that was in a good state of repair had to be owned by a foreign mission or an official high up in the government, or was a casa de protocolo, maintained for state functions and distinguished visitors. This is no longer the case. A new class of affluent Cubans, prospering in the proto-capitalist economy, often politically connected and backed by wealthy relatives or business associates abroad, is able to afford a very comfortable lifestyle. It is this new cohort who is patronizing the new restaurants and bars and altering the choice Havana neighborhoods into landscapes of haves and have-nots, with meticulously refurbished houses next door to broken-down dwellings. An architect friend of mine has two official jobs, one at a government ministry and the other at university; but in the past few years the better part of his income has come from a moonlight practice in which he renovates houses — some quite lavishly; he gave me a tour — for a Cuban clientele that didn’t exist until very recently. It is, of course, gratifying to see fine buildings rescued from decay, but disturbing as a manifestation of growing income inequality and a portent of the social and economic divisions that will surely rise in a post-socialist Cuba.

An economic perversion that cleaves Cuban society already is the system of dual currencies. During a period of experimentation starting in 1993, the U.S. dollar was officially accepted as legal tender in the tourism and international business sectors. In 2004 the Cuban government terminated the circulation of dollars, thereafter obliging all visitors to the island to exchange their money for convertible pesos, called CUCs, in order to pay for hotels and meals, rent an automobile, or purchase goods in the more upscale stores. (Credit cards are still not used in Cuba.6) Meanwhile native Cubans have always received their government salaries and benefits in the moneda nacional; the Cuban peso, or CUP. Consequently, in Havana, where the circulation of CUCs is the greatest, there exist parallel economies. People with CUCs ride in modern taxis and shop in well-stocked supermarkets, while ordinary Cubans with pesos crowd onto buses or negotiate rides in private cars and make do with the more meager selection at traditional markets and bodegas. Needless to say, Cubans who have access to CUCs, like waiters and tour guides who earn tips in CUCs, artists and their dealers who sell work to foreigners, operators of paladares, or people who are employed by foreign companies and get under-the-table supplements to their state wages, enjoy a significantly higher standard of living than average. 7

The dual currency system may have value as a mechanism to segregate the international capitalist economy from the subsidized socialist economy — a ballet ticket, for example, will cost the foreign visitor 25 CUCs while a Cuban citizen can purchase the same seat for 25 pesos, or the equivalent of about one CUC — but the inefficiencies are ludicrous, and the widening chasm between Cubans who operate in the different economies is a social distortion and a flagrant waste of intellectual capital. In Havana your taxi driver may very likely be a scientist who makes more money behind the wheel, in CUCs, than at the laboratory bench, in CUPs. A designer to whom I am close had a good job working on hotel conversions in Old Havana, but after the birth of a second child he could no longer support his family adequately on his government salary, and so he jumped at the opportunity to become a private tour guide. In October 2013, Raúl Castro announced the government’s intention to unify the currencies, though the timetable by which this is to be implemented is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile people are nervous about the pending disruption of currency reform and the devaluation of the CUC that will inevitably come with the merger. (The current exchange rate on the streets of Havana is about 25 pesos to the CUC, while credible rumors predict an official retirement of the CUC at 10 or 15 pesos.) When I was in Havana, this past spring, I never had to go to a bank or cadeca to exchange money, as many of my Cuban friends were eager to change their CUCs into U.S. dollars to weather better the monetary unification, whenever it may occur.

Cuba is now stuck with the worst of capitalist inequality and socialist inefficiency.

On that visit I dined with close friends, a couple in their mid-thirties. Pablo is a photographer and Inés a molecular biologist; both highly accomplished in their respective fields. 8 Each has traveled extensively for professional purposes, to Europe and the United States. Though members of the professional elite who straddle the dual economies, they hardly enjoy the luxe lifestyle of the new entrepreneurial class. They had CUCs enough to take me to an upscale paladar (insisting on reciprocating for the dinners I have hosted for them in New York), yet they drive a beat-up old Lada and live in the decidedly un-posh barrio of Santos Suárez. Pablo and Inés are unhappy about the direction that Cuba has taken. In their view the country is presently stuck with the worst of capitalist inequality and socialist inefficiency; money now rules Cuban society while the delivery of services is mired in dysfunctional bureaucracy. My friends expressed nostalgia for the 1980s — a surprising sentiment that I heard repeatedly. In the Soviet-backed economy of those years, typical Cubans could live adequately on their salaries — feed and clothe their families, go to restaurants, take vacations — which is far from the case today. In the 1980s the Cuban health care system was the envy of the world, whereas now the clinics are often shabby and ill equipped; and the education that Pablo and Inés received back then was, they feel, far superior to that which their ten-year-old daughter is getting now. Eduardo Luis Rodríguez concurs. The trajectory of the revolution from the 1960s through the 1980s pointed to steady improvement in the quality of life for ordinary Cubans, he told me, but that has not held true through subsequent decades. “The 1980s were the high point,” he said, “though nobody knew it at the time.”

That halcyon decade was followed by the bleak “Special Period,” a time of extreme austerity brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cuba’s supply of subsidized oil, indulgently supported sugar prices, and multiple other forms of economic aid. (The system of dual currencies is an artifact of that era.) The Cuban government was compelled to explore new means to attract foreign investment, and one targeted activity was the rehabilitation of historic resources in the cities as a draw for tourism. Old Havana was recognized as an especially significant but underdeveloped resource. Aside from a few areas — some key monuments clustered around the Plaza de Armas and the cathedral, the old shopping streets Obispo and O’Reilly, and a seedy waterfront entertainment district — the revolutionary government had inherited a historic city core in an advanced state of decay. (This was precisely the zone targeted for wholesale redevelopment under the Town Planning Associates master plan from the 1950s.)

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Top: Plaza Vieja, 1999. Bottom: Plaza Vieja, 2012. [Photos: Belmont Freeman]

As early as 1982 La Habana Vieja had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Office of the City Historian (a position established in the 1930s during a colonial revival vogue but fairly moribund by mid-century) undertook some development projects in the ’80s; but it was only after the departure of the Russians that the pace of architectural conservation significantly accelerated. 9 In the early ’90s the visionary City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler set up Habagüanex, a state-owned, for-profit enterprise with the mission to develop businesses — hotels, restaurants, shops — in Old Havana, with the income generated to be reinvested in the revitalization of the quarter. Joint-venturing with foreign companies (the Spanish and French have been particularly active), Habagüanex has, over the years, channeled copious foreign investment into the colonial city and leveraged it for broad civic benefit. The Office of the City Historian has further diversified, extending its purview to include conservation research, restoration trade schools, a travel agency, and various social service entities in the old city. Its geographic territory has likewise expanded beyond the limits of La Habana Vieja, though it has yet to evince much interest in the preservation of Havana’s remarkable modernist legacy (which until very recently has been tainted by association with the Batista regime).

Tourism, clearly, is the engine that drives the restoration effort, but Dr. Leal takes pains to explain that not every historic building under his care is destined to become a hotel, boutique, or museum, and that his office is dedicated to maintaining Old Havana as a living city, with much effort invested in renovating old buildings for housing, schools, and other social programs. In the decade and a half I have been traveling to Cuba (making well over twenty trips), I have witnessed the transformation of Havana’s colonial center, with more and more of the historic city fabric restored and the tourist quarter ever expanding. On my last trip, this spring, the historic Teatro Martí was reopening after a multiyear restoration, the Capitol building was under scaffolding, and work had begun on the conversion of the Manzana de Gómez — a full-block arcaded office building that faces the Parque Central — into a five-star hotel. Cobblestone streets were being excavated to install new communications and utility lines, and I observed as well the refurbishment of residential buildings alongside the proliferation of new stores in which no ordinary Cuban will ever shop. I also heard the worrisome news that a Chinese development company was planning to convert the grand 1913 Cuatro Caminos market into a shopping mall.

Teatro Martí, restored. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

The Capitolio, in restoration. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

Old Havana, street scenes. [Photos: Belmont Freeman]

As impressive as the make-over of La Habana Vieja may be (and it has a long way to go), the overall effort throws into high relief the contrast between the sanitized tourist zone and the vast stretches of the city, such as Central Havana and less fortunate neighborhoods to the south, where squalid conditions prevail and building collapses are regular occurrences. And the cosmetic refurbishment of the colonial core is of questionable value when the basic urban infrastructure is stressed beyond capacity. Havana’s system of aqueducts was a marvel of 18th- and 19th-century engineering, but the last comprehensive overhaul of the city’s waterworks was undertaken in the early Republican period, at the advent of the 20th century. Fifty percent of the city’s water is reportedly lost to leakage, and in many neighborhoods the supply of drinking water is unreliable. 10 The city’s electrical grid is a perpetual source of consternation, with apagones — blackouts — a vexing part of daily life. Havana urgently needs to expand its generating capacity, but with the city dependent on oil-burning power plants, this will be a costly undertaking, vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of imported fuel — a topic of considerable anxiety, given Cuba’s shaky reliance on subsidized petroleum from Venezuela. To be ready for the inevitable onslaught of North American tourists, once the U.S. travel restrictions are lifted, Havana will need thousands of new hotel rooms, but whether the city’s infrastructure can support that much new construction is doubtful.

Tourism may be the city’s current economic engine, but for centuries it was Havana’s deep and defensible harbor that was its source of wealth and cosmopolitan character — indeed the very reason for its founding in the 16th century. Havana Bay is one of the best natural harbors in the Americas. The twin fortifications of the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, masterpieces of Renaissance military engineering, 11 made the port virtually impregnable. (A chain could be drawn across the mouth to close off the harbor.) Situated at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, Havana early on became the preferred port for transshipment of goods throughout the Spanish colonies and for provisioning the armadas of treasure ships, bearing gold from Mexico and silver from Peru, before their return voyages to Spain. By the 20th century, while provincial ports like Cienfuegos, Matanzas, and Cárdenas were thriving on the export of sugar, and Santiago de Cuba’s vast harbor was industrialized, it was Havana that hosted the major traffic of passenger ships and commercial trade. But in the second half of the 20th century the great harbor declined gradually, then precipitously; a victim of the combined forces of air travel, the U.S. trade embargo, and the closure of industrial complexes. Today the old harbor is lined with vacant factories, abandoned piers, and rusting cranes. It is also the focus of intense interest to anyone considering the future of Havana.

Havana Bay, satellite view. [Google Earth]

Whatever the character of future development, Havana Bay will not regain its former strengths in industry or shipping. The tunnel built in the 1950s is a tube laid on the channel floor and, consequently, the harbor entrance is too shallow to accommodate the deep-draft container ships that rule the oceans today. With a massive investment from Brazil, the Cuban government is now constructing a new container ship facility at the port of Mariel, twenty-eight miles west of Havana (and the embarkation point of the infamous 1980 flotillas of refugees to Florida). The Mariel complex is expected to be operational in time to receive the first of the huge new-generation cargo transporters that will begin passing through a widened Panama Canal in 2015. Thus does Cuba hope to reclaim its colonial-era role as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. Also to this end, Mariel is being constituted as a free trade zone to attract international investment, very much on the Chinese model that jump-started state capitalism there in the 1980s, with various industrial projects in the works, backed by investors from Spain, Brazil, Russia, China, and Italy. The new economic activity in Mariel will surely tug commercial and residential development to the west, from Havana, eventually resulting in, as Mario Coyula predicted in our last conversation, a seamless conurbation from the old port of Havana to the new one at Mariel.

Plans for Havana Bay now envision, in various iterations, a city refocused on its historic waterfront, but newly dedicated to tourism, recreation, and culture: Think Baltimore Inner Harbor in the tropics. Coyula suggested that the east side of the bay is prime real estate for residential development, to be serviced by improved water transportation. He described to me a study, on which he advised, for new housing terraced up the hill above Casablanca, a quaint village across the water from Old Havana, offering incomparable views and, as old Habaneros will tell you, “good air.” This bright future, of course, will depend upon detoxifying industrial sites, cleansing the water of centuries of pollution, and massively upgrading the city’s decrepit sewage treatment system. Progress is being made, if slowly. On the Avenida del Puerto in Old Havana there is a glittering new construction: the Cámara de Rejas del Sifón del Alcantarillado de La Habana (filtration, or strainer, chamber for the sewer ejector); a significant upgrade to that part of the 1902 sewage system that expels waste water, via a tunnel, into the ocean. With this and other clean-up efforts, Havana Bay is inching up from its sorry ranking as one of the world’s most polluted bodies of water. Coyula described the joy he felt when he saw pelicans dipping into the harbor for fish — a sure sign of renascent life.

Cámara de Rejas del Sifón del Alcantarillado de La Habana. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

Cruise ships would be a logical activity for the refurbished harbor, and Havana is already a port-of-call, though not, because of the embargo, for any American lines or for the European boats that stop at U.S. ports. But just as with the jumbo container ships, the new generation of mega cruise liners cannot enter Havana because of the shallow draft of the entry channel. This is a blessing. Critics of the cruise industry have documented and decried the social, cultural, and environmental degradation that too often follows the entry of the jumbo liners into formerly tranquil Caribbean ports, and across the Atlantic the battle over the boats currently rages in Venice. For many of my thoughtful Cuban colleagues, Venice represents the development model they least want for Havana; a historic city emptied of local life and given over to tourists. Most likely we will see the large cruise ships diverted to alternate, dimensionally accommodating ports like Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos, spurring regional development, while Havana docks the smaller ships and the high-speed ferry traffic from Miami and Key West that will commence after the lifting of U.S. travel restrictions. Several Florida companies have already applied for licenses to operate such services.

When those cars start rolling off the ferry from Florida, will their dollar-spending passengers help finance enhanced government services and improved living standards for ordinary Cubans, or will they accelerate a trend toward the extreme income inequality that afflicts the United States and much of the free-market world, and thus reverse the achievements of socialism? The answer will emerge only in time; but meanwhile it is painfully apparent that many Cubans don’t want to wait around to find out. I have already described the growing pessimism that now clouds daily life on the island. This is borne out in surprisingly candid and critical discussions on Cuban blogs and chatrooms — which are tolerated by the government to an extent unthinkable a few years ago. (The blogger Yoani Sanchez, now an international media darling, is only the most prominent commentator.)

Havana Bay from Casa Blanca. One of the three 1914 passenger ship piers has been rehabilitated and serves small cruise ships. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

My circle of friends, including young professionals in design and communications, was far more upbeat a decade ago, eager to grasp the new opportunities that might come with the transition to post-Fidel rule. These are patriotic Cubans, committed to socialism. Now I hear many friends express the wish, and a few outline concrete plans, to get out. The most common complaints center on the dearth of adequately compensated, meaningful work — the lack of opportunity to exercise creativity and to advance the careers for which they were so well trained. Raúl Castro’s early promises ignited eager anticipation, but most of the “reforms” have failed to change the lives of ordinary Cubans. So what if there are more Internet cafés in Havana if it costs 8 or 10 CUCs for an hour of excruciatingly slow connectivity? Yes, Cubans can buy and sell cars now, but if taxes put the price of a new Subaru north of $100,000, who cares? And one of Raúl Castro’s signal reforms has had unforeseen and unfortunate results. In 2013 the government eliminated the widely detested restriction that required Cubans to obtain costly exit permits to travel off the island. Now any Cuban, except for those in professions deemed critical, can freely travel to any country that will grant him or her an entry visa. (Which is of course the hard part: the United States, for example, is extremely restrictive in issuing visas to Cubans and categorically denies them to anyone considered an asylum-seeker — meaning almost everyone.) While this policy is intended to enhance the flow of remittances from Cubans working abroad, which is an increasingly important component of the national economy, 12 the tragic consequence is an accelerating brain drain, as young, educated, ambitious Cubans — the very group that will be needed to rebuild Cuba on a post-communist model — give up on their homeland and seek new lives elsewhere. It is ironic that such disenchantment and alienation should be manifest at a moment when significant change seems imminent; but it is useful to remember that historically revolutions have occurred not at social and economic nadirs but just when things were starting to improve or, at least, when people were able to envision how much better things could be. Cuba in 1958 was, after all, at a historic pinnacle of prosperity, but afflicted with gross corruption, inequality, and repression to a degree that had become intolerable.

The endemic malcontent, however, should not necessarily be interpreted as rejection of the revolution. On the contrary, in my experience the average Cuban is proud of the country’s socialist accomplishments, however disappointing the present reality might be. Even those Cubans who long to emigrate to the United States cannot understand why the wealthiest nation on earth does not provide its citizens with free health care or university education. (I cannot explain it, either.) The story of my friend Clara, for instance, is repeated in thousands of variations among Cubans of her generation. Clara is an architect; she works for the government, directing the renovation of state-owned housing. She laments that her job offers little opportunity for creative expression and she is frustrated that her projects are perennially under-funded; but she is satisfied that her work improves people’s circumstances. She will complain endlessly about the indignities of daily life — including the fact that after a full day at her official job she has to work until late at night in the paladar her husband’s family operates. Yet at the same time she reveres Fidel Castro and freely concedes that she owes her very life to the revolution.

Cubans are proud of their country’s socialist accomplishments, however disappointing the present reality might be.

“Look,” she explained to me, “I was born in a sugar town in Las Villas. My father was a sugarcane cutter, just like his father and grandfather before him.” As a boy he would sneak into the mill and watch the machinery in motion. He wanted to become an engineer, but since he was black and from a family of field workers, he had no access to an education. Then came the revolution. Clara remembers as a little girl watching the construction of a new school in the village, in which she and her friends then took classes, which were mandatory through secondary school. Clara was a good student and passed the exams to get into university, enrolling at Ciudad Universitaria José Antonio Echeverria. She resolved to become an engineer, to fulfill her father’s dream, though she later switched to architecture. Clara has no doubt that if it were not for the revolution she would still be stuck in the countryside, barefoot and illiterate, the mother of six children, and her sons all sugarcane cutters. “How can I be against the revolution?” she asks.

It’s a generational thing. The father of a musician friend is a well-known journalist, now retired, and author of many books. In 1958 he was a shoeshine boy on the streets of Havana, drawn to the city to escape the poverty of his native village. Like Clara, the revolution put him into school and eventually he became a writer. In his Internet postings now he criticizes the government for straying from early ideals and failing to modernize with the times — his dissident commentaries have gotten him into trouble with the authorities — yet he remains a member of the Communist Party and still advocates for incremental change within the system. For this he has heated arguments with his 40-year-old son, who has become convinced that the entire system must be scrapped. “Cuba is a beautiful country” the son says, “but it’s under very bad management. People are screaming for change, and it has to be total.”

Prognosticators of all stripes, from media pundits to bloggers to ordinary citizens, offer a variety of disaster scenarios for Cuba “when it changes”: the rape of the land by North American developers; the theft of national assets by Communist Party members turned Russian-style oligarchs; hyperinflation induced by currency unification; a flotilla of Miami Cubans armed to reclaim lost property. Some cool heads, on the other hand, predict a more gradual and banal transition. A well-connected Venezuelan media magnate who keeps his finger on the pulse of Latin American business, and with whom I had a conversation on the subject, confidently predicts a “soft landing” for Cuba. Once Fidel — who may no longer be president but still wields considerable influence — is out of the picture he expects a more pragmatic regime to restructure the economy incrementally in order to integrate it with global commerce. Indeed, Raúl Castro appears to be deftly heading the country in that direction. The man who is generally accepted as Raul’s choice to succeed him as president when his term ends in 2017, Miguel Diaz Canel (born in 1961), is a technocrat of similar inclination; a party loyalist but less an ideologue than a pragmatic modernizer.

Havana’s greatest asset is the very fact that the city recused itself from the past half century of capitalist development.

Change will come inevitably with the generational transition, as control is assumed by Cubans who have lived their entire lives under socialism and for whom the ideological fervor of their elders may seem quaint if not tiresome. And north of the Straits of Florida, younger Cuban-Americans, fully assimilated into the United States, are far less inclined to share their parents’ obsession with the Castro brothers or fantasies about returning to the island and reinstalling a pre-revolutionary status quo — attitudes that have deformed U.S. policy for half a century. Every new poll reveals that a large and increasing majority of Americans — basically every demographic except Cuban-Americans over the age of fifty — supports normalization of relations with Cuba. I would not be surprised if Barack Obama were to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens before he leaves office, and I fully expect the next president of the United States, Democrat or Republican, to eliminate the embargo (assuming, that is, that Fidel Castro is no longer alive; a symbolically critical precondition). Aside from being a pointless and cruel relic of the Cold War and a blot on the United States’ international reputation, the prohibition of commerce with Cuba ill serves national interests. After all, through a big loophole in the embargo, the United States is a major supplier of food to Cuba, and U.S. farmers — and those who represent them in Congress — are eager to sell more; and American developers are consumed with envy as they watch Spanish, French, British, and Canadian companies build hotels and golf resorts on the Caribbean island just ninety miles from Florida.

As the early experiments in homegrown free enterprise take hold and the prospect of Cuba’s opening up to North American investment looms, now is the moment to recognize that Havana’s greatest asset is the very fact that the city recused itself from the past half century of capitalist development. Faded as it is, Havana is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and quite singular for having been spared the worst depredations of late 20th-century development. The historic urban fabric, however tattered, remains intact. Were it not for the revolution in 1958, it is a certainty that the Malecón would be lined with high-rise towers, Avenida del Puerto replaced by an elevated highway, the garden district of El Vedado built over, and the surrounding countryside devoured by suburban sprawl. In other words, Havana would be like Miami.

I do recognize that a large portion of the present population of Havana might rather be living in Miami, but that’s not because of the architecture or urbanism. Today many cities in North America are questioning, and regretting, the misguided planning concepts of the 1960s and ’70s that destroyed historic city centers, carved up established neighborhoods for the convenience of the automobile, and encouraged unlimited expansion. Havana has its problems, to be sure, but it is not burdened with the challenge of undoing such misbegotten schemes. Havana has suffered grievously from fifty years of neglect, but at least the city’s rich architectural legacy and historic neighborhoods were not erased by urban renewal or rampant profit-driven development. Surely this is an advantageous position from which to rebuild, along urbanistically responsible lines, using 21st-century technology and informed by the mistakes made elsewhere.

People tell me they want to visit Havana ‘before it changes.’ Such sentiment betrays prurient attraction to decay.

Preserved by poverty, contemporary Havana draws not just culture buffs and architectural enthusiasts but also visitors fascinated to see the ruins of both a magnificent city and the last communist society in the west. Tour promoters play on the time-warp quality of the place, and their clients pose in front of run-down buildings and meticulously maintained 1950s American automobiles and jam the clubs featuring Buena Vista Social Club music. Revolutionary kitsch — Che Guevara T-shirts and rebel berets — fills the souvenir shops. I find it ironic that a socialist government that originally sought to erase history now reaps hard currency by marketing nostalgia — the glamour of pre-revolutionary Havana no less than that that of the early Castro era, when ideals seemed so pure. (See my essay in this journal, “Havana: Nostalgia is Dangerous Business,” for a discussion of the complex and highly politicized cross-currents of memory in Cuba.) More darkly, the sex trade that made 1950s Havana so notorious persists, though in private free-enterprise form. Just like the scientist who drives the taxi, the girl or boy you might pick up on La Rampa — then as now the main drag of the entertainment district — is quite likely to be a medical student or a teacher, moonlighting to make ends meet.

I am weary of hearing people tell me they want to visit Havana “before it changes.” Such sentiment betrays prurient attraction to decay and is at best insensitive to the plight of the Cuban people, who desperately need and deserve change. One way or another, change will come to Cuba. Those of us who love Havana can only hope that the administrators of the city and its economic development will steer a course between the two mortal fates that Mario Coyula feared. We can only hope that substantial international investment will arrive in time to save the city from total collapse, but not in such an uncontrolled flood as to destroy it with ill-conceived overdevelopment. Many predict that a post-embargo government will be unable to resist selling off development rights in an indiscriminate manner, for fast money, and I am sure that will happen to some degree. Yet at the same time I have observed that a culture of historic preservation, and widespread pride in the architectural riches of the city, have become established in Cuba. Cuba is not China, where gargantuan economic ambition has too often preempted any sentimentality for urban history.

The author’s former family house on calle 29, El Vedado, 2014. [Photo: Belmont Freeman]

Optimism may be a scarce commodity in Cuba, but I am willing to hope that the country will profit from the negative example set by so much recent market-centric urban development in other nations. While I would hate to see Havana policy makers plunge the city into historicist formaldehyde or fall under the influence of reactionary New Urbanist theory, 13 a progressive preservationist sensibility joined with strong central planning mechanisms could be the winning combination. Havana, on the cusp of transition, with its historic fabric crumbling but intact and overdue for enlightened rehabilitation, enjoys the unique opportunity to demonstrate an alternate path. I am sure that many of my Cuban colleagues who read this essay will accuse me of naiveté regarding the country’s capacity to reform in time to rescue the capital city. Maybe that’s true — or perhaps their view is just too close-up to see the potential for resurrection. I am sorry that I will not have the benefit of Mario Coyula’s sage review of this article. Can Havana be a great city again? Yes, I am convinced of it — but time is running short.

On the last night of my visit to Havana in March, a close friend and I thought to have dinner at a new paladar in El Vedado recommended by the Coyulas. The restaurant, Starbien, which occupies the ground floor and garden of a large neocolonial house from the 1920s, was noisy and packed with tourists and affluent Cubans. We decided that we didn’t want to wait thirty minutes for a table so we left, and as we walked down the street I was startled to find myself directly across from my great aunt’s former home. I did not, at first, recognize the house. I could still see the Ionic portico and the name Maria Isabel painted on the glass transom over the front door, but the front yard was subdivided by a wall and somebody had built an ugly metal structure in the driveway, right out to the sidewalk, from which he appeared to be operating a snack bar. A neighboring home was completely obscured by a tall chain-link fence, with padlocked gate and laced with opaque webbing, that had been erected around the property. I looked down the block and saw that the contiguous front gardens that even ten years ago gave this stretch of calle 29 its gracious, old-world character had been obliterated, and the row of once elegant houses was now a patchwork of crumbling masonry and grotesquely discordant modern accretions. The lovely corner of El Vedado that my mother in the year 2000 could still recognize as home was no more. I wept.

About the Series: History of the Present

This is the second article in an ongoing series, “History of the Present: Cities in Transition,” supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and by Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown.

  1. This conversation and most others quoted in this essay were conducted in Spanish. The translations are mine, from notes and memory.
  2. The commercial blockade of Cuba, which no other countries recognize and which has repeatedly been condemned by the United Nations, was initiated on October 7, 1960, by the Kennedy administration, and has been renewed and reinforced under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act (a.k.a., Helms–Burton) of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.
  3. I collaborated with Eduardo Luis Rodríguez on an exhibition, Architecture and Revolution in Cuba, 1959-1969, mounted at Storefront for Art and Architecture, in New York City, from September 14 to December 11, 2004. Sarah Herda was co-producer of the exhibition with me.
  4. So named to commemorate the date of the failed assault on the Moncada Barracks, an army facility in Santiago de Cuba, on July 26, 1953. The revolutionary organization was reconstituted in Mexico in 1955 by a group of anti-Batista Cuban exiles, including the brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro.
  5. One notable exception is the Tallapiedras housing complex, in Old Havana, south of the railway station. Designed by Fernando Salinas in 1960, the project was initially planned to replace eleven blocks of a deteriorated residential district but only two blocks were razed and redeveloped.
  6. I understand that some of the major hotels in Cuba have started accepting credit cards issued by European banks. The United States’ economic embargo precludes any transactions with U.S. banks.
  7. The Cuban government acts as sort of a central employment agency for foreign companies and diplomatic missions that seek to employ Cuban workers. The foreign entity pays the employee’s salary in CUCs to the Cuban government, which in turn pays the Cuban worker a standard state salary in CUPs.
  8. I have changed the names and some identifying details of all Cubans quoted in this essay, aside from public figures.
  9. See Joseph Scarpaci, Roberto Segre, and Mario Coyula, Havana, Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, for a more complete discussion of the evolution of the historic preservation movement in Havana.
  10. Statistic cited in Scarpaci, Segre, and Coyula, Havana, Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis.
  11. The fortifications of Havana harbor, built between 1586 and 1630, were the work of the Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli and the Spaniard Cristóbal de Roda.
  12. The aggregate value of family remittances to Cuba is hard to pin down. A March 5, 2014 article in the New York Times estimated the prior year’s flow to have been approximately $2.6 billion dollars, the vast bulk of it from the United States. A recent report issued by the Miami-based analyst Emilio Morales, cited in the May 2014 edition of CubaNews, asserts that Cubans abroad send gifts of merchandize and cash valued at more than $6 billion per annum, which would make it the number one source of revenue on the island, exceeding tourism and subsidized petroleum from Venezuela.
  13. In a presentation at the first Bienale de Arquitectura de La Habana, in March 2002, Andrés Duany, the Cuban-American architect and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, floated the radically regressive proposition that any vacant parcel of land in the historic quarters of Havana be redeveloped only with a replica of the building that stood on that site previously. This, he explained, was the moral policy, as the original structures had not been removed intentionally or for any positive purpose, but were the victims of a socio-cultural entropy that must be reversed.
Belmont Freeman, “History of the Present: Havana,” Places Journal, December 2014. Accessed 01 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/141201

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