Six decades after the revolution, Cubans envision a new society that blends the equities of socialism with the energies of capitalism. The challenges are daunting.

Scenes from Habana 500, clockwise from top left: El Capitolio, with its regilded dome; new construction on the Malecon; the restored Centro Gallego, which contains the Gran Teatro de La Habana; tourist-pleasing vintage cars, in the Parque Central.
Scenes from HABANA 500, clockwise from top left: El Capitolio, whose newly regilded dome dominates the skyline; new construction on the Malecón; the restored Centro Gallego, which contains the Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso”; tourist-pleasing vintage cars, in the Parque Central. [Belmont Freeman]

Last year Havana celebrated the 500th anniversary of its founding with two weeks of ceremonies, parades, fireworks, and gala performances attended by scores of foreign dignitaries, including the king and queen of Spain. The city spent many years, and huge sums of money, dressing up for the party. The historic core saw a frenzy of renovation activity. Colonial mansions and former religious buildings were handsomely restored; plazas were reactivated with new cafés, shops, and galleries, all bearing the HABANA 500 logo. Major civic monuments were rehabilitated; El Capitolio, with its newly regilded dome, stands out more conspicuously than ever on the city skyline. To encourage quincentennial visitors and boost tourism, which is seen as the country’s best prospect for economic growth, the government had raced to create more hotel rooms. Venerable hostelries were reborn, historic buildings converted, and new structures erected. Construction cranes loomed over the city.

All this activity, of course, predated the pandemic. The construction sites are now idle, the hundreds of new hotel rooms empty. But even before the global health crisis crashed onto the island, Cuba was in trouble, and not even the cosmetic rehabilitation of La Habana Vieja could mask the growing problems.

Curfews, shutdowns, mandatory evacuations: these are things an authoritarian government can do very efficiently.

It has been said repeatedly that crises expose the underlying flaws of a society, and the coronavirus has proved that rule to a scorching degree. In the United States, we have been shocked by the cascading failures of our public health and social welfare systems — even though we had been defunding them for decades. With brutal speed and clarity, we have been forced to confront the gross, systemic inequities in our society and their lethal consequences. In Cuba, there has been a similar exposure of uncomfortable truths; there, however, the systemic flaws are largely the obverse of those in the U.S. Disaster preparedness is a specialty of the Cuban government, given decades of practice with killer hurricanes. Curfews, shutdowns, mandatory evacuations: these are things that an authoritarian government can do very efficiently. “One of the only advantages of a totalitarian society,” a filmmaker friend quipped in a recent email to me. Likewise, the Cuban health care system has performed admirably in the face of COVID-19. Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors per capita in the world (more than three times that of the U.S.). Cubans enjoy free universal health care from the womb to the grave, yielding an exceptionally healthy population better equipped than most to reduce the morbidity of a viral pandemic. 1

Healthcare workers are in the front line of Cuba’s largely successful fight against COVID-19.
Healthcare workers are on the front lines of Cuba’s largely successful fight against COVID-19. [Julio Larramendi]

Face masks are laundered for reuse. Cubans dispose of very little.
Face masks are laundered for reuse. Cubans dispose of very little. [Julio Larramendi]

Family and friends in Cuba, with whom I’ve been in regular contact during these stressful months, tell me they approve of the way that authorities there have been handling the pandemic. Some fault the government for not closing the country to foreign visitors quickly enough, after a group of Italian tourists were found to be infected with the virus; but once the peril was recognized, the action was swift and severe. Cubans readily accept the stay-at-home orders, the neighborhood quarantines, and the door-to-door testing and tracking that many Americans find intrusive. They are proud of the performance of the medical community in keeping the outbreak under control, and of the national biopharmaceutical industry, which shifted into overdrive to test and deploy a Cuban anti-viral treatment, Interferon Alfa-2b, with encouraging results. (You wouldn’t know about this from the American news media.) Unemployment, which in the U.S. has compounded the pain of the pandemic, has a different meaning and consequence in Cuba, where the government has continued, for now, to pay citizens their (albeit meager) salaries even though hotels, factories, and other state enterprises have shut down — and obviously Cubans don’t lose their healthcare when they lose their jobs.

The pandemic has intensified the dysfunctions of the communist economy. The cruelest of these is food insecurity.

But if the island’s medical infrastructure remains sound and its social solidarity strong, the pandemic has intensified the underlying dysfunctions of the communist economy. The cruelest of these is food insecurity. For months now there has not been enough to eat. Cuba has long imported some 75 percent of its food — one of the rotten legacies of the sugar plantation monoculture of the colonial era — but now, with the precipitous collapse of tourism, the government lacks hard currency and people are suffering. My cousins in Havana describe waiting in long, socially distanced lines outside markets to purchase rice, beans, and chicken (rationed at one pound per person per month), hoping to get lucky before supplies run out. (They also ask me if what they see on television can possibly be true — that U.S. farmers are plowing under crops and euthanizing hogs because of market disruptions.)

Locally grown produce is available in the markets but imported foods are scarce.
Locally grown produce is available in the markets but imported foods are scarce. [Julio Larramendi]

New regulations that allow certain categories of private enterprise have inspired many Cubans to open eateries, for the tourist trade and (especially this year) for the local population.
New regulations that allow certain categories of private enterprise have inspired many Cubans to open eateries, for the tourist trade and (especially this year) for the local population. [Julio Larramendi]

Cuba’s socialist system has never been viable without generous external support. For decades the Castro regime was subsidized first by the Kremlin and then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by Venezuela. Since the death, in 2013, of Hugo Chavez, who revered Fidel Castro as his ideological father, the corrupt administration of Nicolás Maduro has devastated the country’s economy and, consequently, curtailed its aid to Cuba. 2 Meanwhile, rightward swings in South American elections have deprived Cuba of formerly solid political allies and trade partners. Brazil, for example, under president Jair Bolsonaro, has expelled the legions of Cuban doctors who had been serving Brazil’s rural population, cutting off an important source of revenue.

Many of the current troubles have been exacerbated by internal failures. Starting a decade ago, the Cuban government, under Raúl Castro, permitted citizens to establish a wide variety of small-scale private enterprises. People responded enthusiastically, opening hair salons, repair shops, cafés, and restaurants, or paladares, in private houses. 3 But the administration of the nascent commercial sector has been erratic and frustrating; the promised wholesale markets and financial institutions to support the cuentapropistas have not materialized. In the agricultural sector, stubborn adherence to central planning and collective farming has failed to reduce the dependence on imported food. And the economic aberration of Cuba’s dual currencies persists. Tourists exchange their money for the convertible peso, or CUC, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, while Cuban citizens receive their salaries or pensions in the national peso, or CUP, which is valued at a tiny fraction of the CUC. This grossly inefficient system has, predictably enough, led to widening income inequality between those Cubans who operate in the CUC economy — like restaurant owners, or hotel workers who receive tips, or artists who sell their work to foreigners — and practically everyone else. 4

Trump’s policies have reduced remittances, curtailed tourism, exacerbated poverty, and throttled investment in the growing private sector.

Then there’s the Trump factor. Barack Obama’s presidential visit to Havana in 2016 generated wild enthusiasm, all of which has been extinguished in the past four years. Several years ago, in this journal, I predicted that whoever succeeded Obama, Democrat or Republican, would encourage Congress to lift the cold war-era trade embargo that has been U.S. policy since the early days of the Cuban Revolution. Later I speculated that Donald Trump, the businessman-president, would ease trade between the two nations, if only because he lusted to develop hotels and golf resorts on the island. 5 None of that has happened, and Cuba policy has been ceded to right-wing Miami Cubans and other hardliners. Four years after Obama reestablished diplomatic relations, Trump has failed to appoint an ambassador, and after the still-unexplained “sonic attack,” which afflicted people in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, the State Department reduced embassy staff and closed its consular services. Now Cubans seeking to visit the U.S. must go to a third country (like Mexico, Colombia, or Guyana) to apply for a visa. Trump has reduced family remittances, the country’s third biggest source of revenue. 6 Aside from exacerbating poverty, this measure has throttled investment in the growing private sector. And Trump’s sharp curtailment of travel to Cuba — eliminating the “People to People” category of legal travel under which most American tour groups operated, blocking cruise ship traffic, and halting commercial flights — has meant punishing losses for the private restaurants and guest houses that opened in the last decade to serve the rising tourist economy. To me these seem like counterproductive policies for an administration that purportedly wants to rid Cuba of socialism.

The collapse of tourism in this pandemic year has shut down most of Havana's hotels, including the five-star Melia Cohiba.
The collapse of tourism in this pandemic year has shut down most of Havana’s hotels, including the five-star Melia Cohiba. [Manuel Larrañaga Sardiñas]

The terrace of the recently renovated Hotel Inglaterra, on Parque Central, is usually filled with tourists enjoying drinks and music. This year it is another casualty of the pandemic.
The terrace of the recently renovated Hotel Inglaterra, on Parque Central, is usually filled with tourists enjoying drinks and music. This year it is another casualty of the pandemic. [Manuel Larrañaga Sardiñas]

La Floridita, a favored hangout of Ernest Hemingway and legions of tourists, has been shuttered, at least temporarily, by the pandemic
La Floridita, a favored hangout of Ernest Hemingway and legions of tourists, has been shuttered, at least temporarily, by the pandemic. [Manuel Larrañaga Sardiñas]

Drinking water being distributed to a neighborhood in Old Havana where the supply system has failed.
Drinking water is distributed to a neighborhood in Old Havana where the supply system has failed. [Belmont Freeman]

Beyond the showcase projects in the tourist zone, Havana continues to crumble for want of money for maintenance.

Given the diminution of Venezuelan support, the crash in tourism, the tightened U.S. embargo, and the homegrown economic afflictions, Cubans even before the pandemic faced hardships unseen since the “special period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. President Miguel Díaz-Canel — a communist party loyalist handpicked to succeed Raúl Castro last year, thus becoming the first president in six decades not bearing the surname Castro — has been warning citizens of tough times ahead and, of course, blaming the situation on U.S. aggression — a valid, if incomplete, argument. Petroleum supplies are erratic, causing long lines at gasoline stations and rolling blackouts, and Cuban friends have been telling me that the food shortages are worsening. When I was there in February, the produce markets were stocked with various fruits and vegetables — at least in the relatively affluent neighborhood of El Vedado, where I was staying — yet there were inexplicable shortages of other commodities. All week, for example, no coffee was to be found in any store in Havana, and I saw people queueing outside bakeries to buy bread before it disappeared. Domestic beer was also scarce; the result, a café proprietor told me, of power outages at the breweries. But lack of your preferred Cuban beer is a minor inconvenience compared to lack of water, which is your lot if you live in a building over four stories tall or in an uphill neighborhood, and the pumps go out. And notwithstanding the showcase projects in the tourist zone, Havana continues to crumble for want of money for maintenance. Cubans are tragically inured to the deterioration of their urban environment, with near-daily collapses of buildings in the city’s more neglected neighborhoods, but Habaneros were shocked when, in January, a balcony fell from a building in Old Havana and killed three little girls who were walking home from school.

Optimism is in short supply in Cuba these days, particularly among citizens who are younger than the revolution. Anthony DePalma, the veteran journalist who has covered Cuban affairs with singular insight, captured the grim mood earlier this year in an op-ed for the New York Times. Cubans are worn down, he wrote, from “promises of a better life that were never kept.” Six decades after the victorious revolutionaries marched into Havana, “Cubans are not in the streets protesting, but they have no loyalty toward the men who took Fidel Castro’s place or the political system they keep propping up.” 7 This view comports, more and more, with my own observations. Late last year, in Havana, I talked over coffee with a close friend and colleague. Ramón is an architect and scholar whom I always perceived to be a genuine patriot. For many years he sustained a faith that Cuban socialism would succeed, no matter the difficulties of the special period, no matter the scarcities, no matter the sacrifices that the revolution required of citizens. 8 Like most Cubans, Ramón was buoyed by the optimism that accompanied Obama’s visit to Havana and the rapprochement that he and Raúl Castro set in motion. But not anymore. He has concluded that the current Cuban government is incapable of meaningful change, and he confides that he and his wife now “feel like fools” for believing in the system and for not leaving when they had the opportunity. Now he is focused on helping their daughter make a life outside Cuba.

Optimism is scarce these days, particularly among Cubans who are younger than the revolution.

During that same week I visited with my friends Pablo, a photographer with whom I have collaborated on projects in Cuba, and his wife Inés, a molecular biologist, both in their forties. 9 For many years Inés had spent summers conducting cancer research at a prestigious institution in New York; but when I asked about her work, she told me she had quit science. Her laboratory in Havana had become dysfunctional for lack of equipment and supplies, and her professional life had devolved into spending three months each year in New York doing great work and the other nine doing nothing. “It had become impossible,” she said. To make matters worse, her five-year U.S. visa had expired, and it would be an ordeal to secure another under the current prohibitive rules. So Inés had started working as a concierge at a privately-run boutique hotel, spending her days in comfortable surroundings and earning three times as much as before. Her new job is near her home, too, and she no longer needs to endure a long commute on unreliable public transportation. Inés seemed genuinely happy about her change of circumstances while I was silently appalled by the waste of talent, education, and expertise; upset also that Cuba’s much-vaunted biomedical industry — while it might rally to fight the pandemic — could no longer support a once productive career like my friend’s.

These conversations took place in the living room of a spacious apartment that I had recently helped my family to acquire in El Vedado, a coveted Havana neighborhood in which my mother’s family has roots going back generations. 10 To clarify: foreigners are not allowed to own property in Cuba, but ever since 2011, when the government first allowed citizens to buy and sell residential properties, many Cuban-Americans have provided funds to relatives on the island to purchase and renovate homes, to upgrade their living conditions, and to accommodate visiting family members. 11 Indeed, the infusion of foreign money sustains price structures that, while cheap by American standards, put the city’s better residences, which can cost well over $100,000, far beyond the reach of the average Cuban (who earns about $40 per month). The privatization of the housing market may have been a strategy to regulate, and tax, the undercover home-swapping that was going on anyway, but it also has significantly increased the influx of dollar remittances to finance real estate transactions — an unspoken intention of the state, I’m sure. Like so many government “reforms,” it is rife with frustrating contradictions. 12 While homeownership and the freedom to monetize it have given Cubans a new degree of self-determination, the market quickly determined that most ordinary Cubans would not benefit, and widened the wealth gap between Cubans with access to off-island capital — or the good fortune to be living in a desirable home at the moment of privatization — and those without.

The author's former family home, in the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana, ca. 2000. Inset: the home, ca. 1928, before the addition of a second floor.
The author’s former family home, in the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana, ca. 2000. [Belmont Freeman] Inset: the home, ca. 1928, before the addition of a second floor. [Courtesy Belmont Freeman]

Thus I am able, with the enthusiastic help of my local cousins, to have a home in Havana and to fulfill a dream to reestablish my branch of the family in Cuba. It has been a challenging but satisfying endeavor to work on the renovation of the apartment with my cousin Claudia, an energetic woman in her late forties, and aided by a young architect named Yoandy Rizo, who is keyed into networks of tradespeople and scarce building supplies — valuable knowledge in a city where access to construction materials is tightly controlled by the state and many products are simply not available. To fill in the gaps, I have made many trips from New York to Havana with my bags filled with light fixtures, plumbing parts, and other items unobtainable in Cuba — until the pandemic shut down travel.

Architecture was not on the government’s 2011 list of permitted private enterprises, but many young practitioners have nurtured modest practices, focusing on restaurants, art galleries, and home renovations. Some are operating under licenses as interior decorators or artists; others are simply ignoring the regulations while moonlighting from their day jobs at government agencies. Yoandy Rizo is a rising star among this cohort. We first met in 2012 when he visited the United States through a residency program for young Cuban designers. 13 Back then, like so many of his peers, Yoandy was optimistic; the Cuban economy seemed ripe with opportunity, sparked by the heady mix of Obama-era diplomacy and post-Fidel reforms. But when we reconnected in Havana, in February, he told me that he had suffered disappointing setbacks. Four years ago he had ten active clients — a mix of foreigners, local cuentapropistas, and Cuban-American repatriates for whom he was designing residential and commercial projects. Now, after Donald Trump’s election and the ensuing economic crisis, all but two of those projects were cancelled.

Cuba’s young architects are trying to invent new ways of practicing, in an environment defined by scarcity.

Not willing to give up, Yoandy has recognized that he needs, as he says, “to invent new ways of making architecture” in an environment defined by scarcity. He believes that architects must take control of the means of production, venturing into activities that are, as he puts it, “not exactly permitted but not explicitly prohibited.” Yoandy and friends from architecture school have organized themselves into a consortium of young practitioners — currently twenty or so — who share information about material supplies, IT resources, and contractors who are honest and do good work. The group is currently seeking government permission to establish a cooperative that would import building supplies to Cuba from Mexico.

Old Havana with restored facades and a tourist café. Local residents congregate at a wifi hotspot.
Old Havana with restored facades and a tourist café. Before the pandemic, local residents would congregate at a wifi hotspot. [Belmont Freeman]

With tourists mostly gone, the streets of Havana are much emptier than usual.
With tourists mostly gone, the streets of Havana are much emptier than usual. [Julio Larramendi]

Likewise, local architects understand the need to become, or to create, their own clientele. Yoandy described to me an inventive project to design a collective “neighborhood hotel.” The project involves organizing the residents of a block in Old Havana to “build” a hotel, with all the assorted components — concierge, restaurant, bar, laundry, guest rooms — dispersed among their homes, which they will renovate themselves. Yoandy identifies himself and his peers as the “bridge generation” that can lead Cuba, and its architecture, into the future. His parents’ generation came of age in the 1970s and ’80s, when Cuban socialism was thriving, and they were accustomed to enjoying a generous flow of state benefits. Today that feels unsustainable, and Cubans understand the need to build a new society that blends the equities of socialism — including state-supported education and health care — with the energies of capitalism. A co-op import business, a collectively-run hotel — these admirable projects sound like classic socialism to me. Yoandy speculates that the economy could get an even more powerful reboot if expatriated Cubans returned to the island and brought their business know-how. When I suggested that this might be a Cuban version of the reunification of Germany, his response was quick: “Perhaps — but in Germany the capitalist West devoured the socialist East. We don’t want that to happen to Cuba.”

Yoandy is one of the more fortunate young architects in the country; fortunate to have gained some experience abroad, and to see a future for himself in Cuba. Others are disillusioned. Without meaningful job prospects, many recent graduates seek to emigrate — Mexico and Spain are the most popular destinations now that it is virtually impossible to obtain a U.S. visa. But these days it is not only young architects who are feeling vulnerable; even more senior and established practitioners shared with me their worries and uncertainties.

These days not only young architects feel vulnerable; established practitioners are also uncertain.

In the years before the gala quincentennial, architects in the prestigious Office of the City Historian worked mightily to complete the restoration projects in Old Havana; but Cuban architects have largely been denied opportunities to design new construction. Most of the recent hotel projects are joint ventures between the Cuban government and foreign developers (French and Spanish companies are the most active). While the Cuban state retains ownership of the real estate, it allows foreign investors broad latitude in design direction, the upshot being that local architects, working for the government, are relegated to implementing the alien designs. Universo García is an accomplished practitioner whom I first got to know in his role as architect for the renovations of Havana’s famed National Art Schools. 14 Universo also designed the reconstruction of the historic Hotel Telégrafo on the Parque Central, in 2001, before the recent building boom. In a conversation last year, he told me that despite his credentials he has not been enlisted to design any of the new hotel projects and is now underemployed, getting by on his teaching salary and little else. The field is now, he says, dominated by international development companies. Like so many of his architectural compatriots, Universo deplores the built results and laments that the government is selling out their beautiful city to foreign interests.

One project stirred particular controversy. Where the elegant boulevard Paseo del Prado meets the Malecón, Havana’s iconic oceanfront esplanade, a prime site had sat vacant for decades after the once proud Hotel Miramar, in ruinous condition, was demolished. In 2009, the Cuban architectural studio Choy-León produced a design for a new hotel that melded a sleek tower to a base scaled to the historic city context. The project was commissioned by a development team under the direction of Habaguanex, the commercial arm of the City Historian’s office. But when the government transferred control of the project to a French company 15, their design was jettisoned in favor of an ungainly behemoth clad in a flashy mix of precast concrete, gold-colored metal, and tinted glass.

Hotel Paseo del Prado y Malecón, under construction in the spring of 2019. Many Cuban architects consider the multinational project an ungainly and insensitive intrusion.
Hotel Paseo del Prado y Malecón, under construction in the spring of 2019. Many Cuban architects consider the multinational project an ungainly and insensitive intrusion. [Belmont Freeman]

Architects in Havana are fiercely protective of their city’s legacy, and lament that the government is selling out their beautiful city to foreign interests.

I spoke in June to José Antonio Choy, who runs, with his wife Julia León, the most prominent quasi-independent architectural office in Cuba. Choy-León has designed an impressive portfolio of hotels, transportation terminals, and commercial developments. 16 José told me that since the disappointing demise of their hotel project at Prado and Malecón, they have had no work. Meanwhile, the government’s aggressive development program, driven by state agencies and multinational developers, puts up mediocre buildings that detract from the urban environment. “Havana does not deserve this!” he exclaimed. Nor is this supposed to happen. Development in Havana is, at least on paper, highly regulated. Various agencies — including the Provincial Directorate of Physical Planning and both the National and Provincial Monument Commissions — are empowered to review projects in the city and its historic districts. I know people who serve on one or another of these boards, and they express frustration over the regularity with which their agencies have been sidelined, as powerful interests push forward high-profile projects without the mandated design review.

Architects in Havana are proud, and fiercely protective, of their city’s architectural legacy. For their part Choy and León have proposed an initiative they call “La Habana del Siglo XXI,” with the goal of producing a comprehensive plan to reconcile necessary and inevitable development with the values of historic preservation and humane urbanism, and at a scope encompassing more than the tourist district of Old Havana. This is hardly a new idea; I think back to conversations I had with the late architect and planner Mario Coyula, who foresaw the current situation with dread and whom Choy cites as an inspiration. 17 But it has been repeatedly frustrated by lack of resources and political will. And now the need for coherent planning and stewardship in the face of intense economic pressure has become especially urgent following the recent death of Eusebio Leal, the charismatic Historian of the City of Havana for over four decades and a strong moral — and politically potent — voice for enlightened urban development. 18

Designed by Proyectos Espancio, LaB26 is a popular art gallery in the El Vedado district of Havana.
Designed by Proyecto Espacios, LaB26 is a popular art gallery in the El Vedado district of Havana. [Belmont Freeman]

Enlightened practice and community development were also the themes of my conversations with the architects Vilma Bartolomé and her son Mario Infante Bartolomé (who is a contemporary of Yoandy Rizo). The two run a busy multidisciplinary design office, Proyecto Espacios, which Vilma founded in 1998, as well as a studio-gallery called LaB26, which they opened in 2010 in a radically reconstructed house in El Vedado — a gleaming white structure with minimalist interiors that would be right at home in Barcelona or Los Angeles. During the 2016 Havana Biennial of Art, LaB26 displayed an ambitious project that proposed to reactivate key sites along Calle Linea, a major artery in El Vedado, to create a new, walkable arts district. I was impressed by the quality and plausibility of the proposals, not to mention the exquisite renderings and models.

The Bartolomés’ most recent enterprise is Factoria Espacios, an industrial space in the depressed barrio of Los Sitios in Central Havana that they have equipped with machinery to produce wood furniture and metal fabrications, employing both design school graduates and local residents, for whom they run an apprenticeship program. Last year I toured Factoria and saw furniture for a hotel being assembled — evidence that Vilma and Mario, at least, are getting a piece of the development action. Proyecto Espacios’ portfolio features stylish modern interiors for hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and exhibition spaces, including several projects in Spain and Mexico — an extraordinary range for a Cuban studio. When I asked an architect friend how to explain such uncommon success, he rolled his eyes and said, “They know people.” Well, “knowing people” is a critical advantage everywhere; but in Cuba, given tight state control of construction, it is probably particularly useful. 19 In recent email exchanges, Vilma described to me the adjustments, personal and professional, compelled by the current crisis. Of all the architects with whom I’ve spoken recently, she seemed, if not upbeat, the least dejected.

The entire world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent economic crisis. Then the police killing of George Floyd in the middle of America sparked a conflagration of protest around the globe. I have not been there to witness the situation, but I am unaware of demonstrations in Cuba explicitly inspired by Black Lives Matter; nor would I expect there to be any, Cuban authorities’ intolerance of public protest aside. 20 Cuban television, which is state run, has featured steady coverage of American police brutality, and of racial justice rallies. The communist government has long portrayed the United States as a racist society, and most Cubans are convinced of that. (I cannot disagree with them.) Which is not to deny that Cuba has its own hideously racist history. For centuries, during the Spanish era, the colony and its sugar industry were utterly dependent on slavery, and the institution was not abolished until 1886. For much of the 20th century, during the Republican period, the island’s Afro-Cuban population was trapped in peonage that was little better.

The Cuban Revolution was truly revolutionary. Generations of access to health care, education, and housing has shaped a country that is remarkably egalitarian.

In this light it is worth remembering that the Cuban Revolution was truly revolutionary. Not instantly or completely, of course. Black Cubans still suffer discrimination and deeper poverty than Whites. 21  The upper echelon of the communist party has long been dominated by White men. Yet racial equality was written into the 1959 constitution, and several generations of equal access to health care, education, housing, and other social benefits has shaped a country that is remarkably egalitarian and well-integrated. Interracial marriage is commonplace, including within my own family. The institutions, industries, and geographies of Cuba are populated by a wide spectrum of White, Black, and mixed-race Cubans, and they function in a cooperative equilibrium that never fails to impress visitors from the U.S. This summer August Nimtz, a professor of political science and African American studies at the University of Minnesota, wrote convincingly on “why there are no George Floyds in Cuba.” Nimtz argues that the revolutionary generation understood that the police would need the support of the people, and that ever since the relationship has been more cooperative than antagonistic. He also shares an intimate detail: that as a Black man, his blood pressure improves when he is in Cuba, “maybe because I am more relaxed there, unconsciously less on guard when it comes to the police.” 22

Architect Talia Quesada, left, works in the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana.
Architect Talia Quesada, left, works in the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, commanding a degree of authority that a young, female, Black architect would struggle to attain in the U.S. [Belmont Freeman]

The architectural profession in Cuba is more racially diverse than in the U.S., or any place else, for that matter.

While I cannot cite statistics, I am confident that the architectural profession in Cuba is more racially diverse than in the U.S., or any place else, for that matter. In this journal, in 2014, I told the story of Clara, an Afro-Cuban woman about my age (which is to say, a young child at the time of the revolution) who made the journey from rural poverty to a job as architect within the Ministry of Housing — a life trajectory unimaginable to her sugarcane-cutter father and for which she unequivocally credited the revolution, to which she was fiercely loyal. 23 More recently I came to know Talia Quesada, a dynamic young Afro-Cuban architect who works in the design and construction division of the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana — one of the best jobs available to graduates of the Ciudad Universitaria José Antonio Echeverría (where she was a student of Universo García). Talia is the project architect for the conversion of a building in Old Havana into a study center for the environmental advocacy organization Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez. I met Talia when FANJ reached out to Columbia University for support with the latest sustainable design practices that could inform the renovation. Our collaboration took the form of an architecture and preservation workshop with graduate students that I led in June 2019. During the days we spent together in Havana, I was impressed not only by the quality of Talia’s research and design but also by the ease and confidence with which she directed a team of mostly older, Black and White male architects and engineers, commanding a level of respect that a young, female Black architect would struggle to attain in the U.S. We did not discuss politics, but when one of our group asked, Talia confirmed without hesitation that she is a communist. Reports that the revolution has “lost” all young Cubans are premature.

As I write, Cuba is still struggling to respond effectively to the economic crisis, and so far the strategies are merely incremental. In recent weeks, the government updated the current list of permitted private enterprises, and now people will be allowed to open any type of business they want, aside from limited categories deemed critical to national security. Discussions about unifying the country’s dual currencies have picked up, though they remain inconclusive, and new avenues to encourage foreign investment are opening, albeit tentatively. (The United States, of course, could accelerate these processes by lifting the pointless and cruel trade embargo.) Perhaps my friend Ramón is correct, that the authoritarian gerontocracy that governs Cuba is incapable of reform. Real change, we agreed, will require the enactment of meaningful rights of public assembly, free speech, and political participation — and the final passing of the hardline revolutionary generation. 24 At the same time, I am heartened by the determination of young people like Yoandy Rizo, who adhere to socialist ideals and are eager to put them to work for their generation and the future of the nation. My own investment in a family home in Havana is a vote of — if not confidence — at least hope.

  1. Cuba’s excess capacity in the medical field has made the export of doctors and nurses around the world the country’s chief source of revenue. This year they are in great demand, helping some three dozen nations fight the pandemic. See Andrea Rodriguez, “Cuban docs fighting coronavirus around the world, defying US,” AP News, April 3, 2020. As of this writing, Cuba has recorded a total of about 7,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 130 deaths; this out of a total population of 11.2 million.
  2. See Sheyla Urdaneta, Anatoly Kurmanaev, and Isayen Herrera, “Venezuela, Once an Oil Giant, Reaches the End of an Era,” New York Times, October 7, 2020.  “Cuba forced into rationing as US sanctions and Venezuela crisis bite,” The Guardian, May 11, 2019.
  3. Private home-based restaurants, called paladares, were first allowed in 1993 to help support tourism, but with strict limits on size, location, and menu offerings. The 2011 regulations lifted those restrictions.
  4. In 2013 Raúl Castro announced the imminent unification of the currencies; to date nothing has happened. In recent years, on trips to Cuba, I have not had to go to a bank to exchange money because so many private citizens are eager to exchange their CUCs for dollars, in anticipation of a devaluation.
  5. See Belmont Freeman, “Havana: History of the Present, Places Journal, December 2014,; and Freeman, “Cuban Futures,” Places Journal, March 2017,
  6. Remittances were unlimited under the Obama administration. Today, Cubans in the United States can send only $1,000 per quarter to family members on the island (and further cuts are rumored).
  7. Anthony DePalma, “How Cubans Lost Faith in Revolution,” New York Times, May 23, 2020.
  8. I have changed the names and identifying characteristics of some of the Cubans whom I quote.
  9. See Freeman, “Havana: History of the Present,” Places Journal.
  10. A bit of family history: My mother grew up in Havana in a house a few blocks from my new Vedado home. She came to the U.S. in the 1940s for college, where she met and married my father, an American, and then settled in Washington, D.C. Most members of her family left Cuba at the time of the revolution. The relatives that I know in Havana today include my second cousin Olimpia and her husband who, as students in the 1950s, were active supporters of the revolution, to which they remain loyal. They and their adult children are productive members of Havana’s cultural elite.
  11. Prior to 2011, most housing in Cuba operated something like a limited-equity coop. People owned their house or apartment, but when they vacated the unit ownership reverted to the government, which would transfer the home to a new resident at a fixed price.
  12. Another contradiction: internet-capable cellphones and government-sponsored hotspots are newly ubiquitous, but state-issued calling cards remain too expensive for many Cubans, and web content is closely monitored and restricted by government censors.
  13. The Vermont Studio Center initiated a residency for emerging Cuban designers to create works that were installed at Art Omi in Ghent, New York, in summer 2012. I reviewed the exhibition for The Architects’ Newspaper. Yoandy Rizo returned to New York in 2014 for a residency at the Queens Museum, shared with fellow Cuban Osmany Abel García Fuentes.
  14. Belmont Freeman, “What is it About the Art Schools?,” Places Journal, February 2012,
  15. Habaguanex S.A. was established in 1994 by Eusebio Leal Spengler, Historian of the City of Havana, to develop tourist facilities in Old Havana — hotels, restaurants, stores — the proceeds from which would be reinvested in more building renovations. In August 2016, control of Habaguanex was transferred to GAESA, the commercial conglomerate operated by the Cuban military, and its Gaviota Tourism division. The move distressed many in the architecture and preservation community who feared a decline from the design standards maintained by the Historian’s Office.
  16. The term “independent” is relative. As noted, architecture is not one of the private enterprises permitted by the government (though it may be once the list is expanded). A studio like Choy-León or Proyecto Espacios may be independent in that they are not working as employees of a government agency, but almost all their work is performed for the government, as the state is the only client in Cuba for projects of any significant size. I admit this is confusing.
  17. See Freeman, “Havana: History of the Present,” Places Journal, which opens with a scene set in Mario Coyula’s apartment.
  18. Belmont Freeman, “Obituary: Eusebio Leal Spengler,” Architectural Record, August 3, 2020.
  19. The Bartolomés benefit also from connections to Spain, where they have dual citizenship. Mario studied architecture in Spain, and they have at times worked on international projects from an office in Madrid. For any Cuban, the ability to freely travel back and forth to another country makes life, and professional advancement, vastly easier.
  20. In June, a demonstration in Havana to protest the killing by police of an unarmed Black man was quashed by the advance detention of a number of dissidents, including the activist artist Tania Bruguera. See “Cuba prevents protest over police killing of Black man,” Reuters, June 30, 2020. Whether this was a demonstration against police brutality or specifically racism is unclear. In either case, resistance to state repression is a growing phenomenon. See also Coco Fusco, “An open letter to American cultural institutions, arts professionals, journalists, and various Cubaphile,” e-flux, December 2, 2020; and “Cuban Artists Continue to Face Harassment Despite Historic Agreement,” Artforum, December 3, 2020.
  21. Anthony DePalma’s new book is telling on this history. See The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times (New York: Random House, 2020).
  22. August H. Mimtz, “Why There Are No George Floyds in Cuba,” Legal Form: A Forum for Marxist Analysis of Law, June 17, 2020.
  23. I lost touch with Clara after the closure of her husband’s paladar, where she worked at night, so I cannot tell you what she feels about the situation in Cuba today.
  24. While Raúl Castro ceded the presidency to Miguel Díaz-Canel, he retains his position as First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party; which means Cuba is not yet entirely, or literally, “post-Castro.”
Belmont Freeman, “Post-Castro,” Places Journal, December 2020. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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