Ever since Sebastián de Ocampo circumnavigated Cuba, between 1508 and 1509, the seduction of the then blue and clear waters of Havana Bay began. He named it Puerto Carenas* because he stopped here to repair some damage to his ship and to renew his fresh water reserves. Two small rivers flow into this bay. Ocampo did not know it then, but he had discovered, this early in the conquest, what would be the key port of Spanish trade with its American colonies. Anyway, the indigenous name prevailed, and the twins, the city and the bay, went on to share the same name: Havana. With its magnificent natural conditions, its narrow entrance channel, its three wide inlets, the width of its space and depth of its waters, Havana Bay is, even to date, ideal as a port and, consequently, an excellent geographical point, both as a destination for passenger ships and for maritime commerce. Almost from the beginning, and for numerous other reasons, the bay was the heart of the city, the center that inspired life and encouraged the economy. The city owes much of its history to its bay and she –for her part- jealously treasures the remains of ancient facts and legends in the mysteries of her dark cradle.
Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, maritime traffic in Havana was already the most intense of the New World, and some of the largest galleons of the time were constructed in its shipyards. In the nineteenth century, it attained hectic commercial activity due to the Cuban sugar boom after the Haitian Revolution. Through the bay entered, over the centuries, tens of thousands of immigrants and an even greater number of African slaves; it was a widely open door through which poured many of the components that later scattered throughout the Island to lend flesh and spirit to the national culture.
Until the 1980’s, a period of false prosperity derived from the honeymoon with the defunct Soviet Union and of shady deals with the CMEA, Havana harbor was a veritable floating city for the large number of merchant ships that frequented its waters. Moored, anchored or flowing in and out, maritime traffic in the old bay imprinted on the city an atmosphere of movement that contrasts vividly with the spectral appearance it shows today. The bay is like a desert.
With its old docks, Machina and Santa Clara, in ruins, the floating dock empty and covered in rust, an old towing crane abandoned near the Santa Clara pier, sewage and waste-laden greasy water and the smell of pollution invading the space, the bay is a testament to the desecration of the historical memory of the city. She is a distinctive victim of the official apathy, but nobody seems to care. What difference does a little more or less crap in such a dirty city? Many young Havanans shrug their shoulders or look at me in disbelief when I tell them that the Havana Bay of my early childhood had blue water where you could find sea bass that were plentiful, flying fish and many seagulls. Not even my children believe it (“Are you sure, Mom, could it be that you are confusing your memories with your wishes?”) But grey-haired Havanans do know that what I am saying is true.
These days, there is a rumor going around that at least part of the scarce maritime commercial activity has been relocating to the port of Mariel, and that a certain Brazilian company is financing the work that will result in a cruise ship terminal in the area of the old piers of the old city, in the so-called Casco Histórico. I don’t know how much truth there is in any of this, but I have seen some work being done in the demolition of the four piers adjacent to the Alameda de Paula and the old fire station, adjacent to the Regla launch pier.
I’m such an optimist that I want to believe that someday there will be changes that will benefit the bay, that -like before- will once again be a fountain of life and of well-being for the city and its inhabitants, that its waters will be clean and that, on a very special day I will invite my suspicious children to walk along the wall of the Malecón, as we so often did when I was still a young girl and they were two little kids. I dream about being able to show them then the quick flutter of the fins of the sea bass frolicking once again in the blue waters of my bay.
* From carenar: (to careen) to clean, caulk, or repair (a ship in this position).
Translator: Norma Whiting
September 14, 2010