Ivan Garcia, 17 December 2016 — At the exit of the Bay Tunnel, the P-11 bus is packed with passengers. While the riders enjoy the view of the sea, the odor of saltpeter fills their noses.
In this stretch of Havana’s geography, where Monumental Avenue runs, an eight-lane street inaugurated in 1958 by the dictator Fulgencio Batista, there were plans to build dozens of hotels, casinos, condominiums and suburban neighborhoods very close to the Bacunayagua Bridge, almost at the border of Matanzas province.
“It was a project of skyscrapers and daring designs to attract tourists and also for middle class professionals to rent or buy a house east of Havana. If the Revolution had triumphed in 2016, it would have found a wonderful city. In the style of Rio de Janeiro. And Miami wouldn’t even compete,” emphasized Roberto, a retired architect aged 75.
The son of a designer who worked for Govantes and Cabarrocas, an architecture firm dedicated to the design and construction of works that constitute the urban landmarks of Havana, Roberto says that Cuba needed to get democracy, stop the corruption and create government strategies to do away with poverty, particularly in the countryside.
“But apart from the political situation, Havana and other cities in the interior were a little piece of gold. The public transport services, the post office and the water system, among others, all worked efficiently. Without being chauvinistic: In Latin America, other than Buenos Aires, there was no other city with such architectural riches and functional neighborhoods,” said Robert, adding, “In the downtown and old part of the capital we find linear portals supported by Doric columns with original designs, one- or multi-story stores, restaurants, inns, bars, bookstores, banks, offices… Miami today is what Havana did not become.”
In 1940, Fulgencio Batista presented himself as candidate of the Socialist-Democratic Coalition in the elections of that year and won. He had great popular support and one of his first measures was to legalize the Communist Party.
In 1940, not only was a formidable Constitution approved in Cuba, but there also began the construction of public schools, technical institutes, clinics, hospitals and shelters. Avenues, buildings, neighborhoods and mansions were inaugurated.
Twelve years later, on March 10, 1952, Batista seized power at the barrel of a gun and became a bloody ruler. But even the most brutal dictators always seek to leave an urban legacy. Adolf Hitler inaugurated the best motorways in Europe. And Augusto Pinochet built a robust economy in Chile.
Fidel Castro did not murder millions like Hitler (although according to Maria Werlau, director of the Cuba Archive, the dead of the olive green revolution multiplied by five the crimes of Pinochet). Castro’s repressive resources were based on the formula “more fear and prison than blood.”
In politics, with regards to what his supporters boast about, his successes have been exaggerate. Fidel Castro, it’s true, was a political animal. Purebred. Astute, cynical, and capable of doing anything to achieve his objectives. He had an enormous ego and a sick need to call attention to himself. Manipulator, liar, charismatic and a laudable ability to lead.
He enchanted people with a masterful combination of extensive verbiage, seasoned with a dose of nationalism and social justice. He offered a blast of populism. He promised to lower rents and the cost of electricity, offer free college and enact agrarian reform. Almost all these promises were kept in the first years of his Revolution.
Then he became radicalized. He polarized society and ruled for his supporters. His adversaries were marked with a scarlet letter. They were not people: they were worms, scum, mercenaries.
Several of his deranged projects triumphed only in his head. From draining the Cienaga Swamp, to sowing thousands of coffee plants on the outskirts of Havana, to the constructions of a hundred thousand houses a year. His plans were Homeric. Let us focus, for a minute, on his urban projects.
In February of 1959, on doing away with the National Lottery, considered corrupt by Fidel Castro, one “the bearded ones” (as Castro’s guerrillas were called) named Pastorita Nunez, former tax collector for the insurrectional movement and former fighter in the Sierra Maestra, was the director of the National Institute of Savings and Housing (INAV). From that moment, Nunez decided to put all his energies into ensure that Cubans throughout the island had a decent house or apartment.
In East Havana, less than two miles from the center of the city, a stone’s throw from the Bay Tunnel on 80 acres of wasteland, bordered on the north by the shoreline and the Atlantic Ocean and on the south by Monumental Avenue, under the direction of Pastorita Nunez and UNAV, rose Camilo Cienfuegos City, the best residential complex built to date by Castroism, declared a National Monument in 1996.
For a population of 7,836 people 1,306 apartments were erected, distributed in 51 four-story buildings with twenty different models and 7 eleven-story buildings of three different models. The team of architects was made up of Roberto Carrazana, Hugo D’Acosta Calheiros, Mercedes Álvarez, Ana Vega, Manuel Rubio, Mario González Sedeño and Reinaldo Estévez. They were joined by several architecture students, among them Mario Coyula.
The City, or “Reparto Camilo Cienfuegos,” began construction in April of 1950 and was finished in November of 1961. In 667 days, at a rate of two houses per day, a balance was achieved between high and low buildings, green areas, pedestrian paths and vehicle circulation, commercial and recreation areas. And with an excellent quality of construction. The specialized labor came from Havana and other provinces. Among them was Angelito, a relative or ours who in his native Sancti Spiritus was a first-class mason.
Although the architects took into account the worldwide trends of the 1950s, and had studied international experiences such as the Clarence Perry neighborhood unit in the United States, British New Towns and the satellite cities of the Scandinavian countries, among others, it is clear that the design of the tallest buildings resemble the Focsa Building, at 17 and M in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, inaugurated in 1956 and with its 36 floors — the highest in the country — which is considered one of the seven marvels of Cuban civil engineering.
After the good work of Pastorita Núñez and the INAV came the architectural debacle. “I’m going to talk about Havana, which is what I know best. Without fear of being mistaken, after the Camilo Cienfuegos deal, nothing worthwhile has been built in the capital in the capital,” says Roberto, a retired architect.
And he lists the multiple absurdities. “At the triumph of the Revolution, in 1959, there were two large slum neighborhoods in Havana, Las Yaguas and Llega y Pon. In the municipalities there was no current overcrowding and no one had had the idea of constructing “barbacoas” — platforms referred to as “barbecues” — to make two rooms out of one. And 90% of the houses were in a state of good repair.”
And he adds, “Today there are hundreds of slum neighborhoods and 50% of the housing is in fair or poor condition. As in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe, it will be necessary to demolish or rebuild dozens of bedroom cities like Alamar, San Agustín and Bahía, where there are buildings constructed with poor quality materials by neophytes. The microbrigades — made up of workers and professionals who became builders by necessity — caused a colossal architectural chaos in Havana. Placing the shabby microbrigade buildings next to other buildings or residential areas of quality construction is an urban crime,” says Roberto.
For the retired architect, “the construction systems adopted were prefabricated and tasteless. Some imported from Yugoslavia, like the IMS. Others were designed in Cuba, but as a whole they were ugly and uniform. As they didn’t have the 100-yard blocks like the Spanish blocks, they put up buildings without sewers, parks, schools and other social works. An urban absurdity.”
In Roberto’s opinion, Fidel Castro’s legacy in architectural matters is rather poor. “The exceptions are Camilo Cienfuegos City, the Coppelia Ice Cream building by Julio Girona and the National Schools of Art by Ricardo Porro in collaboration with the Italian architects Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti. By Antonio Quintana I would mention The House of the Cosmonauts in Varadero, the Palace of Conventions in Cubanacan, Lenin Park and a twelve-story experimental building on Malecon and F, currently in a deplorable condition due to lack of maintenance. I may miss some other important work. But there are not many more. ”
It’s enough to tour Havana to see what an urban shipwreck it is. The majority of the 20th century buildings with any architectural value were built during the Republic Era (1902-1958).
A detail: The founders of Fidel Castro’s Revolution live today in houses built before 1959, expropriated from prosperous local bourgeoisie. The Fidelistas are not stupid and they don’t have bad taste.