14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 8 June 2016 — As if it were a Michelin star, tour operators, hotel managers and those who rent private rooms will exhibit, starting Tuesday, Havana’s status as one of the “New7Wonder Cities” of the modern world. Although the rain intruded on the unveiling of the plaque a few yards from the Malecon that confirms the new title, popular humor has not ignored the designation.
This week, there has been an increase in jokes making the rounds about the “wonder” of traveling in deteriorating urban buses, the marvel of buying food in a city in the grip of a dual currency system, or the miracle of the many buildings that remain standing despite their advanced stage of deterioration. Regardless of their disbelief, however, Havanans try to make the best of the new categorization, as symbolic as it is promising.
The Cuban capital figures on the list of 1,200 aspirants from 220 countries that competed for the grandiloquent epithet. Online voting put the city among the 77 finalists, which were reduced to 28 official candidates by a commission of experts.
Successive selections ended to the pleasure of a cabal of seven cities, like musical notes, the principal colors, the seas and the sins. Along with Havana the cities are Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), Durban (South Africa), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), La Paz (Bolivia) and Vigan (Philippines).
The big winners are the tour guides who, from air-conditioned buses, tell foreign visitors the history of the taking of Havana by the English and describe to them in epic tones El Morro lighthouse guarded by the fortress of La Cabana. In these stories, Havana’s “wonder” status blocks the view of everyday problems and improves the tips that end up in their pockets.
These chroniclers of a city that lives only in the pages of Lonely Planet consider it an impertinence to note that on the day the designation was made official rainfall occasioned a building collapse in Central Havana while in the ration stores in the Cerro and Marianao neighborhoods people were buying 11 ounces of “chicken for fish*” and there was an extended power failure in Vedado.
None of the guides will tie the unexpected award to the celebration this year of the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party, nor to the presence of the country’s president on the list of the seven oldest presidents in the world.
José María, a young hustler who knows a few phrases in several languages and specializes in dating tourists, was on the Malecón on Tuesday at the time appointed to unveil the plaque. He hoped to engage in some “business” with foreigners passing along the esplanade, but only found a small group of officials headed by Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler.
Under a piece of cardboard in lieu of an umbrella, José María heard the phrase of the city historian: “You have to have eyes to see the wonder.” Then the committee left in official cars and the young man “captured” a couple of tourists to whom he described the wonderful cigars, for a wonderful price, which he kept at home “very near here,” so that they could smoke them in this wonderful city the official guides don’t talk about.