Cuba: From Soviet Comrades to Yankee Misters / Ivan Garcia

Raúl-Castro-y-Obama-caricatura-de-Michel-Kichka2-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 July 2015 — For the time being the brutish hunk of concrete that was the Soviet embassy and now serves as the headquarters of the Russian Federation — located on beautiful Fifth Avenue in Miramar, a neighborhood in western Havana — will remain the largest foreign chancery building in Cuba.

Perhaps at some point in the future, after the US Congress has approved funds, the White House will solicit bids from cutting-edge architects to design a unique and wonderful embassy building in Havana.

For now Secretary of State John Kerry will have to hoist the Stars and Stripes on the site of the building designed by Max Abramowitz and Wallace Harrison, of the firm Harrison & Abramowitz, has occupied since 1953.

The six-story building features large windows along one side of Havana’s Malecon, with blue-green glass to filter the strong sun. It has central air-conditioning but its windows can still be opened to take advantage of the sea breeze.

The walls are clad in rose gray Jaimanita limestone. The gardens are the work of California architect Thomas D. Church. In 1997 the building underwent extensive renovations.

The once and future embassy is small given the fifty-thousand tourist and family reunification visa applications it processes every year.

A cluster of small businesses have set up shop in the neighborhood around the US Interests Section. They range from food service to lodging to filling out electronic forms.

In the basement of a three-story building, a stone’s throw from the embassy, is a burger joint frequented by US officials and diplomatic personnel.

In anticipation of changes to come, the restaurant’s owner has decided to expand the menu and change the look of the place. “I will have US flags hanging and jazz videos playing on a wide screen TV,” he says.

The American flag was a design motif on the clothing of no small number of Cubans, even before December 17, 2014. Leggings, jeans and T-shirts sporting the bald eagle along with fifty stars on a field of red, white and blue have been a fixture of the capital as well as cities further inland. It is also quite common to see the Cuban and American flags on pedicabs, taxis and private cars.

The re-opening of embassies on July 20 was not a surprise for the average Cuban. It was a foregone conclusion.

“We were just waiting for the date. Some thought it would be July 4th because that is Independence Day in the United States. In the bolita (underground lottery) many were betting on numbers and symbols that had something to do with what’s going on between the two countries,” says a bolita bookie.

Although Afro-Cuban expectations have dimmed in light of the reluctance of Raul Castro’s government to lay out a roadmap that would allow private entrepreneurs to take out loans or import supplies from the United States, people have overwhelmingly approved of the thaw.

There is palpable sense of affinity and admiration for anything that comes from the yuma*. A smart phone, tablet, computer or electronic device with a “Made in USA” label is guaranteed to sell for a good price on the black market.

“It’s always been that way. Before and after the Revolution, when we were allies of the Soviets and when the Berlin Wall fell. Cubans were still big fans of American products. We never got into Russian food or their fashions and customs, even though you still see some Russian names and some very uncomfortable cars like Ladas, Volgas and Moskoviches. We even like the American national anthem,” says a shopkeeper in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton as he hums a line from “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It has been a 180 degree turn. From the screaming people, incited by the regime, and slogans against the United States to an unsuccessful Communist Party media campaign against North American consumer society.

“There are headlines in the paper every day about the rise in poverty and homelessness in American cities. In the 1970s I was convinced the Ku Klux Klan was lynching negroes on virtually every street corner of New York. Fidel even boasted that within ten years Cuba would  have a higher standard of living than the United States. It was really too much!” says Eulogio, a retiree.

While the new state of affairs may have caught the government off guard and without a coherent strategy, Cubans themselves are getting ready for D-Day. Films, TV series and pirated music videos are being sold by the ton in homes throughout the island.

Both private and state-owned English-language schools have been proliferating and the favorite destination for future emigres is still the United States. All that remains of onetime Soviet influence is a sinking economy, central planning, bureaucracy and ideological madness.

The former USSR left behind a trail of unsightly cars and a hideous building in Miramar that is the antithesis of architecture. And that’s it.

Ivan Garcia

Cartoon by Michael Kichka (Belgium, 1954). From i24News.

 *Translator’s note: Cuban slang for the United States.