Cuba Keeps Betting On the Past and Fidel Castro / Iván García

Old Havana. Selling photos to tourists of Fidel Castro and the writer Ernest Hemingway. Taken from Al Día

Iván García, 29 November 2018 — A group of Swiss tourists walk through the gray marble corridor of the old Havana Yacht Club, in the Flores district, west of the capitol building, while the guide shows them old black and white photos hanging on the wall of what once was a meeting place for the most illustrious of the Cuban bourgeoisie.

In perfect German, the guide tells them the anecdote that the club was so elitist that ’even the dictator Fulgencio Batista was not allowed to enter’. After having lunch in a restaurant next to the beach, the Swiss continue with an itinerary designed exclusively to emphasize the recovery of the Cuban republic.

Nostalgia and the past is for sale in any hotel, bar or restaurant in Havana’s tourist circuit. Sloppy’s Joe bar, next to the Hotel Sevilla, has a collection of photos of a city that was once cosmopolitan, and it has even invented a drink that evokes the American actor Errol Flynn, a regular patron of the place.

Foreign visitors are struck by the architectural diversity of Havana, which despite the state’s neglect, the soot and the ruins of its facades, still shows its former opulence.

Let’s call him Joel, the  architect of Eusebio Leal’s project aimed at rescuing areas of Old Havana, who recognizes that “the intention is to highlight old customs among tourists and foreign visitors and underscore the splendor of a memorable city that had an incredible nightlife.” And he adds:

“It starts with the music, continues with the tradition of making cigars by hand, the viewing and riding in cars from the 1950s, and highlights the lifestyle and architecture of the time. I suppose that is because Havana, after the Revolution, has little to contribute from the architectural point of view. Many works built after 1959 are marked by clumsiness and horrible designs. They should be demolished.”

A year before the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, the government of handpicked president Miguel Díaz-Canel has implemented a broad plan to remodel some areas of the city. “Especially those that the yumas [Cuban slang for Americans] tour,” says René, who lives in a rooming house in the marginal neighborhood of Colón, across the street from where the majestic Iberostar Grand Packard luxury hotel at Prado and Cárcel has just opened.

The other Havana, that of Mantilla, Atarés and La Cuevita, three neighborhoods of the many that in the capital cry out for a thorough repair, have their houses fixed with a coat of emulsified paint while their principal streets have to settle for a thin layer of asphalt.

Diana, a housewife, prays every night that the roof does not fall on her. Twenty years ago her large ramshackle house was declared uninhabitable by housing officials. “But where am I going to go, mi’jo. The State shelters are dens of inequity. The neighbors have written letters to all levels of the government. But they do not solve anything. It is evident that the Cuba shown on television only functions in the news broadcasts”.

Alcides, custodian of a highschool, sarcastically describes Díaz-Canel’s management and tourism. “There are good Diaz, bad Diaz and Diaz-Canel. This is something that no one can fix. For thirty years they have bet on tourism and the annoying story that it will be the engine that will bring development to the country. But nobody in the city sees a penny of the tourist money. Raúl Castro and ’Canelo’ are only interested in investing in works that provide money to military companies. Now they come up with the story of solving the housing problem in ten years. A lie. If they have not solved it in sixty years, they will not solve it in a decade. Pretending holds up everything.”

For Norge, a Political Science graduate, the “current economic and political structures do not work. The government is incapable of managing public services with a minimum of efficiency. What people ask for is change. But the regime is committed to papering reality with false promises. Not counting on a politician of stature, the strategy is to bet on the symbolism of Fidel Castro. Since they do not have new ideas, they choose to rehash his speeches.”

Two years after the death of the autocrat, the main culprit of the disaster that is now Cuba, the regime tries to sell smoke and mirrors. There is no Plan B. What’s left is to market nostalgia and the past on the back of Fidel Castro’s corpse, a communist and staunch enemy of capitalism. Paradoxes of destiny.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria