The Real Havana, Painful Wonder

Commemorative notch of the declaration which placed Havana as one of the new wonder-cities of the world. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 November 2019 –On the esplanade of the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, just at the entrance of Havana Bay, a plaque recognizes Cuba’s capital as one of the seven “wonder cities” of the modern world, after its selection, in June 2016, in the contest of the Swiss foundation New Seven Wonders.

Such a high merit was based on “the mythical appeal, the warm and welcoming atmosphere, and the charisma and joviality of its inhabitants.”

The news, however, surprised not a few Havana residents. Is our city really wonderful? They pondered. The answer is a resounding yes if we refer to its architectural wealth, to the imposing majesty of its colonial fortresses, to its old squares, to the beautiful Malecón that borders almost five miles of coastline, to the prosperity reflected in modern Havana of El Vedado and the comfortable residences, both in the classic and rationalist* styles in The Kholy and Miramar neighborhoods, and the well-ordered way that distinguishes its different spaces and neighborhoods, which seems to narrate the constructive styles and the economic and cultural history of our metropolitan area, as if traveling through time. All this, added to the also peculiar idiosyncrasy of Havana’s locals, imprints a particular spirit to the city.

Is our city really wonderful?  They pondered. The answer is a resounding yes when we refer to the architectural richness of our city

As usual, the designation of “Wonder City” was welcomed by Cuba’s authorities as if it were their own merit, as if the capital “of all Cubans” – which foreign visitors enjoy at will, but from which they expel as “illegal” those nationals who do not have permanent residence in it – would have retained its most valuable and distinctive features thanks to “the Revolution”, and not (as is the case) in spite of it.

But Havana is really a painful wonder. Founded 500 years ago, besieged and attacked several times by pirates and privateers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it began to thrive from the eighteenth century on, in a gradual but steady boom that only stopped abruptly with the coming to power of Fidel Castro and the imposition of his socialist state system. The “revolutionary” sign first caused paralysis and then, systematically, the destruction of most of a city in which more than two million souls live, with particular impact on a visibly insufficient and deteriorated housing stock.

Six decades of established neglect and abandonment, almost as State policy, against a city despised and humiliated by political power, the corrosive effect of the Castro regime has perhaps only before been surpassed in history by the attack of the pirate Jacques de Sores, who in 1555 sacked and razed the then small village, destroying it to its foundations.

The task was relatively easy for that famous outlaw, taking into account the weakness of the buildings of the time, as well as the meager population and the precariousness of its rudimentary and scarce fortifications. Paradoxically, pirate attacks were, in great measure, the catalyst to make the city bigger, stronger and safer and to strengthen the defenses of its splendid harbor.

Half a millennium later, however, none of the places that make Havana a wonderful city is the work of this mediocre socialism, but rather, survivors of it. The old fortresses and squares, the stately mansions, the National Capitol, the Grand Theater, the Paseo del Prado, The Malecón, the Presidential Palace, the Central Railway Station, the majority of the hotels that they now restore and “inaugurate” as if they were new, and even the Civic Square itself (or as they now call it “of the Revolution”) with its controversial tower known among locals as La Raspadura (the Grater), are all works prior to 1959, and taking pride in them is not attributable to the Castro regime.

 All that makes Havana beautiful belongs to that “ominous”, “colonial” or “pseudo-republican” past, and not to the scourge that took power and became a privileged elite

Everything that makes Havana beautiful belongs to that “ominous,” “colonial” or “pseudo-republican” past – a horrible word to call the most prosperous period in our history – and not to the scourge that took power in 1959 to become a privileged elite that now takes advantage of it.

Additionally, these days when the Cuban capital celebrates the half millennium of its foundation, and while the authorities appropriate the wonders they were not able to create, it is imperative to look at the other Havana, the real one, inhabited by tens of thousands of Cuban families who do not have the resources to restore their precarious homes – most of them also built more than six decades ago – who live in overcrowded conditions among the filth of the dumps, the unhealthy plumbing spills that accumulate in the busy sewers and in street potholes, who suffer from a shortage of drinking water, and who, 500 years after their city was founded, will have to settle for standing in line in front of the Templete  of the Plaza de Armas to circle La Ceiba three times and ask, perhaps of  God, or maybe of the Orishas, for the arrival of the day when they will enjoy, at the very least, the security of decent housing with the guarantee of basic services.

Only if that dream were ever fulfilled would Havana be, rightfully so, a “Wonder City.”

*Translator’s note: Rationalism in architecture refers to the use of symmetry and mathematically and geometrically defined structures with low ornamentation. The ideas first appeared in ancient Greece and Rome and were organized into formal styles in the Enlightenment of the 17th century.

Translated by Norma Whiting


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