The Two Faces of Paseo del Prado

For sixty-six convertible pesos, a “day pass” will provide access to the hotel pool and spa at the Manzana Kempinski. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 17 July 2019 — The pool’s water jets create a relaxed atmosphere while on the other side of the glass the city swelters under a relentless sun, rendered benign by the Manzana Kempimski’s air conditioning system. Down below, two men use a hose to fill a rooftop tank, empty after two weeks with no water supply. The revolution that promised to end inequality has, sixty years later, instead made it blatant on one particular street.

The Paseo del Prado is not just an avenue of bronze lions, glamorous Chanel fashion shows and a backdrop for provincial tourists’ obligatory snapshots. It is also where the starkest contrasts of today’s Cuba are most evident. With at least two luxury hotels in operation and another about to open, it is a reflection of an incongruous Island.

Yusi, who prefers to remain anonymous, is all too aware of its contradictions. She lives in a working class area near Virtudes Street in a two-story building of small apartments where multiple generations are piled one atop the other. She was born there forty-one years ago and, though she has “moved heaven and earth to leave the country,” she still lives in the same place where her mother and grandmother were born.

Last week a friend from overseas invited Yusi to spend a day at the spa in the Manzana Kempinski, a luxury hotel that opened two years ago, which neighborhood residents call “the spaceship.” Located in the former Manzana de Gómez, a 19th century shopping arcade, the hotel caters to a discerning clientele looking for lots of comfort but little reality, classic cocktails and soft sheets.

“When she told me she was inviting me to spend a day there, I felt like telling her I could live for a whole month for the cost for a day pass.” says Yusi. A few years ago the young woman was sentenced to several months in a reeducation camp for engaging in prostitution with foreign tourists. She later became certified as a cultural promoter and spent a year working for the state.

“I didn’t realize I would be working with tourists again but this time I give walking tours and provide them with company,” she says. On that July day she was the only Cuban in the warm waters of Kempinski’s pool, with the scent of vanilla permeating the air.  Yusi takes deep breaths to see if she can “take some of that aroma back to the hovel” where she lives.

Yusi is not terribly surprised by the contrast between her lodgings and the luxurious spa. Her adolescence coincided with the advent of tourism, the dollarization of the economy and foreign investment, and she has experienced the pluses and minuses of the transformation. Unlike her mother, who for years refused to set foot in a  shopping mall because she believed it was “a place for gusanos“* with hard currency, she knows that she lives in a country where political slogans are one thing and reality is another.

Her building has not had water for two weeks. Less than a hundred or so yards from the luxurious hotel, her mother carries several jugs of water to bathe her bedridden grandmother and to clean the dishes piled in the sink. “My neighbors would go crazy if they saw me like this. They’d have a heart attack because, in my building, you have to save the bath water to clean the house,” she adds.

Old Havana and the areas closest to the hotel have been plagued by poor water supply for decades, a situation that has not improved even as the Paseo del Prado and the historic city center have gradually become the golden mile of Havana tourism. “This has actually aggravated the problem because now there is more demand,” says Yusi.

Shelves filled with neatly folded towels at the hotel’s pool reminds Yusi of the pile of dirty clothes on the edge of the cot where she sleeps. “When I leave here, the spell is broken. Or rather, the bubble bursts,” she notes ironically as she orders a mozzarella pizza and a tropical fruit cocktail. “I feel like I am in another world, that I am not in Havana.”

Residents living near the Manzana Kempinski Hotel face serious water shortages. (14ymedio)

Seated in the shade on one of the wide benches a few yards away, 79-year-old Pablo is waiting for a miracle. “The soup kitchen at Holy Angel Church, where I have lunch several times a week, is closed because they don’t have water,” he laments. “A lot of elderly people here have been left hanging. Without the extra help, everything becomes very difficult.”

Pablo lives near the majestic Prado. “I was born in this neighborhood but there are things here I don’t recognize,” he says, pointing to the facade of the Grand Hotel Packard from which freshly watered green plants hang. Upstairs, on an intermediate floor, we can see sun bathers and a couple of tourists leaning on the railing with beers in hand. “It lacks for nothing,” he says, annoyed.

When Pablo was young, political slogans emphasized equality and social justice for all. In those decades, capitalism was blamed for some people being rich and others poor, for the disparities in purchasing power. He worked hard, thinking that the neighborhood where he grew up would get better for the people who had stayed, for those who did not leave during the Mariel boatlift. Now retired, he sees inequality wherever he looks.

Employees clean the windows of the wide entry to the hotel. They wear work clothes, and use long brushes and buckets of soapy water. Paul’s eyes remain fixed on the workers. “With that much of water, or just a little more, you could make lunch for the old folks at Holy Angel,” he figures. But it is not that easy. “The water for tourists is different. “It does not come from the same place nor does it taste the same,” he jokes bitterly.

Down the street and near the Malecón seawall the SO/Paseo del Prado Hotel is almost finished. It stands out like a newcomer in front of Morro Castle. There is a visible swirl of activity as workers add the final touches. It is schedule to open in September and its five-star rating is bound attract tourists who do not worry about expenses or hesitate to reach into their wallets.

This week work is being done to exterior, trucks arrive with deliveries for the large building and finishing touches as being made to the sidewalks. Among them are fire hydrants, which now stand out in the July sun. A few yards away is another Cuba, where a sign in a small government office warns, “No restrooms and no water.”

“We are operating at reduced capacity because we have problems with the water supply and the employees are only working half days,” says an administrator, who has brought a plastic water bottle from home. It still has an ice cube in it.

*Translator’s note: Literally, “worms.” A derogatory term coined by Fidel Castro to refer to Cubans who fled the island after the revolution.


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