Why Havana Had to Die

Old_Havana_CubaReprinted from City Journal

Decay, when not carried to excess, has its architectural charms, and ruins are romantic: so romantic, indeed, that eighteenth-century English gentlemen built them in their gardens, as pleasantly melancholic reminders of the transience of earthly existence. But Fidel Castro is no eighteenth-century English gentleman, and Havana is not his private estate, for use as a personal memento mori. The ruins of Havana that he has brought into being are, in fact, the habitation of over 1 million people, whose collective will, these ruins attest, is not equal in power to the will of one man. “Comandante en jefe,” says one of the political billboards that have replaced all commercial advertisements, “you give the orders.” The place of everyone else, needless to say, is to obey.

Havana has changed a little since I was last there, a dozen years ago. The vast Soviet subsidy has vanished; the economy now depends on European tourism. The influx of tourists, most of them in search of a cheap holiday in the tropics and cheerfully oblivious to Cuba’s politics, has necessitated a slight degree of flexibility. Small private family restaurants, called paladares (paladar is Spanish for palate), with no more than 12 seats, are now tolerated, though the hiring of non-family labor, deemed exploitative by definition, is still not permitted. Only certain dishes are allowed—not fish and lobster, reserved to the state restaurants—and those paladares that break the rules operate like speakeasies in the time of Prohibition, the fish-bootlegging owners keeping a nervous eye out for informers. (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution still operate everywhere.) The owner of one such that I visited—with no sign outside to mark its existence—anxiously looked through the peephole of the door before letting anyone in. The taking of a simple meal at one of the three tables turned into a scene from a spy novel.

Flea markets are also now legal in Cuba, and a petty trade in cast-off clothing and household goods takes place. Twelve years ago it was unthinkable for anyone to buy or sell anything in the open, for buying and selling were symptoms of bourgeois individualism and contrary to Fidel’s socialist vision, in which everything is to be rationed—rationally, as it were—according to need. (In practice, of course, this meant rationing according to what there was, which was not much.)

Openings to small-scale commerce have occurred before during Castro’s 43-year rule, but they have always soon succumbed to periods of “rectification,” after it became all too apparent that people were responding more vigorously to economic incentives than they ever had to the “moral” ones praised in the adolescent theories of Che Guevara. But this time the commercial activity is more secure, because it is essential to the regime’s economic survival. When last I was in Havana, even the dollar-laden foreigner couldn’t find food to eat outside his hotel—a situation that hardly encouraged mass tourism. Now, of necessity, cafés and bars aplenty cater to the visitor.

The economy is now extensively dollarized, a curious and ironic denouement to decades of impassioned nationalism. When I asked in my hotel to change money into pesos, I was told—quite rightly, it turned out—that I would not need them. The few dusty shops that were prepared to exchange goods for pesos—for moneda nacional—advertised this extraordinary fact in their windows, as if performing a miracle, though the goods for sale were few and of the lowest quality. Last time I was in Cuba, the possession of a dollar by an ordinary Cuban was a crime, virtually proof of disloyalty and disaffection, if not of outright economic sabotage of the revolution. Dollars were handled as if they were nitroglycerine, liable to blow up in your face at the slightest jolt; but now they are merely units of currency, which anyone may safely handle.

The sheer number of foreign visitors to Cuba means that, though the hotel lobbies are still patrolled by security men with walkie-talkies to ensure that no unauthorized Cubans enter, relations between Cubans and foreigners are more relaxed than they once were. To talk to a foreigner is no longer a sign of political unreliability, and conversations do not have to be carried out in a hole-and-corner fashion, behind walls, with one nervous eye open for spies and eavesdroppers. I even received a few requests that I send medicine, since none was available in the local pharmacies—an admission, unthinkable a few years ago, that all is not well in the much-vaunted health-care system.

People will even speak of lo bueno and lo malo, the good and the bad, of the revolution—usually adding that lo malo was very, very bad. One man, brought up in the 1970s, told me that he had been fired by revolutionary romanticism, with Che Guevara and John Lennon as his heroes (he told me proudly that Havana was one of three cities with memorials to Lennon, the others being Liverpool and New York). He thought then that a new world had been in construction: but he knew now that it had been a dead end. And old people in particular are inclined to murmur jabón(soap) as you pass, in the hope that you might have some of this rare and precious commodity to give away. When the first old lady came up to me and said jabón, I thought she was mad; but she was only the first of many.

There are now signs of a slight intellectual opening. In La Moderna Poesía, a bookshop in an art deco building on the Calle Obispo, I found a Spanish translation of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. The price in dollars was unlikely to attract many Cuban buyers. Perhaps it was there only to convince foreigners of the regime’s intellectual tolerance; perhaps any Cuban who tried to buy it would be reported at once to the authorities: but even so, the mere public presence of a work so antithetical to the regime’s philosophy would have been unthinkable a dozen years ago.

By contrast, the newspapers, Granma and Rebelde, have not changed at all: to have read them 40 years ago is to have read them today and tomorrow and in ten years’ time, if the regime lasts that long. The incessant recital of social progress in Cuba in the face of adversity, and horrible social breakdown everywhere else (especially, of course, in the United States), would bore even the truest of believers. No doubt that is why I saw not a single Cuban reading a newspaper or taking any notice of the aged itinerant salesmen, each with about five copies to dispose of. When I expressed an interest in buying one, the old men took the opportunity openly to ask me for money: selling the newspaper was only a pretext to approach and beg. The question “How much is the newspaper?” always drew the answer “Whatever you would like to give.”

Forty-three years of totalitarian dictatorship have left the city of Havana—one of the most beautiful in the world—suspended in a peculiar state halfway between preservation and destruction. For myself, I found the absence of the most grating aspects of commercialism aesthetically pleasing: McDonald’s restaurants (and their like) would ruin Havana as a townscape as comprehensively as time and neglect. And the comparative lack of traffic in Havana demonstrates how mixed a blessing the inexorable spread of the automobile has been for the quality of city life. Had Havana developed “normally,” its narrow grid-pattern streets would by now be choking with traffic and pollution, a suffocating inferno like Guatemala City or San José, Costa Rica, where to breathe is to grow breathless, where noise makes the ears sing, and where thoughts turn to escape as soon as possible.

The streets of Havana, not like that at all, are pleasant to walk in. The air is clean, and there is no honking of horns. You can hear yourself think and talk. Most of the few cars that pass are American relics of the Batista era, battered but much restored; they rattle and wheeze like beasts of burden driven forward under duress. Some seem to progress crabwise, not straight ahead but sideways; and with the patina of time, these vehicles, which once would have seemed the commonplace, throwaway mass products of an industrialized society, have taken on an aura of romance, almost of personality. They are loved and treasured as irreplaceable old friends, and when you look at them you wonder how many of the objects that you take so much for granted might one day be regarded in like fashion. It helps you to see the world anew.

Few new buildings have been added to Havana, which is just as well, of course, since those few are in the style of totalitarian modernism, and ruin the neighborhood. In the very center of the city, moreover, which UNESCO has declared to be part of humanity’s patrimony, tasteful restoration work is under way. In the Plaza Vieja, a grand colonial building has been transformed into luxury apartments for tourists to rent, with an excellent restaurant downstairs (the very idea of an excellent restaurant in Cuba was unthinkable 12 years ago). The bourgeoisie is thus a little like nature: though you pitch it out with a revolution, yet it will in the end return.

But the scale of the restoration of Havana is as nothing compared with the scale of its ruination. It is quite literally crumbling away. One of the most magnificent of its many magnificent streets is known as the Prado, a wide avenue that leads to the sea, with a central tree-lined marble walkway down which people stroll at night in the balmy air. Some of the beautifully proportioned mansions along the Prado have collapsed into rubble since the last time I was there; others have their facades—all that remains of them—propped up by wooden struts. The palace along the Prado that houses the national school of ballet is a mere shell, the ground floor containing nothing but rubble: it is extraordinary to hear the sound of répétiteurs emerging from the upper floor of this shell. Havana is like Beirut, without having gone through the civil war to achieve the destruction.

No words can do justice to the architectural genius of Havana, a genius that extended from the Renaissance classicism of the sixteenth century, with severe but perfectly proportioned houses containing colonnaded courtyards cooled and softened by tropical trees and shrubs, to the flamboyant art deco of the 1930s and 40s. The Cubans of successive centuries created a harmonious architectural whole almost without equal in the world. There is hardly a building that is wrong, a detail that is superfluous or tasteless. The tiled multicoloration of the Bacardi building, for example, which might be garish elsewhere, is perfectly adapted—natural, one might say—to the Cuban light, climate, and temper. Cuban architects understood the need for air and shade in a climate such as Cuba’s, and they proportioned buildings and rooms accordingly. They created an urban environment that, with its arcades, columns, verandas, and balconies, was elegant, sophisticated, convenient, and joyful.

Of course, not every Cuban shared it: there were large shantytowns outside the city, and in the countryside much of the peasantry lived in grinding poverty. In 1958, Cuba might have had Italy’s overall levels of consumption per capita, more or less, but the consumption was unevenly distributed. Yet what is so striking about Havana’s grandeur and beauty is how extensive it is, and how wealthy (as well as sophisticated) the society that produced it must have been. The splendor of Havana, rather than being confined to a small quarter of the city, extends for miles.

The splendor is very faded now, of course. The city is like a great set of Bach variations on the theme of urban decay. The stucco has given way to mold; roofs have gone, replaced by corrugated iron; shutters have crumbled into sawdust; paint is a phenomenon of the past; staircases end in precipices; windows lack glass; doors are off their hinges; interior walls have collapsed; wooden props support, though not with any degree of assurance, all kinds of structures; ancient electrical wiring emerges from walls, like worms from cheese; wrought ironwork balconies crumble into rust; plaster peels as in a malignant skin disease; flagstones are mined for other purposes. Every grand and beautifully proportioned room—visible through the windows or in some places through the walls that have crumbled away—has been subdivided by plywood partitions into smaller spaces, in which entire families now live. Washing hangs from the windows of what were once palaces. Every entranceway is dark, and at night the electric lights glimmer rather than shine. No ruination is too great to render a building unfit for habitation: Havana is like a city that has been struck by an earthquake and its population forced to survive among the wreckage until relief arrives.

It cannot be said, however, that the inhabitants of Havana appear notably unhappy—far from it. The children play baseball cheerfully in the street with balls of compressed rags and bats of metal piping. (Curiously, the Latin American countries with the strongest anti-Yanqui political tradition are those where baseball is most enthusiastically played, as if the politics aimed to assuage the guilt at having taken up the pastime of the enemy.) There is plenty of social life in the streets, much smiling and laughter, and it isn’t hard to find a small fiesta with music and dancing. When you look into the homes that the people have made among the ruins, there are the small, heartbreaking signs of pride and self-respect that one also sees in the huts of Africa: the carefully tended plastic flowers and other cheap ornaments, for example. A taste for kitsch among the well-to-do is a sign of spiritual impoverishment; but among the poor, it represents a striving for beauty, an aspiration without the likelihood of fulfillment. Only the old look downcast or crushed: old people’s thoughts turn naturally to the past, and the contrast between the Havana of their youth and the Havana of their dotage must be painful to contemplate.

The evident contentment of the population among the ruins, though, does not lessen my profound sorrow (and worse than sorrow, it is something indefinable that weighs on the heart) to see the destruction of a masterpiece of collective human endeavor down the ages, Havana. On the contrary, I find the very unconcern profoundly disturbing. What can it mean that people should live contentedly in the ruins of their own capital city, the ruination having been wrought not by war or natural disaster but by prolonged (and in my view deliberate) neglect? They are not barbarians who actively smash or destroy what they do not understand and value; nor do they fail to notice—how could they?—that the buildings in which they live are on the verge of collapse. It is not difficult to get people to show you the ramshackle ruins they inhabit, a service they perform with a laugh and a smile; it is simply that to live thus has become natural for them, and the collapse of walls and staircases seems no more avoidable than the weather.

An artist to whom I spoke, who was tentatively trying to use his photographs to draw the attention of his countrymen to the decay and destruction of their architectural inheritance occurring all around them, explained the neglect of the city as a manifestation of the government’s priorities. It had always been more concerned about education and the health service, he said, than with preservation of the fabric of Havana. Though he understood why the government should have considered the reduction of the infant-mortality rate to be more important than the care of mere material objects such as buildings, he himself had gradually come to see the importance of preserving that inheritance: once gone, it was irrecoverable. But in his opinion, most people were unconcerned by it.

Alas, I suspect that the neglect of Havana has a deeper and more sinister rationale than the one the artist proposed. It is not difficult to imagine Castro’s angry response to the accusation that he has let Havana fall into ruins. He would argue that, largely because of the American embargo, he had always had to establish clear spending priorities, and that schools, hospitals, and medicines mattered more for the life of a people than the upkeep of a capital city in which only a minority of the population lived. Life itself was more important than objects: and Cuba’s low infant-mortality rate and high life expectancy were justification of his policies.

But this answer would not, in my view, be entirely honest—even beyond the question of whether Cuba’s progress in literacy and public health necessitated Castro’s policies or justified the evident lack of freedoms enjoyed by Cubans. I suspect that the neglectful ruination of Havana has served a profoundly ideological purpose. After all, the neglect has been continuous for nearly half a century, while massive subsidies from the Soviet Union were pouring in. A dictator as absolute as Castro could have preserved Havana if he had so wished, and could easily have found an economic pretext for doing so.

Havana, however, was a material refutation of his entire historiography—of the historiography that has underpinned his policies and justified his dictatorship for 43 years. According to this account, Cuba was a poor agrarian society, impoverished by its dependent relationship with the United States, incapable without socialist revolution of solving its problems. A small exploitative class of intermediaries benefited enormously from the neocolonial relationship, but the masses were sunk in abject poverty and misery.

But Havana was a large city of astonishing grandeur and wealth, which was clearly not confined to a tiny minority, despite the coexistence with that wealth of deep poverty. Hundreds of thousands of people obviously had lived well in Havana, and it is not plausible that so many had done so merely by the exploitation of a relatively small rural population. They must themselves have been energetic, productive, and creative people. Their society must have been considerably more complex and sophisticated than Castro can admit without destroying the rationale of his own rule.

In the circumstances, therefore, it became ideologically essential that the material traces and even the very memory of that society should be destroyed. In official publications (and all publications in Cuba are official) the only positive personages from the past are rebels and revolutionaries, representing a continuing nationalist tradition of which Castro is the apotheosis: there is no god but revolution, and Castro is its prophet. The period between Cuban independence and the advent of Castro is known as “the Pseudorepublic,” and the corrupt thuggery of Batista, as well as the existence of poverty, is all that needs (or is allowed) to be known of life immediately before Castro.

But who created Havana, and where did the magnificence come from, if before Castro there were only poverty, corruption, and thuggery? Best to destroy the evidence, though not by the crude Taliban method of blowing up the statues of Buddha, which is inclined to arouse the opprobrium of the world: better to let huge numbers of people camp out permanently in stolen property and then let time and neglect do the rest. In a young population such as Cuba’s, with little access to information not filtered through official channels, life among the ruins will come to seem normal and natural. The people will soon be radically disconnected from the past of the very walls they live among. And so the present ruins of Havana are the material consequence of a monomaniacal historiography put into practice.

Yet foreshortened memory can be made to serve an ideological turn, as has happened with the restoration of a small area of the city—a much-needed restoration, for inhabited ruins will not long attract mass tourism. And so a large and glossy book has appeared, recording by means of before-and-after photographs the Herculean efforts of the regime to restore some of the buildings of old Havana that had fallen practically into ruins. Entitled Lest We Forget, the book omits to mention how the ruination came about in the first place. The restoration is thus one triumph more for the revolution.

The terrible damage that Castro has done will long outlive him and his regime. Untold billions of capital will be needed to restore Havana; legal problems about ownership and rights of residence will be costly, bitter, and interminable; and the need to balance commercial, social, and aesthetic considerations in the reconstruction of Cuba will require the highest regulatory wisdom. In the meantime, Havana stands as a dreadful warning to the world—if one were any longer needed—against the dangers of monomaniacs who believe themselves to be in possession of a theory that explains everything, including the future.

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5 Responses to “Why Havana Had to Die”

  1. mctriplek says:

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  2. Truthjacob says:

    Fidel shut down a 3rd of all hospitals within the first 10 years in government. The" tourist hospitals" are for the elites of the Castro family, the Cubans are banned form entering, sadly.

    Fidel's main spending was on military, concentration camps and a police forced to oppress his slaves, the Cuban people.

    All stats on Cuban health are invented by the Castro government. They are only supported by his supporters, none are backed by any independent studies.

    Fidel took over a first world country ran by a socialist dictator, Batista, who got his power from the trade union movement. Hence why even today trade unions are banned by Fidel and Raul.

    Fidel used power to oppress, imprison, enslave and exploit the Cuban people for his own ego and financial gain.

    Havana is another of the many examples of how statist rule [communism/socialism/fascism] ruin society for all but the governing few.

    Castro supporters may take pleasure from such exploitation but none have to live in his slave camp.

    Only God can end such evil.

  3. Luton_Ian says:

    Havana has a Portuguese speaking twin on the other side of the Atlantic, Luanda.

    Its dictators and their children recently enriched with oil money, but in my several months there, old people were so rare that I asked the two or three whom I saw, if I could take their photos.

  4. Patrick Barron says:

    I highly doubt the regime's claims that it has improved infant health. Who keeps or publishes the statistics? I think it more likely that the deaths of newborns are ignored in the statistics. Like everything else in Cuba, health care has declined to the point of unbelievable squalor.

  5. @msreekan says:

    Was pleasantly surprised with the modest romanticism here, quite unlike the usual matter-of-fact dissection we get to read on this blog. Very picturesque indeed!

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