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The Once Great City of Havana

“Havana is like Pompeii and Castro is its Vesuvius.”Anthony Daniels

Almost every picture I’ve ever seen of Cuba’s capital shows the city in ruins. Una Noche, the 2012 gut punch of a film directed by Lucy Mulloy, captures in nearly every shot the savage decay of what was once the Western Hemisphere’s most beautiful city.

So I was stunned when I saw the restored portion of Old Havana for the first time.

It is magnificent. And it covers a rather large area. A person could wander around there all day, and I did. At first glance you could easily mistake it for Europe and could kid yourself into thinking Cuba is doing just fine.

And yet, photographers largely ignore it. Filmmakers, too. It must drive Cuba’s ministers of tourism nuts. Why do you people only photograph the decay? We spent so much time, effort, and money cleaning up before you got here.

Perhaps the wrecked part of the city—which is to say, most of it—strikes more people as photogenic. But I don’t think that’s it. The reason restored Old Havana is ignored by photographers, I believe, is because it looks and feels fake.

It was fixed up just for tourists. Only communist true believers would go to Cuba on holiday if the entire capital were still a vast ruinscape. And since hardly anyone is a communist anymore, something had to be done.

But it doesn’t look fake because it looks nice. Czechoslovakia was gray and dilapidated during the communist era, but no one thinks Prague isn’t authentic now that it’s lovely again. The difference is that the Czechs didn’t erect a Potemkin façade in a single part of their capital just to bait tourists. They repaired the entire city because, after the fall of the communist government, they finally could.

Nothing like that has occurred in Havana. The rotting surfaces of some of the buildings have been restored, but those changes are strictly cosmetic. Look around. There’s still nothing to buy. You’ll find a few nice restaurants and bars here and there, but they’re owned by the state and only foreigners go there. The locals can’t afford to eat or drink out because the state caps their salaries at twenty dollars a month. Restored Old Havana looks and feels no more real than the Las Vegas version of Venice.

It’s sort of pleasant regardless, but it reeks of apartheid. The descendents of the people who built this once fabulous city, the ones who live in it now, aren’t allowed to enjoy it. All they can do is walk around on the streets outside and peer in through the glass.

The semi-fake renovation is, however, good enough that one thing is blindingly obvious: If Cuba had free enterprise, and if Americans could travel there without restrictions, the economy would go supernova.

“The touristy parts of Havana are lovely,” said a friend of mine who has been there many times and returned home with a Cuban wife a few years ago. “But if you get out of the bubble and look at the places the tourist busses don’t go, you will see a different Havana.”

That’s for damn sure.

I walked toward the center of town from the somewhat remote Habana Libre Hotel and found myself the only foreigner in a miles-wide swath of destruction.

I’ve seen cities in the Middle East pulverized by war. I’ve seen cities elsewhere in Latin America stricken with unspeakable squalor and poverty. But nowhere else have I seen such a formerly grandiose city brought as low as Havana. The restored part of town—artifice though it may be—shows all too vividly what the whole thing once looked like.

It was a wealthy European city when it was built. Poor nations do not build capitals that look like Havana. They can’t. Poor nations build Guatemala City and Cairo.

“Havana” Theodore Dalrymple wrote in City Journal, “is like Beirut, without having gone through the civil war to achieve the destruction.” Actually, it’s worse even than that. Beirut pulses with energy. Parts of it are justifiably even a little bit snobbish like Paris. Even its poorest neighborhoods, the ones controlled by Hezbollah, aren’t as gruesome as most of Havana.

Yet the bones of Cuba’s capital are unmatched in our hemisphere. “The Cubans of successive centuries created a harmonious architectural whole almost without equal in the world,” Dalrymple wrote. “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.”

But now it looks like a set on the History Channel’s show Life After People, only it’s still inhabited. Baghdad in the middle of the Iraq war was in better shape physically. I know because I spent months there and wrote a book about it.

Roofs have collapsed. Balcony doors hang not vertically but at angles, allowing passersby to see inside homes where the interior paint is just as peeled as it is on the outside. I could even see inside some people’s homes through gashes in exterior walls. The weight of rain water knocks whole buildings down as if they were dynamited.

When your roof caves in, you can’t just call a guy and have him come over and fix it. You have to wait for the government.

You will wait a long time.

Trust me: you would not want to live there, especially not on a ration card and the government’s twenty dollar maximum salary. Not that additional money would do you much good. Where would you spend it? Not even in the slums of Mexico have I seen such pitiful shops. They are not even shops. They are but darkened caverns on the ground floor which stock a mere handful of items that could be scooped up and placed in one box.

That is the real Havana, and it is soul-crushing. Life there is a brutal scramble for scraps to survive amidst ruins. The city looks like it was hit by an epic catastrophe…and it was.

The only hope is escape.

Dalrymple thinks Fidel Castro destroyed Havana on purpose. I don’t know. He’s speculating, of course, and it seems like a stretch, but he makes an interesting point. The city’s former magnificence, he says, is “a material refutation of [Castro’s] entire historiography… According to [Castro’s] 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,” he continues, “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.”

*

Dr. Carlos Eire is a professor of history at Yale University. He specializes in late medieval and early modern Europe. His best-selling books, however, are memoirs about growing up in Cuba and adjusting to exile in Florida. His first, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the National Book Award in 2003. The sequel, Learning to Die in Miami, was published in 2010.

He came without his family to the United States as a child, along with 14,000 other young Cubans, as part of a CIA project called Operation Peter Pan that rescued children from the regime so they wouldn’t become the brainwashed property of the state.

“The question I always get,” he said in a talk at Harvard University’s book store, “is why would any parent do that? Our parents really felt they had no choice. They had Sophie’s Choice to make. Either we stayed there and faced another form of being taken away from them, or they could exercise some choice in where we would end up. By 1961 the Cuban government was already taking Cuban children away from their parents. Education in state-run schools was compulsory. And the education was heavily laced with indoctrination of communist principles.”

Castro collaborated in Operation Peter Pan and allowed the United States to take Cuban children away because, as one former regime official later told Eire, “anything that destroyed the bourgeois family was music to our ears.”

His first memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, describes in loving detail the place of his birth before the communist wrecking ball flattened it. None of us can return to our childhoods, but that’s more true for Eire than it is for most people. And he’s angry about it.

“Until full democracy is restored,” he told me,” I will never set foot in my native land. The mere disappearance of the Castro dynasty will not be enough. My convictions aside, even if I wanted to go, I simply can't. The Castro regime has declared me an enemy of the state and banned all of my books. I consider that the greatest honor ever bestowed on me.”

I’m always afraid I’m going to make stupid mistakes when I visit a country for the first time and write about it in a tone that suggests I know everything. I don’t know everything. I’m not always even sure what I’m looking at. So I asked Eire for help.

“What are the most common mistakes journalists make when they write about Cuba?” I said.

“American and European journalists tend to accept and parrot the Castro version of Cuban history unquestioningly,” he said. “At best, the Castro version of Cuban history is an awful caricature. Anyone familiar with the real thing has to strain to recognize the features rendered by the caricaturist in order to make the connection between the drawing and what it represents. Like all caricatures—even very bad ones—it skews all proportions.”

He insists Cuba was not a Third World nation before Castro seized power. That’s not hard to believe. Havana is not like San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the old part of town is relatively small. In Havana, exquisite European architecture stretches block after block after block after block for miles in every direction. The city could not possibly have been poor when it was built. It might have been a bit shabby during the pre-Castro Batista era—that wouldn’t surprise me—but Eire grew up there at that time and insists that it wasn’t.

“Havana had a prosperous economy and a middle class proportionately larger than some European countries,” said. “Hence the fact that over one million Europeans (and many Asians and Middle Easterners) migrated to Cuba between 1900 and 1950. When this massive wave of migration began, the population of Cuba was only around 3 million. To put these statistics in perspective: this would be the equivalent of the USA attracting 100 million immigrants over the next half century. People do not migrate in such proportions to a benighted nation.”

But surely not everyone prospered. Revolutions tend not to break out in countries where everyone is doing just fine.

“Yes,” he said, “pre-Castro Cuba had poverty (every country in the world has poverty), but the city of New Haven, Connecticut has a sharper divide between rich and poor and a higher percentage of poor people per capita in 2013 than Cuba did in 1958, and so do about ten other cities in Connecticut.”

Havana outside the tourist bubble is painful to look at. It actually hurt me and brought to mind a line from Dustin Hoffman’s character in Andy Garcia’s film The Lost City. “She was a beautiful thing, Havana,” he said. “We should have known she was a heartbreaker.”

It hurts because, unlike in liberal capitalist countries, poverty is imposed. Abolishing private property and implementing a dismal maximum wage requires extraordinary repression. Free people would never vote for it, which is why Cuba hasn’t had a single free election since Castro came to power.

“The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution,” Eire said, referring to the network of neighborhood spies, “are the gatekeepers for everything, especially for the future of everyone’s children. One bad report and your child’s life can be ruined—which means that instead of living in the fifth circle of hell like everyone else, they will have to live in the thirteenth circle which is deeper than anything Dante ever imagined. Then there is the colossal apparatus of State Security. At least with the CDRs you know who your neighborhood spy is, but the State Security operatives infiltrate everything, everywhere, especially the workplace. And they can turn anyone’s life into a nightmare with the snap of their fingers.”

CDR propaganda, Havana

Cuban exile Valentin Prieto in Miami shares Eire’s disgust of the CDRs and the government’s child abuse.

“Imagine if the state police came knocking on your door because your CDR neighbor smelled that black market chicken you fried last night to feed your kids,” he said. “You would tend to be surreptitious in everything, including thought and expression. You’d put up a false front, act like you’re the happiest, luckiest guy on Earth. The biggest problem with foreign journalists when it comes to Cuba is that they take everything at face value. ‘So-and-so said he’s very happy that the revolution gave him an education and that he has free healthcare.’ Yet so-and-so ain’t so happy because his daughter has to sell her ass to tourists because while he’s educated, he can’t earn a decent wage. And so-and-so isn’t so happy that he’s got to find medicines and other medical supplies to take to his daughter while she’s in the hospital. That kind of stuff never gets reported.”

 He told me about what happened at his sister’s elementary school a few years after Castro took over.

“Do you want ice cream and dulces (sweets),” his sister’s teacher, a staunch Fidelista, asked the class.

“Yes!” the kids said.

“Okay, then,” she said. “Put your hands together, bow your heads, and pray to God that he brings you ice cream and dulces.”

Nothing happened, of course. God did not did not provide the children with ice cream or dulces.

 “Now,” the teacher said. “Put your hands together and pray to Fidel that the Revolution gives you ice cream and sweets.”

The kids closed their eyes and bowed their heads. They prayed to Fidel Castro. And when the kids raised their heads and opened their eyes, ice cream and dulces had miraculously appeared on the teacher’s desk.

“Notwithstanding the murders and assassinations and tortures and such,” Prieto said, “the indoctrination and exploitation of children is the worst thing the regime has done and continues to do to this day. A student’s file in Cuba doesn’t just have information on their attendance and education. It’s more like a dossier on that child’s family and their revolutionary ‘ardor.’ Kids are made to spy on their families. They’re questioned as to whether the family speaks ill of Fidel and the Revolution, on whether or not they attend meetings, or whether they have more than their allotted share of milk, etc. This is why the Cuban American community created such a ruckus over Elian Gonzalez. Kids don’t belong to their parents in Cuba, they belong to the state. Period.”

He says the worst thing about the CDR spies is that they don’t even work for the government. They volunteer to rat out their neighbors for an extra handful of beans every month. “It is literally citizen spying on citizen,” he said. “I’ve heard of cases of a brother snitching on a brother, or a son snitching on a father. Once the regime comes to an end, things in Cuba are going to get ugly and bloody, especially with and against those CDR bastards. If I were a father living in Cuba trying to feed my family and had the CDR make my life a living hell every time I happened upon a black market piece of meat, or milk for my children, you can bet your ass that the first guy I’m coming for once the government goes down is that CDR SOB that’s been snitching on me for years. People are always talking about reconciliation when it comes to Cuba, how Cubans outside of the island are going to have to reconcile with Cubans still on the island. There will, of course, be some of that. But the real reconciliation needed will be between those ‘haves’ like the CDRs and the ‘have nots.’”

*

Though I learned all kinds of things from random encounters with everyday Cubans, I had no choice but to supplement my field work by interviewing exiles like Eire and Prieto. I’d risk arrest if I reached out to high-profile dissidents. Regime officials wouldn’t speak to me, and they’d just ladle bullshit up anyway. The people I casually met know Cuba on a granular level better than the exiles possibly could, but they have to be careful.

“Cuba is full of dissidents,” Eire said. “Most of them are silent, however, and will remain silent. Conditioned to fear the omnipresent ears and eyes of Big Brother, they will not speak their minds to foreign journalists. Highly skilled in the arts of deception, they will praise the regime while seething inside. Those who are not silent are constantly under siege or in prison. Contacting these visible outcasts means losing one’s chance to be in Cuba: expulsion is certain for any journalist who seeks out the opposition.”

His analysis might be slightly out of date at this point. I never did meet a Cuban, seething or otherwise, who praised the regime. I’m sure it still happens, but I get the sense it happens a lot less often now than it used to. Criticism is more open, though it’s sometimes elliptic.

Let me give you an example.

I visited a small art gallery inside the home of famous photographer Jose Figueroa and his wife Cristina Vives. When I first stepped into the living room I thought I might have made a mistake, that I was not where I wanted to be, because the first photographs I saw on the wall by the front door featured Castro’s chief executioner, Che Guevara. The most prominent wasn’t actually a photo of Che Guevara, per se. Rather, it showed a cigarette lighter embossed with that famous image of Che taken by Alberto Korda.

Figueroa himself seemed a shy man, but his wife Cristina is happy to show tourists around.

“Jose was visiting the United States on 9/11,” she said. “He was in New York City. It was a frightening time, and he had that lighter with him.” She pointed at her husband’s photograph on the wall, the one with the Che lighter. “Because of what had just happened, the lighter was confiscated in the security line at the airport. That famous lighter with that famous image is gone forever because of Osama bin Laden. It’s a shame, but it’s a great story, isn’t it? Think about it.”

Wait. Why, exactly, is that a great story and why was she telling me to think about it? What did she mean? That the United States has a heavy-handed government, too? That the Americans got in one last swipe at Che Guevara before moving on to the Terror War? That the ripple effects from Al Qaeda’s assault on New York City reached as far as Havana? That an object showing the face of one mass murdering sonofabitch was indirectly destroyed by another mass murdering sonofabitch?

I don’t know what she was trying to say, but she made one thing loud and clear: she wanted me to think about what she was telling me, and she was leaving some things unsaid. That’s often how people talk to each other in totalitarian countries. Foreigners who aren’t used to it need to know and pay close attention.

Most of Figueroa’s pictures on the wall were taken in the 1960s and the 1970s. They feature bourgeois middle class people doing bourgeois middle class things during a time of proletarian collectivism. His photos are in black and white, which suggested a bygone era even at the time they were taken. 

“I’m sure you’ve seen other pictures from Cuba at that time,” Cristina said. “They probably showed bearded revolutionaries with guns. But most Cubans were not bearded revolutionaries with guns. Most of us were middle class. And we were here, too.”

Figueroa’s black and white images of Cuba’s vanished middle class are as sad as they are arresting. An entire class of people—my class—was murdered, imprisoned, forced into exile, or forced into poverty. Fidel Castro didn’t only destroy Havana’s buildings. He destroyed the lives of the people who live in them. 

Here is one of Jose Figueroa’s photographs. He is waving goodbye to his friend Olga, possibly forever, as she prepares to board her flight to exile in Florida

Many of Figueroa’s pictures seem to me quietly subversive in the most subtle of ways, not because they’re anti-communist but because they’re non-communist. That’s my take, anyway. Neither he nor his wife said a single word critical of the regime. Maybe I’m wrong. This is my interpretation. I own it.

But listen to what Cristina said next.

“You should go to the art museum,” she said, “the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Everyone who goes there is struck by a Flavio Garciandia painting from 1975. You have to realize that everything was political then. Cuban art was required to serve socialist principles. The Beatles were banned. Yet Garciandia painted a picture of a pretty girl laying in a field of grass and called it ‘All You Need is Love’ after the Beatles song. The museum immediately bought the painting for a small sum and prominently displayed it. Things started to change after that.”

So Garciandia the painter and the art museum curators mounted a protest. Not only did they get away with it, it had the desired effect.

Only in a communist country or an Islamist theocracy would such acts be considered rebellious. Few in Europe or the United States would even notice that painting. It certainly wouldn’t be a political lightning bolt. Only in a totalitarian country where every damn thing under the sun has to be ideological can such a blatantly apolitical painting be considered political.

Is that what Jose Figueroa was doing with his photographs in the 60s and 70s? Being anti-communist by being non-communist at a time when everything had to be communist? Did he get away with it because he used a camera instead of a canvas and because he covered his ass once in a while by including Korda’s image of Che?

I don’t know. Nobody said that to me. He certainly didn’t, nor did his wife. Maybe I only saw what I wanted to see. It happens.

Displaying non-communist art is allowed now, and they said nothing “negative” about the revolution or government, so nothing they’re doing in that gallery is technically subversive at all, nor is anything either of them said to me. For all I really know, they’re both regime sympathizers.

(You can get a coffee table book of Figueroa’s photos, by the way, from Amazon.com and see for yourself.)

But there was more to see in their gallery. Figueroa and his wife had mounted a television screen on the wall above a doorway into one of the back rooms. On the screen played a video shot from a hand-held camera out the window of a commercial airplane at cruising altitude. I could see the wing jutting out the side of the plane above clouds far below, and I could hear the roar of the engine, but that was it. Nothing was actually happening on screen.

“What am I looking at here?” I said. The film, if I could call it that, seemed incredibly dull, but there had to be a point I wasn’t seeing.  

“That,” Cristina said, “is a film of the entire flight in real time from Havana to Miami.”

Oh. Well. That was certainly interesting.

“The flight takes less than an hour,” she said. “It feels like a long time if you stand here and watch it, but it’s no time at all if you’re on the plane. We are so close, and yet so far. It all depends on your perspective.”

Most photographs on the wall in their home were black and white, but I’ll never forget one color photograph in the very last room. The image struck me with great force before I even knew what it was.

It shows a man inside what appears to be a Cuban house. The main room is sparsely furnished. Paint is peeling off the walls. The man is opening his front door just the tiniest crack and carefully peering outside. The image conveyed to me a feeling of fear and hope at the same time.

“Do you know what that is?” Cristina said. “On his television screen?”

I hadn’t really noticed that inside the man’s house in the photograph was a small black and white television set. The image on the screen was grainy and vague.

“No,” I said. “I can’t tell what’s on the screen.”

“It is the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she said, “broadcast on Cuban television.”

I felt a jolt of adrenaline. It was my body’s way of telling me I was seeing and hearing something important, something I’d have to remember and later write down.

“But there’s something wrong with the picture,” Cristina said. “Do you know what it is?”

I looked intently at it again. What was wrong with the photo? All I saw was a Cuban man peering with tremendous caution outside his front door while communism self-destructed in Europe. 

“Tell me,” I said.

“The fall of the Berlin Wall was never broadcast on television in Cuba,” she said. “The picture is fake.”

*

 In Havana I met an elderly Jewish couple from Austin, Texas. They travel a lot, especially now that they’re retired.

She escaped Nazi Germany when she was a child. She’s old enough to remember Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the prologue to the Holocaust when mobs of rampaging brownshirts shattered the windows of Jewish-owned buildings and stores.

Her family fled to Cuba, of all places, before moving again to the United States. She and her husband have been married for more than sixty years now.

“I’ve seen poverty in other countries,” she said, “but here it bothers me more. I’m not sure why.”

“It bothers me more, too,” I said. “And I know why.”

She has personal experience with totalitarian governments, so I wasn’t surprised when she agreed with my analysis after I shared it. 

“In most countries,” I said, “no one has to live in a slum. It’s difficult to get out, but it’s possible to get out. Here people get twenty dollars a month and a ration card and that’s it. They’re forced by law to be poor. Exile is the only way out.”

She nodded and thought about what I said. I could see from the look on her face that she was remembering terrible events in her own life that I can never relate to.

“I’m glad I came,” she said. “It has been quite an experience. But you couldn’t pay me enough to come back here.”

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