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History of the Present: Havana

On a warm late summer afternoon a year ago, I sat with Mario Coyula Cowley on the jalousied terrace of the residence in Havana where he had lived for decades with his family. Mario had long been one of Cuba’s leading architects and urban planners, and he and I had had met professionally years earlier; family connections and shared interests led to a valued friendship. The elegant apartment, spacious and filled with art — much of it created by friends — occupies the top floor of a 1950s apartment building in the leafy, formerly old-money neighborhood of El Vedado. This domestic setting, inherited from an aunt, was a reminder that Mario Coyula was an exceptional member of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia who chose to remain in Cuba after the revolution and apply his talents to the grand socialist experiment.

From the years of turmoil that led up to the Cuban Revolution, Coyula emerged as a charter member of the idealistic generation of the 1960s. He was a student activist at the University of Havana and later served in the engineering corps of the rebel army; after the triumph of Fidel Castro and his comrades, in 1959, he devoted himself to the design of the new socialist Cuba. His long career led him to multiple positions at the top of the profession, including dean of the school of architecture, director of the Office of Architecture and Urbanism of Havana, and founding president of the city’s Monuments Commission. In 2013 Coyula was awarded the Premio Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural, the country’s highest honor for cultural contribution. I doubt there is any individual who knew — or loved — Havana more than Mario Coyula. Shortly before my visit Coyula had served on a government commission to map the future of Havana — a topic that is of vital importance as Cuba faces unknowable social and economic changes as it moves toward a government that will, for the first time in more than half a century, not be headed by a Castro brother or, for that matter, anyone of the founding revolutionary cohort.

I asked Mario if his participation on the commission gave him reason to be optimistic. “No,” he said bluntly. He referred ruefully to the long shelf of planning documents that had been gathering dust in his office for years — well-considered plans that could have better prepared Havana for the future but which were not realized due to lack of funds and failure of political will. Now, he explained, Havana is poised between two conditions of equal mortal peril. “On the one hand, not enough money, which is the present state, and on the other, too much money, too fast.” Lack of resources prevents the Cuban government from halting the physical collapse of the city, which progresses at an alarming rate, notwithstanding the showpiece restorations in Old Havana (to which I will return later). At the same time, the flood of North American investment that will follow the inevitable lifting of the punitive U.S. embargo could set off equally dangerous forces of uncontrolled development.

Havana is poised between two conditions of equal mortal peril.

In his last years, after retiring from his official position as chief planner for Havana (he died on July 7, 2014), Mario Coyula became increasingly candid in his criticism of the government policies — and negligent inaction — that led to the aesthetic and environmental degradation of his beloved La Habana. The architectural historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez shares Coyula’s disillusion. The author of numerous scholarly texts on Cuban architecture, and a close friend and colleague of mine, Rodríguez is the unrivaled expert on Havana and its built environment. 3 That he was born in 1959 and grew up entirely under socialism gives Rodríguez a generationally distinct perspective on the past and future of the city from that of the elder Coyula. In a recent conversation, however, he echoed Coyula in lamenting the neglect and “ignorant new money” which are despoiling El Vedado, where he, too, lives. Graceful old residences, unprotected by any meaningful regulations, are being badly altered, and significant monuments are allowed to crumble. Eduardo Luis’s main professional concerns center on Havana’s 20th-century architecture and he is frustrated by the spotty record of its preservation; so much is in peril of being lost. Yet another architectural colleague, who preferred not to be identified in this piece, is harsh: The physical and social deterioration of Havana pains her beyond toleration, she told me. As recently as ten years ago she had been optimistic about the future of the island nation, but no more. In her view the system is now so dysfunctional that meaningful change can only be the equivalent of another revolution, and she fears traumatic social disruption like that which has convulsed parts of the former Soviet Union and provinces in China.

The problems that beset Havana are in fact rooted in one of the defining characteristics of the Cuban Revolution. From its beginnings in the mid 1950s, in the Sierra Maestra mountains near Santiago de Cuba, the 26th of July Movement was fundamentally anti-urban. 4 The insurrectionist propaganda of the rebellion celebrated the peasantry and denigrated Havana as the locus of political corruption and social evil — an accusation not hard to justify, as the regime of Fulgencio Batista had devolved into a brutal kleptocracy in league with North American organized crime, which thrived on the city’s notorious vice industries. Havana had long been a rich city. A huge portion of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the capital, and it never had slums on the scale of those in Mexico City, Caracas, or Rio de Janeiro. Cuban poverty, before the revolution, was preponderantly rural. Some biographers have argued too that Fidel Castro had a fraught relationship to the metropolis. A country boy from Oriente province, though the son of a wealthy landowner, he reportedly resented the superior attitude of the Havana sophisticates when he enrolled at the university in the mid 1940s.

By the time Castro and his guerilla fighters, supported along the way by the rural population, marched west from the Sierra Maestra and entered Havana in triumph in January 1959 — just days after Batista fled the country by plane, reportedly with several hundred million dollars — the overarching goals of the revolution were clear. For the young socialist government, the improvement of the capital was not a priority. On the contrary, the major focus was the restructuring of the rural economy and the redistribution of assets to the provinces. The early 1960s saw not only the expropriation of agricultural land (including large tracts owned by North American corporations) and the establishment of state-owned sugar mills and other collective enterprises, but also the construction of schools, clinics, and recreational facilities in every town and village across the island. This laudable and transformative program of rural improvement formed the basis for socialist Cuba’s exemplary health and literacy statistics and the solid backbone of popular support for the revolution. The elevation of living standards in the countryside — along with restrictive policies on mobility — has also helped spare Havana the mass migration that has stressed so many other urban centers in developing countries.

To be sure, early revolutionary policies did not leave the capital totally ignored. Havana in the late 1950s was still on the high roll of a postwar boom that had transformed and modernized the city. High-rise apartments and swanky hotels had sprouted on the oceanfront in El Vedado, and affluent new neighborhoods in the western suburbs — Miramar, Country Club, Biltmore — had filled up with sleek modernist houses. In 1958 a tunnel under Havana harbor was completed, opening up the historically isolated eastern reaches of the city, near the Morro Castle, for development. Such private real estate activity was brought to an abrupt halt by the revolution. In rapid strokes speculative development was banned, unimproved land was expropriated, and the construction industry was nationalized. All at once the socialist government became the only client for architects and builders — but it was an eager and ambitious client. Within weeks of taking power, the Castro regime embarked on a far-reaching program that would deliver on political promises with the construction of workers’ housing, schools, medical facilities, recreation centers and other social service facilities.