By Daniel Margrain
The Plaza Hotel in central Havana has all the grace and fading colonial splendour reminiscent of something out of a E. M Forster novel. I had arrived at the hotel in the early hours. The wooden shutters of my room opened up to a small balcony overlooking a dusty and dimly lit street. What first struck me about the city was its apparent sense of serene calmness. I felt I had stepped into an Edward Hopper painting. Except for the sound of the occasional taxi that passed on the street directly below, and the flickering echo of distant voices, the streets remained eerily quiet.
It wasn’t until the following morning from the rooftop of the hotel that the aromas of the city, bustling street life and clogged roads in the distance below – set against a backdrop of crumbling tenement buildings, colonial edifices and pot-holed roads – became evident in this unique metropolis. The vivaciousness, eclecticism and atmospheric energy of the Caribbean’s largest city has survived everything that has been thrown at it throughout its 500-year history and continues to stand as a beacon of resistance against U.S imperialism today.
For this writer, it was the visceral and abstract, as opposed to conventional notions of beauty, that was Havana’s main appeal. The overriding sense of a city that forms part of an Island of quasi-socialism within a sea of capitalism, and all of the contradictions and potential opportunities that this entails, is palpable for the first time visitor. Graham Greene was right when he said that Havana is a city where “anything is possible”.
To be immersed in the hustle and bustle of Havana whilst constantly reminding yourself of the historical significance of the city in both time and place opens up a potential space in which it is possible to get lost in the melee and embrace its earthy authenticity. No other city in the world that I have visited has quite the aesthetic seductiveness for the flaneur as Havana has.
It’s along the kilometre stretch of the Calle Obispo that the city really bursts into life. A rag-bag collection of hustlers, drunks, artists and musicians throng the street from dawn until dusk after which time the cramped drinking dens come into their own. Musically accomplished and professional-sounding resident bands who can be heard for free playing everything from jazz and the traditional son through to calypso, folk and salsa way into the early hours, throng the bars.
The beating heart of the city metaphorically pulses to the sound of live music in much the same way as New Orleans does. Whether it emanates from somebody’s balcony or from the bars and streets, the eclecticism of a city where music and architecture appear to fuse into one means that visitors and residents alike are rarely far from either.
The latter is one of Havana’s main draws. Many of the buildings and squares are shaped by a colourful colonial history embellished by a myriad of foreign influences that gracefully combine baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco and modernist styles. The buildings in central Havana are almost, without exception, visually stunning. Unfortunately, much of the architectural splendour has been left to fester in an advanced state of dilapidation, largely as a result of the turmoil of three separate revolutionary wars.
Thankfully, though, the cities well-preserved historical core has survived into the 21st century relatively unscathed. One of the most impressive of these ‘survivors’ is the magnificent 18th century baroque Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana (see photo above). This graceful-looking edifice was described by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier as “music set in stone”. This, if anything, is an understatement. Words cannot describe the emotional impact this building and the beauty of its tranquil surroundings had on this writer.
In a city like Havana, it’s difficult to fully set aside the vibrant and colourful cultural preconceptions associated with the place from a lifetime of images ingrained in ones consciousness. Some of these images have an objective basis in reality, while others are mainly subjective or fantasies and caricatures. The Havana experience in its totality, though, is rarely less than alluring.
To what extent one allows oneself to be immersed in either aspect is largely dependent on the individual. “Habana is very much like a rose”, said Fico Fellove, in the movie The Lost City, “it has petals and it has thorns….so it depends on how you grab it. But in the end, it always grabs you.”
Fellove is right. Havana is a city of dreamers and dreams; of myths and fantasies. But it is also a city that cannot escape a present guided by the dark forces of its past. In essence, Havana is a contradiction that represents the antithesis of the kind of nightmares imposed on it by its super power adversary 90 miles away.
Torricelli & Helms-Burton
One of the nightmares the people of Havana continue to suffer is the US trade embargo which has hit the city hard. The Washington-imposed 1992 Torricelli Act prevents foreign subsidiaries of US companies trading with the city and prohibits ships that have called at its port from docking at US ports for six months.
The 1996 Helms-Burton Act, meant that the tightening of the embargo was pulled up a notch. The end result of this draconian U.S attack, was the effective banning of virtually the entirety of the rest of the world trading with Cuba. This is causing terrible suffering in the city.
The hope for many was that Helms-Burton would be repealed. However, under Obama these hopes were dashed. Given the perilous state of the U.S economy under his successor, Trump, in addition to Cuba’s continued resistance to U.S hegemony, any compromise in the Cuban position, post-Fidel, seems equally unlikely.
By smearing Cuba’s “socialism” as “devastating” and a “failure”, Trump has further alienated the Cuban leadership. The country is hardly socialist. The revolution that overthrew U.S puppet, Fulgencio Batista in 1959, was in reality an anti-colonial rather than a socialist revolution in which Cuba’s workers were largely onlookers, however sympathetic.
The consequence of prioritizing national liberation above socialist revolution has been the emergence of a two-tier economy in Havana. Hard currency in the form of the Cuban convertible, has largely replaced the Peso as the means of exchange. Its growing use is creating a distorted local economy altering the dynamic of the city in a way not dis-similar to the satellite states of the former Soviet Union prior to the collapse of the Berlin wall.
The crisis in the Cuban economy was exacerbated during the period 1991-94. This was a particularly dark phase in the history of Havana. During this time the people of the city and throughout the country, had suffered terribly. The ending of Soviet subsidies that had effectively sustained the Cuban economy for 30 years had, by the end of the decade, become reliant for its growth on a rapidly expanding tourist industry. But this growth was fragile because it did not reflect any deep transformation of the economy.
Today, the Cuban convertible and other forms of hard currency (except the US dollar), can be exchanged at any bank in Havana for Pesos. A basic meal paid for by the latter on the streets of the city costs the equivalent of 25p, while a beer at a hard currency-only tourist bar will set a skilled Cuban worker back one-twentieth of his or her monthly salary. This kind of two-tier economy is not consistent with socialism but rather a highly political bureaucratic state.
State corruption is the inevitable consequence that flows from this set of relationships. Ordinary Cubans who are not connected to either the high echelons of the bureaucratic state or the tourist sector, speak endlessly and angrily about the visible and growing gulf – economic, social and political – between this privileged layer and the majority, whose daily life is a struggle. Tourism exacerbates these divisions which explains why politically, socially and economically Havana is being pulled in different directions.
At the time of my visit to the city, socioeconomic polarizing fractures had already started to appear – a situation that will almost certainly worsen as the relative trickle of tourists inevitably turn into a flood in the years to come. The irreconcilable forces that are seemingly pulling the city apart acts as a warning sign to the rest of the country in a post-Fidel world.
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