How to bring back Havana's faded beauty

Media coverage of Cuba is so intense and breathless nowadays you’d think the island had emerged from the bottom of the Caribbean six months ago.

Even Gentlemen’s Quarterly, in its current issue, has a fashion feature—spectacularly vapid even by GQ standards—showcasing some Cuban-American actor I’d never heard of, modeling clothes no normal man can afford, against the dismal reality of ruined buildings and ancient cars that is Havana today. I suspect the model’s designer shoes probably cost more than the average Cuban earns in a year.

The sudden hubbub is not what irks me. Al contrario, may American tourism to Cuba open up completely, and soon, and rain much-needed cash on the long-suffering Cubans.

That certain charm of poverty and dilapidation. 

What bugs me is the tone of the coverage, much of it celebratory, gaga, and ultimately myopic. Photographers swoon over the enchantment of the tropical light bathing the ruins of buildings, most with people still living in them, that cover much of Havana. Car buffs, meanwhile, are captivated by the rattle-trap cars that cough along the eerily empty streets.

The scenes are admittedly arresting, fed by equal parts of curiosity and novelty. For more than fifty years Cuba has been ninety miles away from the U.S., and yet, for American tourists, as remote and exotic as Pyongyang.

But why doesn’t the sight of a once beautiful country, now lying in pieces, arouse some reportorial curiosity, to wonder what caused this multi-decade disaster—an eternity, for sure, for people who’ve had to live through it—and how can Cuba recover from it?

This week, Public Televisions’s News Hour, chimed in with its own tour-de-naiveté, Jeffrey Brown reporting from Havana. (For the record, we watch the News Hour nightly, and I have come to covet Brown’s luck to get all the fun, short-sleeve assignments, while Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff remain glued to the news desk, talking about racism, terrorism and worldwide mayhem.)

The key to happiness according to Ché: Centralized planning. 

While in Havana, Brown got to amble through the colonial section of the city, guided by Eusebio Leal Spengler, the official city historian. Leal is in charge of the daunting task of piecing back together the once spectacular city, ravaged by the fiasco of socialist economics during the past fifty years.

One of Leal’s restorations in Old Havana. The
grillwork alone is worth a UNESCO medal. 

Hurricanes and other acts of God are only in small part responsible for Havana’s shameful deterioration. The overwhelming reason why the city has fallen apart is that there hasn’t been any money available to maintain, let alone restore, anything. The Cuban revolution can claim many miracles, but prosperity isn’t one of them.

Leal, a talkative, chubby middle-aged man sporting sunglasses and a white Panama hat, proudly touted his restoration accomplishments, like a hacienda owner waving at the fields of sprouting new crops.

Three years ago, Stew and I saw the slivers of Old Havana Leal has restored, and his projects are in fact excellent, almost museum-quality, and much more impressive than some of the restorations we’ve seen here in San Miguel, which often consist of yet another schmear of cement and paint.

Indeed, the restored part of Old Havana has a Disneyland quality to it, as if someone had dictated the work down to its most minute detail.

Waiting for Eusebio: Most of Havana’s
beautiful buildings still wait to be rescued. 

Someone, in fact, has. The Chinese tschoke store or the charming ice cream parlor were not placed there by some Cuban entrepreneur but by Leal’s office, as part of the decoration of the old city. Everything you see in Old Havana is planned, owned, restored, and operated by the government, in the spirit of a giant franchise.

Yet, such obsessive government control—the basic premise of Cuba’s disastrous socialist economy—is what led to the wholesale deterioration of the city in the first place, and what is going to prevent its resurgence any time soon.

What Havana needs, and which neither Leal nor Raúl Castro is willing to permit, is billions of dollars in private investment—some of it no doubt from Cuban-Americans in the U.S.—rather than more socialist micro-management.

Ah, but do you really want McDonald’s and Starbucks to take over Havana? That’s the old refrain you hear from some folks, who then urge you to visit Cuba soon before it’s “ruined” by the “American tourists coming in.”

Sadly, to a large extent Cuba and Havana are already ruined. The most optimistic spin on the devastation is that because there has been no money to fix or do much of anything, at least many of the city’s grand old building still stand. In tatters, but still standing, and I suppose, we should be grateful for that.

A Cuban Toyota waiting for a ride.

Private investment and historical preservation are not antithetical. Both forces have come together to save and restore hundreds of architectural masterpieces in my former home of Chicago, a city with its own, vast collection of them.

In Cuba the same synergy should be unleashed to bring back Havana from the edge of destruction.


2 thoughts on “How to bring back Havana's faded beauty

  1. Al — We could be singing in the same choir. Well, said. I, too, look forward to welcoming Cuba back from its economic experiment. Its people deserve far better. Who knows? You may see me at the Salvation Army in Havana before long.


  2. Anonymous

    If nothing else, the ruins of Havana stand in mute testimony to the fact that some people will never abandon their incorrect ideas about economics no matter how much physical evidence piles up to contradict them. Tax cuts to close the federal budget deficit anyone? Saludos,Kim GBoston, MAWhere we think Havana wouldn't be half as sad if people didn't have to live in those old wrecks.


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