Notes from Havana
Hello I’m one of the student archives technicians at the Environmental Design Archives. A second year undergraduate in the CED Architecture program, I am fascinated by design and its history, and consider it an honor to participate in the preservation, processing and exhibition of the many collections the Archives has in its vaults.
During Spring Break I was lucky to be invited to join my parents on a trip to Cuba. The trip was prompted by my father who completed a master’s degree in public health at the University of Havana in the late 1970s and had always wanted to return.
Upon arrival, I was immediately struck by the fascinatingly eclectic mix of cultures, styles and influences which make up the island. The island’s undeniably Caribbean way of life contrasts with the stiff, Brutalist soviet architecture which fills much of Havana’s skyline. Its older American cars are at odds with the more modern soviet Lada’s and Moskovich’s; mufflers echoing the cold war tensions which caught Cuba in the crossfire. While the country is a fascinating collage of all of these forces, it always seems to find a way to make it distinctly Cuban. Havana’s crumbling historic Spanish-colonial center in many places has been appropriated by local residents and repainted to reflect the lively and vibrant local culture, similarly to the classic American cars which have been covered in bright paints with added Cuban flags and stickers.
This idea of appropriation took a more violent form during the Cuban revolution of 1953-59. Previously foreign owned assets like Texaco, Esso and Shell facilities in Cuba were nationalized under Fidel Castro’s leadership along with many hotel buildings in Havana, like the Havana Hilton which became the Habana Libre, or the Hotel Nacional, which was largely owned by American investors.
Despite the blockage of US visitors to the island, Cuba is a major tourist destination for the rest of the world. Touristic infrastructure does exist, but also has much room for improvement. Part of the reason for this is due to the embargo against Cuba which not only banned US investment in the island, but also mandated that any foreign companies that participated in Cuba’s economy then couldn’t participate in the US. This policy effectively suffocated Cuba’s development, although Cubans have been able to find ways around the embargo and progress significantly. With Obama’s recent visit to the island, and the relaxation of historic tensions, it is possible that the embargo will be lifted, prompting a rat-race for foreign development companies. Many in Cuba fear this, seeing it as a way for the US to re-establish economic control over the island in the form of large resorts, hotels, housing, and other infrastructure development. Local residents also fear that the well preserved ecological systems of the island, some of the healthiest in the entire Caribbean, will suffer if the embargo is lifted, due to increased economic exploration of the island.
Apart from strolling around Havana, my parents and I also took a short day trip to the Viñales valley, a region where the majority of the tobacco for Cuban cigars is grown. The valley features large rock protrusion called mogotes which are what remains of a large mesa that had been slowly eroded by wind and water. This region is an example of the ecological struggle soon to occur, as it is already struggling to sustain its water and agricultural resources against the expanding forces of development, largely attracted by mining prospects and caving tours for tourists.
My week in Cuba was a truly eye-opening experience. In spite of my left-leaning tendencies, and the fact that my Father had told me stories about the island, I still unconsciously arrived to the island with all the preconceptions and baggage of the Cold war swirling around in my mind. The projected reality of US propaganda painted the island as an impoverished country, a hollow shell of the Soviet Union’s puppet it once was. A place where the only exportable commodities are sugar, tobacco, rum and baseball players. A haven for expat’s, hippies, revolutionaries and little else.
It was immediately clear to me that Cuba’s history is far more complex than these convenient, politicized interpretations. Now that tensions are cooling and change is fast approaching this island nation, the biggest question is, what will be its future?