Saturday, March 15, 2008

La Habana

The road between Jibacoa and Havana is full of industrial works; most are the result of foreign investment in partnership with the Cuban government. Some of these sites fly the Cuban and Chinese flags side-by-side; some fly the Cuban and Canadian flags. Almost all bear the revolutionary slogans and patriotic catchphrases ubiquitous everywhere in the country.

The gateway to Havana. Above, a prominent reminder of the July 26 Movement
- the name of the revolutionary movement led by Castro that eventually toppled Batista leading to the Cuba of today.

We entered Havana through the underwater tunnel running under Havana Bay, a great surprise to both Husband and I since neither one of us had ever read or heard about it. (Here's an archival photograph of it.)

Very shortly after entering Havana, we drove past one of the greatest oddities in a country awash in them - the United States Interests Section building. Most Americans are surprised to discover that the US has an official government presence in Cuba at all; while it does not have an embassy, it does keep a "US Interests Section" office (naturally, hosted by the famously-neutral Swiss), which keeps an eye on goings-on of American concern in Cuba. "Keeps an eye on" not only figuratively, but literally; there used to be a webcam, although it's no longer operational, and in 2006, some functionary got the brilliant idea to run propaganda messages across the top of the building. The messages are huge, orange, a story high, and, as of our visit, still scrolling boldly across an upper floor of the building.

In response to the appearance of the scrolling messages, it is rumoured that Castro himself ordered the construction of an 'art installation' that just happened to be right in front of the United States Interests Section building, in the newly-dubbed "Anti-Imperialism Park". 138 black flags, each with a white star in the centre, coincidentally blocked most views of the orange scrolling messages from passers-by.

I had read about this fascinating propaganda duel but to see it with my own eyes was quite something. Unfortunately, there was no way to photograph it from our perspective in such a way as to really show you the true effect, so I offer you here, with credit, two photos taken from other sources which better illustrate both the scrolling propaganda messages and the wall of flags than my snapshot did.

Photo of US Interests Section Building in Cuba from That neon red you see up there is the actual propaganda project, scrolling messages in Spanish across the top of the building 24/7. Between us and the building? The flagpoles from the installation put up to block the messages as much as possible.

And just for some context, a photo of the 138-flag 'art installation' from

Our first stop was Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) for the obligatory tourist shot in front of the sculpture of Che Guevera. The buildings around this square now host government offices, including the office of the President, occupied until very recently by Fidel Castro*.

Many of the buildings are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the battles fought in the city in 1959.

Husband commented wryly that their value to tourism and propaganda means they'll never be repaired!

Traffic in midtown Havana. =>

What was being repaired was large sections of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Thank God - many of the colonial buildings on the waterfront are well past repair; but it is gratifying to see dozens of others crawling with workmen who are repairing the facades and preserving them, thanks to the large injection of money for restoration the UNESCO designation brings.

One of my favourite photos from the trip, these shops and apartments are typical of the smaller buildings that line the alleyways and streets between the huge Spanish Colonial buildings that dominate the area, some of which date back to the turn of the 15th century.

A number of the cobblestone streets in the heart of Habana Vieja have been closed to motor traffic and are instead full of people - performers, cafe patrons, vendors and tourists. As you see, horses and carts are still welcome in these areas, though.

Wandering through the meandering streets and alleyways of Old Havana we saw some beautiful architecture, as well as just some very neat things. We saw this young boy negotiating with his Mama through a window. We saw a young woman in a yellow ball gown with her hair elaborately dressed, escorted by her Madre and Padre - it was her Quinceañera, but it didn't seem polite for us, as strangers, to take a photo of her.

<= Dancers perform on stilts. We saw book markets, street vendors, performers, artists selling their works, and Cubans in colonial costume who make their living posing for photos with tourists, for which you may make a 'donation' of a Convertible ('tourist') peso or two (worth nearly 29 times what the local money, the Cuban peso, is worth, on the day I type this).

We saw a film crew shooting a movie outside the Havana Club Museum of Rum, and marveled at how all small-movie crews, no matter what language they may speak, look identical. A boom mic guy just has to wear a sweatshirt and a backwards baseball cap, he just has to.

The scene's actors - perhaps huge stars in Cuba, although unknown to us. Husband snapped this shot.

We had lunch at the beautiful El Patio restaurant, one of Havana's most famous. The restaurant is in the courtyard of an 18th-century mansion, the Palacio del Marques de Aguas Claras.

A colourful window overlooking the courtyard restaurant.

The Palacio is right in the Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square), so-named for the Catedral de San Cristobal which dominates it.

After lunch, we wandered around Old Havana for a couple of hours. We navigated - that's the best word - a chaotic artist's market 2 km long and several lanes wide, chock-a-bloc with Cubans and international tourists from the world over.

We admired the hundreds of "Yanq Tanks" that were everywhere - cars from the 1940s and 1950s in every state of repair, including hot-rod pristine factory-floor shape - well, unless you were looking under the hood, probably, as they manufacture many of their own parts for these beasts.

We wandered along Havana's famous seawall, where everybody comes to hang out and gossip and which is a favourite spot for young lovers to spoon.

Husband took this photo of a soldier on duty at the seawall with the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (the castle that guards the entrance to Havana's harbour) in the background. This was taken mere seconds before the soldier told Husband in no uncertain terms that he was not to take pictures of the soldiers with the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro in the background.

The last neighbourhood in the city we visited was that surrounding El Capitolio, The Capitol Building. The Capitol Building was built to echo the US Capitol Building, but the dictator who oversaw its construction, Gerardo Machado, was apparently fond of pointing out that it was slightly bigger. The building used to be the seat of government; after the revolution, Fidel Castro, who already had an extremely firm grip on the power of symbolism and propaganda, refused to take office from the building and instead turned it into a public library, conference and meeting centre, and, in the 1960s, the offices of The Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment. (The seat of government was instead relocated to Revolution Square and the Capitol given back to the people, get it? Get it?) The steps on this fine day are full of Cubans, students and others, reading and writing and talking.

A view of downtown Havana from the Capitol steps. Note at the base of the steps there are several photographers with antique cameras who will take sepia photographs of you sitting on the steps if you like and print them for you on the spot.

Husband noticed a coin lying on the ground behind one of the cameras in this area and instinctively stooped to pick it up before being almost run over by a short, buxom Cuban woman, a photographer's assistant, who snatched it out of his hand. "That's ours!" she shouted briskly, in English, before turning on her heel to put it into the cash container. "Y- yes, it is," replied Husband, slightly shaken but certainly impressed with her vigorous pursuit of every coin meant for her coffers.

Gran Teatro de La Habana (Great Theatre of Havana), an absolutely stunningly beautiful building which is quite nearby the Capitol.

Although the US government makes a great show of not allowing most ordinary Americans to visit Cuba, one of the handfuls of exceptions they make is for church groups. While their agenda for doing so is pretty transparent, what initially surprised me more is that the Cuban government allows these groups to come. (There are severe restrictions on what these church groups are allowed to do while in the country.) However, the groups often come bearing donations; and, as we saw during our visit to the Capitol, some also come bearing sweet propaganda value. This bus was the transportation for Pastors for Peace and was painted all-over with anti-blockade slogans and messages in favour of improved Cuban-American relations. Tragically, the group was off somewhere when we encountered the bus. I would dearly love to have seen whether the group looked like a bunch of fierce Southern Baptists here to pry the rum and cigars from Cubans' hands and their pro-sex attitudes from their very souls, or (judging from the bus) a bunch of Metropolitan-Church-going hippies who'd played bongos and sung folk hymns to pass time during the trip. Judging from their website, a wee bit more of the second than the first, probably :)

On the drive back to Jibacoa, we watched the small pumpjacks that dot the shoreline swing slowly up and down, bringing Cuba's newest source of wealth to the surface. Cuba has oil, but no refining capacity; thus the partnerships with countries like China, Canada and Venezuela to develop the resource. As always, the trip reminded us of what an enigmatic blend of riches and poverty, potential and peril, unbelievably rich history and uncertain future, Cuba is.

This post is already way too long. I'll put some more pictures up on flickr and will link to them when they're up.


(*Mentioning Fidel's retirement reminds me - Raúl Castro was named President on Sunday, February 24. We caught our flight to Cuba on February 25. Cuba has been under constant threat of - and has suffered numerous - terrorist attacks by anti-Castro factions for decades, and for years there has been speculation - ramped up considerably by Castro's recent illness - that activists might take advantage of his eventual death or retirement to stir up trouble and perhaps even incite counterrevolution. As it turns out, the political fox Fidel Castro, by retiring as President before the parliamentary elections in a very low-key manner, and then by having Parliament name Raúl President several weeks later, denied his enemies a defining 'moment of action' when such a terrorist strike would be poised to incite counter-revolution.

Nevertheless, it became clear that in the wake of Raúl taking on the mantle of the Presidency, the airlines had been sent a security memo, because our luggage has never been scrutinized to the degree it was when going through airport security in Moncton for that flight to Cuba. Ever. Even flying out of Pearson in Toronto a few weeks after September 11, 2001, I didn't have every single item in my cosmetic bag opened up and checked.

As for Cuba post-Fidel (sort of), the mood is overtly (it was stated outright to us) pride in the transition having gone over with little reaction at all. "Everyone has been wondering what Cuba will be like after Castro," a Cuban named Raphael told us. "Well -" he gestured toward the working-class Havana neighbourhood we were passing through and the Cubans going about their daily business - "here you are. You're in it." A CBC radio commentator based in Havana described the city as having an atmosphere of 'determined, benevolent calm' in the face of the change, and that is certainly the atmosphere we saw, although the poorest neighbourhoods we saw would be middle class by Cuban standards. Any hope for counterrevolutionary uprising and unrest has been met yet again with the carefully-cultivated Cuban propensity for seeing the world as "Us vs. Them" (and I'm afraid we all know who Them is), and a patriotic, stubborn pride in not giving those who said the revolution would fall apart after Castro's passing any satisfaction.)

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Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...

Thank you so much for this post, ronnie. It is both very beautiful and very sad... an accurate reflection, I gather, of the island itself.

8:11 p.m.  

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