Havana is an extremely photogenic city. The history of this city lives in its crumbling walls, its yellow tinted harbor, its rattling car doors, and its sea battered Malécon. Tree roots that poke through cement sidewalks present obstacles for the city residents who tip-toe across their spines on their way to work. There is beauty in the warts on concrete buildings and the rusting gates, seemingly in a state of steady collapse, which they stand behind.
The city is camera ready; there is beautiful decay to be found on every street. However, it is important to understand the current state of the city politically before framing it aesthetically. Havana, in all its ruin, is a beautiful subject, but how did it come to be like this? If you are studying abroad in Havana, it's important to understand the politics behind the beauty of Havana.
35 Minutes from Florida But Decades Through Time
Many people undertaking study abroad programs in Cuba are enraptured most by the feeling of going back in time. Though it sits just a 35 minute plane ride away from Miami’s modern beaches, this Caribbean nation that paints itself as the hero of a modern day David and Goliath tale has a very nostalgic appeal for international students.
The streets of Havana provide numerous opportunities for encounters with their diverse and intricate history. From 16th century colonial style Convents to 20th century Art Deco structures and a Capitol building which is an exact replica of the Capitoll building in Washington DC, their architectural diversity is largely a result of the outside influences which have laid claim to Cuba throughout its burdened history. Part of the reason that one can find so much charm in seeing such beautiful architectural feats in a state of constant decay then, is because of the statement that this disrepair exclaims about the new, independent Cuba. Perhaps once, Cuba was a place for foreign powers to build paradises and vacation homes on, but with its newfound independence and revolution, Cubans have taken back ownership of their land and the buildings which tell the island’s story in stone.
The Rise of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara
The Cuban revolution in 1959 was imbued with notions of a people’s retaking of their country. Upon ousting the U.S. backed Batista dictatorship, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara started a socialist revolution with the intention of changing all aspects of life in Cuba. A new focus on individual sacrifice for the greater good of the country translated directly into policy which placed the capital city as a low priority for government funding and support. Programs pursued by Castro and Guevara sought to rid the country of urban and rural differences by focusing funds and efforts on improving life in the rural areas. This meant that more resources would be allocated for investments in improving the quality of life outside of Havana.
Havana Takes a Backseat
This political reorientation had two major results for the state of buildings in Havana. Firstly, because Havana was not given priority for funding, it lost its status as the center of economic and social life in the country. As a result of this decline in importance, migration patterns did not follow the norm of major latin american cities. Small towns outside of Havana which were receiving funding began to grow while population growth was minimal inside of the city.
The second notable result of this anti-urban policy was the growing desperation of city residents who lacked support for home-improvements now that their government was no longer focused on Havana. Together, these two things created an environment which can still be seen in the city today. At first glance, the city may seem to have held onto its wealth, but informed students studying in Cuba should not take the absence of shantytowns as evidence of the absence of poverty. While building facades in the city tell a story about the former paradise that Havana may have been for the wealthy, the story found upon entering through the front door may unfold a little differently.
A Crumbling City
Lack of direct investment for improving homes in the city forced Havana residents to take up construction projects without adequate support. The improvised housing that resulted can be found behind the baroque and neoclassical facades that the photographer is so attracted to. At least two-thirds of all housing created in Cuba since the revolution in 1959 can be classified as self built, and though often hidden from the streets, these constructions can be very substandard with poor structural quality and overcrowding. Single room tenements and the conversation of non-residential spaces into multi-family homes were desperate measures taken by a population who continued to sacrifice their quality of life for the rest of Cuba. By 1999, 88,000 people were found to be living in housing that was in such disrepair that they were placed on a special government priority list which tracked the need for replacement housing in Cuba. It is unclear whether or not this sacrifice continues to be validated in the name of the revolution.
Perhaps this reality speaks to the symbolism of Havana as a crumbling city, one that tourists and people studying abroad in Havana should be more aware of. Cubans are extremely intelligent and friendly people and Havana is a beautiful city. But there is nothing more political than beauty and in order to be a more responsible visitor, it is important to be prepared to do some searching in order to find the real story of this city hidden beyond the facades.