Cuba has somehow survived the trifecta of unhappy experiences (unless you are a partisan of one stripe or another, in which case you will say the Cuba has persevered despite the meddling of two unreliable intruders and, according to your stripe, the intruders may change). Got it? The trifecta is, of course, the mismanagement or subversion of Cuba’s revolutionary government, the years of Russian occupation, and the American embargo. (Of the three–or perhaps we were told this merely because we were a group of Americans–the Russians are the most despised. “There is nothing left, there is no Russian influence except those horrid apartment buildings.” The hope for the immediate future is that the embargo will disappear and Cuba will become prosperous, something that neither the Russians nor the Revolutionaries have accomplished.)
In any case, parts of Havana have been noticed by UNESCO and have been declared World Heritage Sites. This nomination doesn’t automatically ensure millions of dollars in reconstruction money, nor does it guarantee that there will never be a Starbucks on every corner, their modest green logos hidden by forests of Golden Arches. Indeed, an aging thug posing as the New Breed, a real estate agent, tugged his moll over to my verandah coffee table at the Hotel Nacional to tell me that the contracts were already signed, that the machinery was in motion, and that on the very day that Fidel dies construction on the Havana Disney World will commence. Luckily, he owns eight of the many parcels of land Disney will gobble up, and he and Moll will become very rich on that happy afternoon when the black crepe banners adorn the halls of government.
Meanwhile, walking through Havana provides ample evidence of what the city has suffered in recent decades and what it might achieve in coming years. The Malecon, the long promenade along the sea shore, puts the blue sea at your feet and opens on distant views of La Cabana, the fortress that failed to protect Havana from a British assault. Walking along the shore and around the harbor bend brings you to the Old City where four squares–the Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, and the Plaza St. Francis of Assisi–constitute a historical time line from colonial days to revolution to decay to a promise of rebirth. To sum up in a single picture, here is a before and after banner that hangs next to a wonderfully refurbished restaurant in the Plaza Vieja.
The history and the promise of Havana stand side by side on every street. On the Prado, for instance, some of the 19th century apartment houses, private homes, hotels have been elegantly restored. Their next door neighbors may be vacant, roofless, windowless shells. The net effect of such a city walk is decidedly ambiguous. How wonderful it was! How terrible the loss! What where they thinking? How could a revolution prosper? How could it fail? What could an embargo hope to achieve? Did it achieve anything? What will rebuilding cost, and what will be lost in all that reconstruction?
All in the fullness of time, I suppose. Go now. Go back in 10 years. With luck, someday, Havana will be one of the greatly beautiful capital cities, preserved and preserving.