Travel

Watching history unfold in Havana

The memories and trappings of Castro-era rule have by no means faded in Cuba, but Havana is looking to the future

  • Dec 13, 2018
  • 1,086 words
  • 5 minutes
Havana’s streets are still frozen in time. (Photo: Cuba Tourist Board of Canada)
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A group of American tourists gaze at the American villains on display in Rincon de los Cretinos (Cretin’s Corner) inside Havana’s Museo de la Revolución.

Fulgencio Batista — the late Cuban president who was overthrown in the 1959 revolution — stands in cartoonish glory in an army uniform, next to former United States presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The latter’s son, George W. Bush, is portrayed with the face of a donkey and holds a book upside down. Cretin’s Corner thanks Reagan for “strengthening the Cuban revolution,” and the two Bushes for “consolidating it and making socialism irrevocable.” 

The Americans laugh good-naturedly and move along to the next exhibit in the museum housed inside the former Presidential Palace, where bullet holes from a 1957 attack on Batista are still visible. The iconic building brings to life the events around Cuba’s revolution through a dizzying array of old photographs, maps and speeches, as well as the actual boots worn by Raul Castro and the toga worn by his late brother, Fidel, during his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech.

The very presence of so many American tourists here is a sign of the slow but steady changes underway in Cuba — changes that were in part instigated by the thaw in relations between the two countries when Barack Obama was president. Things got a little icier after the election of President Donald Trump, who walked back changes introduced by the Obama administration by introducing new restrictions on travel, including making more than 80 hotels, two rum companies and a luxury shopping mall off limits to American visitors.

And yet even as a new era of antagonism continues between the two old foes, Cuba marches forward.

***

With the passing of the presidential torch in April 2018 from Raul Castro to Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, people are cautiously optimistic about the future. “Compared to five years ago, we have more private restaurants, taxis, bakeries, shops, more commerce,” says a taxi driver as he wends his way through Havana’s streets.

On the buzzing main pedestrian thoroughfare in Old Havana, locals swarm over the cobblestones, handing out menus for paladares, private family-run restaurants that began as an underground subculture but are now regulated by the government. Hip establishments such as Ivan Chef Justo are booked solid. Score a seat at El Rum Rum, run by a cigar sommelier and serving excellent lobster, and you can count yourself lucky.

Busy restaurants may be a sign that the economic stagnation that afflicted Cuba under Castro communism is on the wane, which could help pump more money into something Havana’s municipal authorities have long invested in despite — or because of — the commercial doldrums the country has faced: the preservation of Old Havana. For several decades, the city’s government has been restoring historical forts and colonial-era buildings to their former glory, an effort that took off with the formation in 1994 of Habaguanex, a holding company that earns money from tourism and re-invests it in urban restoration. There’s no better way to experience the results of that investment — and slice of everyday life in Havana — than on a walking tour.

In Parque Central, outside the exquisitely ornate Gran Teatro de Habana, a 1,500-seat theatre that claims to be the oldest in Latin America, a group of men argue noisily, seemingly on the verge of actual blows. “No,” says a tour guide. “They come here every day to talk about Cuban baseball. We’re a talkative, passionate people — it’s normal!”

Across the park from the theatre, locals lean against trees and sit on sidewalks, taking advantage of the public Wi-Fi to connect with relatives in Miami. Though Cubans still cannot watch CNN, they can buy Internet cards for US$1.50 an hour and connect with the rest of the world.

Passing through the old city’s bustling streets and four major squares — Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja — yields not just grand cathedrals and a bewildering panoply of architectural styles but also everything from government-run grocery stores where mothers in shorts and flip-flops line up for subsidized basics such as peach juice, condensed milk and rum (which locals call vitamin R) to book shops run out of people’s homes. “You should buy books here,” says one proprietor, proudly showing off her selection of old medical textbooks, poetry and political treatises on Che Guevara. “Not at the government-run stores.”

***

“This was the ugliest street in Havana a few years ago,” says Gilberto Valladares, pointing down Calle de los Peluqueros (Hairdresser Alley) at the end of Calle Aguiar in Old Havana. “So we launched a social project.”

Valladares, a hairdresser and artist, is referring to the free hairdressing school, handful of galleries and craft shops, and private houses for rent that now dot the alley. The street’s facelift was part of a community revitalization project for the Santo Ángel neighbourhood, which was led by Valladares and saw him convert his own high-ceilinged apartment on Calle Aguiar into the three-room Casa Museo de la Barbería, a museum filled with hairstyling memorabilia, barbershop chairs from the 1930s, old wooden combs and a barber’s pole. “In Cuba, things are changing slowly, and we are going through a transformation in social growth,” says Aguiar. “But there are things we shouldn’t lose. We have to find our own way. Look at Puerto Rico, they have lost their own identity.”

Havana doesn’t seem to be in a similar position. You can, for instance, still pay US$50 for the biggest cliché the city has to offer: an hour’s tour through the city in a 1951 pink Chevrolet, a relic of the Batista era. And signs of the revolution, which, for better or worse, made Cuba and its capital what it is today, are still everywhere, whether it’s the Jose Marti Memorial at the Plaza de la Revolución or the government offices plastered with the words Vas bien, Fidel (You’re doing well, Fidel). Those classic Havana tropes may never be lost, but the city is changing, albeit at an evolutionary rather revolutionary pace, making it one of the best places in the world to watch history unfold before your eyes.

The writer travelled to Cuba courtesy of the Cuba Tourist Board of Canada. They did not review or approve this story. Hungry for more stories about Cuba? Then read author Peggy Blair’s piece of speculative fiction on the Caribbean nation’s future.

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