Our Team in Havana: NH&RA Mission Explores Rebuilding Old City

8 min read

To a group of American housing developers and financiers, four days in Havana is a tall mojito loaded with both spices and bitters. Make that a pitcher of mojitos, for walking the streets of a city frozen in the ‘50s surrounded by turquoise and lavender cars with protruding fins that your grandfather used to drive, you cannot help but feel a bit inebriated.

In late February, NH&RA sponsored a journey for 28 of us, an education-oriented sojourn focused on the restoration of Old Havana. Business purpose is still required for visas despite President Obama’s recent decision to gradually reestablish relations.

We arrived via charter at the island’s main airport named for liberator Jose Marti and about the same size as the airport on Martha’s Vineyard. Though the parking lot was crowded with the vintage cars, the bus that fetched us was modern, apparently purchased from Russia or China. Before we even checked into our hotel, our bus stopped at La Plaza de Revolucion where images made of steel of the faces of Che and his compadre Cienfuego  stared down on us as if to remind us the event was still on people’s minds whatever our President may be thinking.

Our guide, however, was of the post-Revolution generation, a 25-year old woman with that cape of ebony hair and a teal tint in her brown eyes that you saw in the faces of clerks at Immigration and women throughout the city. And it was her generation we mostly heard from in our educational sessions, young people who appreciate that the revolution took care of immediate needs of their older relatives, but who now want more out of life, such as the freedom to travel, or iPads.

On the way to our hotel, we drove along the waterfront where there is one beautiful facade after another in need of care and a sporadic rehab containing a restaurant. You could detect this is just the beginning of something. Within just a few years, you can imagine one restaurant after another along the sea filled with Europeans—and Americans.

There is a wall along the large beautiful bay and forts on the hills at the edge of the sea. You learn that Castro’s throwing out American and foreign business and taking over all the land and housing was not impetuous. Havana is a city that has been under siege for much of its 400-year history—by the Brits, the Spaniards, pirates, the mafia. In the late 19th century, Britain and Spain actually swapped Cuba for Florida with the ease with which we might swap baseball trading cards. In the early ‘50s, the mafia had its single largest gathering ever at the still elegant Hotel Nacional and disguised as a Frank Sinatra concert.

Our hotel, the Capri, could have been on Collins Avenue in Miami, but prior to the current South Beach restoration. It is decorated in greens and yellows with simply furnished rooms and one photo on the wall, of the Melancon, the seawall right outside the window. The bars and restaurants are more chic and the rooftop pool and bar would become our late afternoon gathering spot for rum (usually seven to 16-year old).

From the hill across the bay looking down on the harbor, you get perhaps the best sense of a city (or country) that just stopped progressing and stayed where it was. It seems crazy, but then you arrive in the Old City, which feels very much like the Old City of Barcelona—cobblestone streets and exotic architecture some 400 years old with shops and bars popping out all over.  Here you feel as if they preserved a distant past and at the same time were able to find room to progress.

Architecture is one of the spices in the pitcher. The restoration is being led by the city’s grandly titled  Historiador since 1964, Dr. Eusebio Leal, a mentee of the city’s only other Historiador, Dr. Emelio Roig. It was inspired, legend has it, by American companies prior to their banishment trying to tear down the old buildings and replace them with the modern. Education (along with housing and healthcare) was a priority of Fidel.  Within months of assuming control he sent teams of teachers all across the island and converted an illiterate population to 100 percent literacy, perhaps his greatest achievement. The restoration is set up as an educational project. The history of buildings is researched thoroughly before any work is planned. We visited a school where 17-22 year olds are trained in plaster and cement and steel shaping work. The redevelopment all begins in the Plazas, which were also the centers from which the city expanded, Plazas de Vieja and Armas being the most beautiful. Armas is surrounded by book stalls (dominated by book jackets featuring images of Guevera) and contains the old American embassy, now a library. The Plazas are lined with buildings now decorated in an array of bright pastels.

Early days of the restoration (started in 1964) were financed largely by the six or so billion dollars Cuba received each year from the Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the USSR, the money disappeared and the restoration now depends on UNESCO and a land tax. When Castro took over the land, he gave everyone a free home. There is no rent, no mortgages. But home owners (which is everyone) must pay a 10 percent tax on the value of their land. The homes vary from elegance in the Miramar section of town to shacks. How did one Cuban get the elegant home and another the hovel? “It depends on who you know,” we were told. Jobs are also given out by the state, and also dependent on chums. Everyone is paid a pittance of salary and most are dependent on what is called the “informal” economy for additional support. (The “informal” economy does not, however, include either hand guns or drugs, both of which, along with violence, barely exist.)

You walk just a block or so from the beautifully restored plazas and find yourself suddenly surrounded by indigence. You can see inside some of the one-room homes where people spend the day standing in the doorway, bored, hoping for a handout. Try to take a photo of a local and a tip is expected. (They often have big, thick cigars to lend you for the shot.)

If the architecture (along with the street music, bands in the late night jazz clubs and surprising warmth and humor of the people) are the city’s spices, poverty is the bitter. And it is evident everywhere, so broad it can overwhelm the spice. With all the good things Castro did, he never figured out where the revenue was going to come from. The American embargo has only exacerbated the situation, of course. And all his people suffer from it.

That is the current concern of the young, charming economics professor from the city’s university who addressed us. The country’s economy, he told us, is based on central planning and social honorship. Prices and supplies come from a central office. Reforms in the ‘90s brought some investment and growth to an economy abandoned by Russia, but not yet enough. The economy is at least surviving, but not improving. The hope is that Raul Castro, who became president in 2006, will begin to implement reforms from a blueprint that took five years to design. “We are not yet in a position to do what we have to do to see the changes we want to see,” he said. Choice of words in Cuba is always extremely careful.

Speaking of Raul, we asked our guide where he and his brother live in town. The answer was quite surprising: No one knows. Not officially anyway. No one knows if the leaders are married or have children. Privacy for the leaders seems to be an accepted part of the culture (although there is a lot of gossip).

As we headed back to the airport for our flights home, there was a strong sense of camaraderie between the Americans on the Chinese bus in Cuba, a sense of having shared a unique adventure. The camaraderie was both amongst our colleagues and between each of us and our guide.

Before we left, I took the liberty of saying to her, “This is a successful group of people. What can we do as a group to help you and the Cubans?” And she responded, “Almost anything you want. We have nothing.”