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The Best of Havana: 2016
Havana—La Habana in Spanish—the capital of Cuba, is the most peculiar capital in the Western Hemisphere, isolated from the rest of the world. Left to languish for more than half a century, this city of 2.1 million inhabitants has and fallen into ruin and disrepair.
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has created excitement, the hope of a better future. Havana needs a better future. Now, in 2016, Havana is in a state of anticipation, a ruined city hoping for a second chance.
Will things get better? Will Havana join the 21st century?
Time will tell.
What is certainly true is that Havana offers a thrilling experience precisely because it is so archaic, the capital of a nation suspended in time.
Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded Havana on August 25, 1514, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó on the banks of the Mayabeque River. Between 1514 and 1519 the Spanish also established two other towns in what today are the neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar, both adjacent to the banks of the Almendares River. Pánfilo de Narváez gave Havana its official name: San Cristóbal de la Habana. The settlement grew for the next eight decades, but it was not until December 20, 1592, that King Phillip II of Spain granted Havana the title of Ciudad, City.
Its name is a point of contention. The Spanish tended to adopt indigenous names for their settlements, part of a strategy of welcoming the indigenous peoples into the fold of Christendom. Most historians believe that Havana is derived from the name of the local Taíno chief, Habaguanex. Others believe that the name is derived from the Middle Dutch word havene, meaning harbor. Havana, after all, extends along the bay entered through a narrow inlet dividing into three main harbors: Marimelena, Guanabacoa, and Atarés.
The Republican Era
As the city continued to grow, some fortifications were torn down to allow the metropolis to expand westward. The dark side to Havana’s prosperity during this time was that slavery remained legal until 1886. In consequence, many American slaveholders moved to Cuba after their defeat in the American Civil War in order run vast sugar plantations worked by slaves.
Slavery and other kinds of human bondage ended with the Spanish-American War, a conflict between Spain and the United States that erupted when the United States intervened in the Cuban War of Independence.
The United States coveted Cuba, and Cuban revolts against Spanish rule enjoyed widespread support among Americans. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, American publishers, agitated for U.S. intervention. When the USS Maine was destroyed in Havana’s harbor under mysterious circumstances, President William McKinley was forced into a war he had endeavored to avoid. The ten-week armed conflict ended in the 1889 Treaty of Paris, in which Spain surrendered Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine islands.
The Spanish empire, in essence, collapsed.
The United States was now Cuba’s master. American occupation of Cuba was, however, brief. It ended with the election of Tomás Estrada Palma, the first president of Republic of Cuba, who took office on May 20, 1902.
During the Republican period, which continued until the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Havana enjoyed a sustained period of development and growth. Cuba recovered from the devastation of the Spanish-American War and Havana prospered once more, always rising from adversity. It enjoyed a sustainable middle class and an impressive building boom. Mansions, villas, luxury hotels, casinos, and nightclubs rose throughout the city. Havana became notorious for its nightlife. Its casinos and nightclubs drew thousands of Americans, long before Miami Beach or Las Vegas became tourist destinations.
In the 1930s, organized crime figures became prominent players in Havana’s tourism industry. Lucky Luciano at the Hotel Nacional, Meyer Lansky at the Hotel Habana Riviera, and Santo Trafficante Jr. at the Sans Souci Casino dominated casinos, nightclubs, gambling, and prostitution on the island nation.
The era’s excesses—corruption, crime, and immoral activities—created tensions between the Cubans and the Americans.
More than 300,000 Americans visited Cuba in 1958 on the eve of Fidel Castro’s takeover. Despite the fortune tourism brought, middle-class Cubans yearned for an end to the excesses of the gangster elements that suffused Havana society. It was difficult to raise a family in the ambiance created by the breathtaking corruption of the casinos and nightclubs.
Resentment, along with rising inequities attributed to the fabulous fortunes built through crony capitalism, led Cubans to believe that their nation was slipping into a state of depravity, immorality, and excess.
Fear that Cuba—like Havana—was becoming dominated by American interests was the primary reason for the overwhelming popular support for Fidel Castro.
The Cuban Revolution
Cuban President Fulgencio Batista fled Havana on New Year’s Eve 1959. His departure meant that Castro’s Revolution was swept into power by default on January 1, 1959.
To the adulation of millions of Cubans, Castro promised reforms. This meant improving social services, ending political corruption, regulating the casino and gambling industries, and launching vast public works projects for improved housing.
In May 1959, however, Castro expropriated all private property and industry, a stunning surprise: the Cuban Revolution was subsequently declared Leninist-Marxist, based on the Soviet model.
This declaration convulsed Cuban society; the U.S. imposed an embargo to retaliate for the nationalization of assets owned by American citizens and corporation.
Cuba’s middle and professional classes began to flee, becoming the largest Latin American diaspora in the U.S.
The process of transforming Cuba into a communist state continued. By 1966 all private enterprise had been seized by the government.
Havana, in the 1960s, confronted an unprecedented social upheaval as hundreds of thousands of residents fled. The collapse of Havana society—schools were closed, business were shuttered, religious orders were expelled, and dissenting residents were declared enemies of the state, subject to arrest, imprisonment, and execution by firing squad—created a ghost town. Friends, families, neighbors vanished as blocks and entire neighborhoods were emptied as hundreds of thousands of people were forced into exile.
Storefronts were taken over by the government, and abandoned properties were seized by the state, which transformed them into grand public housing projects. Mansions became apartment buildings, with one family living in a bedroom, sharing a bathroom down the hall and transforming the Miramar district into a neighborhood of vast dormitories. Grand mansions were handed over to rogue states, from the Islamic Republic of Iran to North Korea, for swank embassies.
As its middle and professional classes left throughout the 1960s, Havana was filled with the “proletariat,” transforming the once sophisticated urban center into a conglomeration of working-class neighborhoods under constant surveillance.
The city limped along with cash infusions throughout the 1970s and 1980s from the Soviet Union. This economic lifeline ended when the Soviet Union dissolved and Russia refused to subsidize this failed communist experiment in the Caribbean. The Cubans call it the “Special Period.”
This is when the city began its long and unprecedented decline and disrepair. Hopes that Beijing or Caracas would underwrite Castro’s experiment were not enough; the “Paris of the Antilles” was brought to ruin.
Havana was in such shambles that UNESCO was forced to move in and provide master funding for the preservation and restoration of Old Havana, a World Heritage Site, lest one of the more beautiful colonial cities in the world collapse into rubble.
All the renovation now taking place in Old Havana can be traced to the world community coming to the rescue for the sake of posterity, something to which neither Fidel Castro nor Raúl have ever given much consideration.
Havana in 2016 is at a crossroads.
A new wave of exodus is creating a headache for officials. Thousands of Cubans, in fall 2015, began fleeing to the U.S. so as to secure their status as political refugees, fearing that the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 will be rescinded. This new mass migration is creating a headache for officials, and nothing can be done to reverse it.
Yes, there is “creeping capitalism” as cottage industries are allowed for the first time since the early 1960s. But many successful entrepreneurs—whether they are running informal restaurants, known as paladares, or souvenir shops—hope to make enough money to leave Cuba.
Consider also that many companies—primarily Spanish and Mexican—are positioning themselves with new investments anticipating the complete opening of Cuba once the U.S. embargo is lifted and the Castro brothers die.
As a visitor, it is important to realize that Havana is the capital of the last remaining nation in the New World under the spell of the cult of personality.
And in this eccentric, bizarre, and beautiful city on the cusp of another revolution, here is the Best of Havana 2016!
"The Best of Havana: 2016" to be released soon ...
The best places to stay. The best places to eat. The best sights to see. The best city tours to take. The best cigars. The best rum. The best nightlife. The best of Havana ... coming soon ... as a Kindle book.