The appeal of a trip to Cuba comes from a chance to see a culture frozen in time. The cars, the architecture, even the people. A common explanation is the embargo created scarcity in resources giving the Cubans no choice, but to save what they had. However, even after the Cubans had been cut off from the United States they still absorbed many foreign influences and resources. In addition, Cuban government policy has not been a direct line, instead branching off in various social experiments, each leaving its own imprint on Cuban identity. In reality isolation has affected the island, but determination to preserve their past whether influenced by the Spanish, the Americans, or Communism has been just as important in creating the time capsule that is the island of Cuba. This reasoning made Cuba a perfect choice for our continued exploration of preservation and renewal.
There is a common belief that Cuba is facing an eminent change as the centralized socialist government loosens its grip and allows for private capitalist in-roads. From our experience it seems the Cuban government is still calling the shots, though tourism is no doubt increasing, the government is overseeing most of the preparation for an increase in tourism. Historical Old Havana is one area where the Cuban government has undertaken large-scale urban renewal, although with increasing monetary help from the international community.
When walking through Old Havana, in Cuba called Habana Vieja, the initiative is clear. There is reconstruction on every street, but judging by the buildings that have not been renovated, preserving the Spanish architecture of Habana Vieja had not always been an option financially or was not prioritized. Some of the historical structures may not have been preserved, but they were also not torn down and replaced by some modern building, so the potential to renew and preserve Habana Vieja’s architectural past is a very real option. There are parts of Old Havana that look like Disney World, but a block away there are houses completely gutted, overgrown with vegetation. The large-scale renovations are centered near historically significant structures and plazas. This seems to be done with some international financial assistance.
There is also small-scale redevelopment in Habana Vieja in the form of new shops, bars, and cafes with similar hip appearances to the gentrified areas of American cities. Certain spaces are also being made available for selling Cuban art and handmade goods.
As far as residential housing, we found that the majority of the refurbished housing in Habana Vieja are Casa Particulars. Casa Particulars are housing options provided by Cuban citizens who in effect rent the apartment for the purpose of renting it to tourists. The government heavily regulates the Casa Particulars; our host gave us government paperwork to fill out documenting our passport information and length of stay.
A short drive east of the city lie the East Havana Beaches, an underdeveloped strip of shoreline with a few dated hotels and the remains of a few others. Its proximity to Havana makes it surprising to find relatively empty beaches. This area will most likely change profoundly in the coming years.
However, the Cubans are not starting from scratch in their preparation for an increase in tourism; there are many bars, restaurants and hotels around before the revolution, maintained during the revolution and are still there today.
Plus, there has always been the Malecon.
Stay tuned for more on our Cuban adventures in our next sections about the Cubans people's history and culture!