The Tragedy of Havana
Ruin and (some) revitalization in the Cuban capital
By JOHN LEAKE
Upon seeing Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) for the first time, I sensed that the Cuban capital—a masterpiece of Spanish colonial urban planning and architecture—must have once been the most beautiful city in the New World. A glimpse of its former glory may now be seen in the small quarter of it that has been restored through a private holding company called Habaguanex S.A.
Habaguanex was established by an enterprising man named Eusebio Leal. The official historian of old Old Havana, he persuaded Fidel Castro in 1993 to approve of this “unheard-of exception to the otherwise tightly controlled Cuban economy.”
Under Leal’s leadership, Habaguanex S.A. attracted foreign investment to revitalize Old Havana’s historic center, starting with the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway lived in 1932-1939, writing most of For Whom the Bell Tolls. The lovingly restored buildings—along with privately owned cars that were purchased by Cubans prior to Castro’s seizure of power in 1959—are conspicuously exceptional. The rest of Cuba’s glorious patrimony is now in a state of shocking dilapidation. Most of the once splendid buildings are now crumbling ruins.
Although Ernest Hemingway is still a legendary figure in Cuba, his famous Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) a few miles southeast of the city is scarcely maintained, even though the property is now a state-owned museum. Likewise, the seaside town of Cojimar—formerly a fishing village immortalized in The Old Man and the Sea—is now a desolate place. During my brief visit, I saw no fishing boats or any commercial enterprise. The only activity I saw was a taxi cab driver repairing a flat tire on an old Soviet era limousine that had—according to my guide—once been part of Fidel Castro’s fleet.
Apologists for the Cuban regime have found many excuses for why most of Cuba is in shambles. They point to the legacy of Spanish and U.S. imperialism, with the lion’s share of profits from industries such as sugar, rum, coffee, and tobacco going to wealthy landowners and bankers, and little going to the exploited peasantry. Or they point to the American mafia’s criminal exploitation of Havana in 1930-59. Or they point the the U.S. embargo against Cuba commencing in 1962.
All of the above have contributed to Cuba’s political and economic problems. And yet, as Habaguanex’s achievement demonstrates, private enterprise—when allowed in Cuba—can work wonders. Also notable are the Iberostar Hotels in Havana—major investments initiated by the Spanish company in 1993. After Fidel seized power, he often remarked that Cuba “would not become an island of bourgeoisie-catering bartenders and chambermaids.” Now a job in an Iberostar hotel is, according to my native Cuban guide, one of the most coveted in the country.
History has demonstrated time and again that command economies (in which all property is owned by the state ) DO NOT WORK. Under such regimes, competence and expertise evaporate. A striking example was the Bacardi family, whose Cuban rum was one of the world’s greatest brands and businesses. After the Castro regime confiscated its assets, the family fled and moved its operations to Mexico, the Bahamas, United States, and Puerto Rico. With their departure, the great Cuban rum industry collapsed. It was only in 1994—when the state agreed to a joint venture with Pernod Ricard of France called Havana Club International—that high-quality Cuban rum was once again distilled. The Havana Club brand is now (along with Cohiba cigars) Cuba’s most recognized consumer product, though ALL of the profits for Cuba’s side of the venture flow to the country’s Communist Party dictatorship.
Advocates of the U.S. Embargo against Cuba—lifted by the Obama Administration but reimposed by the Trump Administration—claim that deals such as Pernod’s and Iberostar’s enrich the Communist Party and enable it to remain in power. They believe the Castro regime only allowed these private enterprises in 1993 because it was desperate for money following the end of Soviet support, and would have collapsed without this foreign investment.
Opponents of the Embargo claim it was never sufficient to get rid of what has proven to be an amazingly resilient regime, and has only succeeded in afflicting misery on the long suffering Cuban people. And so the sixty-four-year stalemate continues.
My native Cuban guide sees this stalemate as an extended family feud between Fidel—himself the son of a wealthy Spanish landowner—and powerful Cubans in South Florida such as the Díaz-Balart family. Senior Congressman Mario Rafael Díaz-Balart Caballero is the nephew of Mirta Francisca de la Caridad Díaz-Balart y Gutiérrez, who was Fidel’s first wife (from 1948-1955).
Ranking members of Cuba’s communist regime are aware of how much they are despised by their implacable enemies in Florida. Could it be that one of the reasons they cling so tenaciously to power is out of fear they will receive no mercy in the event they relinquish it?
Cuba is an extreme example of the catastrophe that befalls a nation when its state owns and controls everything. What has happened to the beautiful and cultured old country since 1959 is an object lesson for all people who yearn for a paternalistic state that will (purportedly) protect and provide for them.
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