Refeudalization, Modern/Colonial Occidentalism and Havana Gentrification

The triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959, gave way to the implementation of popular measures such as the Urban Reform Law that converted all residents renting apartments or houses into property owners. This type of regulations promoted by the ascendant leadership interrupted the expansive boom of real estate growth in the capital, previously encouraged by the policies of the governments of the Republic and the legislations that promoted high standard tourism, attracted by the tropical climate, casino gambling, Havana prostitution and the Americanization of the Island that drove the developmentalist model of the time.

During the decades following the revolutionary triumph, the sale and purchase of houses in the country was prohibited, which, added to the shortage of construction materials and the deficient creation of real estate, turned the housing problem into one of the main factors that hindered and still hinder the lives of Cubans. This reality is made even more acute by the almost non-existent restoration of old residential buildings, which brings with it the corresponding unfortunate toll of fatalities and injuries, whose numbers increase significantly during seasons of natural disasters or heavy rains.

The policies implemented by the Government during the crisis of the Special Period (1990-1994), in view of the fall of the so-called “European socialist camp,” further restricted the constructive capacity of the State, which affected the number of available homes for the enjoyment of the right to decent housing. However, such legal recognition contrasts with the official policies that found in the tourism industry a modernizing alternative to obtain income in a fast and dynamic way, despite the social consequences implied by the bet on a hitherto underexploited sector that uncovered the existence of problems such as: prostitution, neo-racism, the deepening of asymmetries in the face of the rise of a civil neo-bourgeoisie known in popular jargon as the “new rich” and the dollarization of the economy that compressed the purchasing-consumption capacity, especially in the low-income majority sectors in the face of market segmentation.

Such factors meant a break with the values and lifestyles promoted by the political leadership between 1959-1990, which were characterized by conscious voluntarism, ideologized sacrifice and forced collectivization towards the tasks oriented by the party-bureaucratic leadership from the spheres of power. However, greater dynamism was seen in the work of heritage restoration, mainly in the colonial area of Old Havana, led by the city historian Eusebio Leal Spengler (1942-2020).

The autonomy achieved by the Office of the Historian through a decree issued by the Council of State to carry out the repair works, facilitated a systematic conservation work in the historic center of the capital city. The undertaking of such constructive efforts had strong support from foreign investors, UNESCO funds, European Union (EU) and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), which contributed to the classist alteration of the city environment, characterized by experts as a phenomenon of gentrification or urban elitization. The changes produced in this social environment provoked new dynamics of exclusion, due to the displacement to which a large part of the local population was forced.

The social causes that encouraged the displacement of the inhabitants by the municipal authorities to the periphery respond to the interests of land valuation, which causes an increase in the price of economic activities developed in the area. This scenario makes existential reproduction difficult for low-income families, while the territory becomes a space of tourist attraction.

Building in Havana in danger of collapse / Alexander Hall

Refeudalization, Inequality and Modern/Colonial Occidentalism

The academic Olaf Kaltmeier coined the historical-conceptual term to characterize the process of unequal concentration of power and wealth in Latin America, defined as: refeudalization. This concept problematizes the presence of feudal traits in the regional context of contemporary globalized capitalism. At the same time, it evidences in society the return to urbanistic models and colonial aesthetics, compelled by the dominant class to legitimize its symbolic production apparatuses.

The emergence of a monetary aristocracy linked to political circles that seeks to preserve its wealth through the solidification of its influence in the spaces of power, contributes to the expansion of interests that emerge favored by a praxis of accumulation. This strategy constitutes one of the main methods that contribute to the refeudalizing scenario, since it becomes a speculative practice that does not contribute to the socialized generation of wealth in an organic manner, while at the same time it exacerbates inequality and social asymmetries.

According to Kaltmeier “the distinction and segregation of the monetary aristocracy spatially find their expression in segregation, not only in exclusive residential complexes, but also in places of consumption and circulation of wealth, which are separated from public places of free access.” In turn, “this is evidence of a dangerous tendency towards the duplication of political power, characterized by a new despotism on the part of the money aristocracy.”

The Argentine populist theorist Ernesto Laclau considers that, despite capitalist globalization,[1] the presence of feudal traits in Latin America is evident. Such assertion is manifested in expressions such as the excessive concentration of land, property and capital by economic elites and local oligarchies, in alliance with the highest authorities of political-judicial power; which gives rise to the systemic deterioration of democracy due to the underpinning of despotic, irregular and arbitrary forms in the management of public administration.

Similarly, the French sociologist and theorist of modernity Alan Touraine[2] asserts that the models of “20th century socialism” were characterized by the totalitarian management of power, the economy and politics. All this without renouncing industrialist, polluting and highly exploitative patterns of development towards the working class (under the precepts of “communist” ideology). However, from the perspective of political economy[3] and contemporary Marxist philosophy,[4] it is argued that the social consequences of these models continued to extend the capitalist project of modernity/coloniality; without overlooking the persistence of feudal practices in its systemic functioning structure, along with other forms of production and property.[5]

Two women wearing folkloric costumes as part of their work with tourists in Old Havana / Alexander Hall

Elitization, Gentrification and Poverty in Old Havana

Although there is no consensus among specialists in considering the process of socio-urban alterations in Old Havana as gentrification, it is possible to identify the depopulation of the colonial zone as part of a policy of promoting indirect displacement, given the interest in reconverting the old residential buildings in advanced constructive deterioration for extractive/mercantilist profit-making uses.

The valorization of land has generated the arrival of private entrepreneurs with capital to establish high standard offerings for consumption and lodging. The proliferation of such businesses contributes to the elitization of space leaving people that not share the Anglo/Eurocentric aesthetic beauty paradigms, which characterizes the majority of the racial composition of visiting tourists, out of the most lucrative jobs. In turn, the surrounding native population suffers the consequences of spatial hygienism. This fact causes a loss of collective memory and community identity, provoked by the social consequences of the revaluation imposed by the referents of success and prosperity marked by the preponderant effect of capital.

Notwithstanding the official interest in promoting the historic center as an attraction for city tourism, the poverty of the outside-the-walls environment is highlighted by the deterioration of the housing complex that sustains thousands of facilities in danger of collapse. The permanence of this problem keeps thousands of residents away from the areas of prosperity as a result of the restorative negligence of the authorities. Added to this are other inconveniences such as the absence of hygiene given the irregularity that characterizes garbage collection, the increase in begging [aged, feminized and racialized] in the face of the structural crisis and the expansion of the popular economy, due to the absence of formal guarantees for the institutionalized extension of social welfare.

View of the new hotel under construction of the military-owned Grupo de Administración Empresarial SA (GAESA) and the historic Habana Libre in Havana / Alexander Hall

Coloniality, Exclusionary Modernization and Territorial (De)democratization

The process of forced (re)territorialization suffered by the original population of Havana allows us to characterize the phenomenon in the city for its gentrifying particularism given its singularity with other contexts in the region. At the same time, this process is clearly distinguished by the reproduction of poverty/marginality in the area outside the historic area of the capital. In this way, the inhabitants of the spatial environment are being subjected to a systematic process of dispossession, while most of the multimillionaire investments are destined to the promotion of the so-called “smokeless industry,” with its mythical offer of comfort, consumption, goods and services that are unattainable to the income of local workers.

The coloniality that characterizes this process of “economic and urban modernization,” marked by the approval of the highest authorities of the Party/State, conceives in turn the method of welfarist, authoritarian and top-down command in the promulgation of policies that do not reach the roots of the problems affecting the country’s relegated communities. In the realization of such works of social impact, the inhabitants lack autonomy to discuss the budget that will redound to their collective benefit; while the structural problems that affect the sustainability of their poverty conditions are scarcely attended with the serious complexity required by a phenomenon of such magnitude, which would imply the opening of a public, intellectual and political debate that includes the extended citizen participation.

The contribution of the French Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre, addressed in his work El derecho a la ciudad,[6] is enlightening of his socialist positioning and sense of territorial justice, in advocating the promulgation of spaces that are not marked by the dominant patterns and logics of capital. In this way, his contributions have a transcendent validity when analyzing the phenomena of valorization/exclusion that take place in the global world-system and its direct link with the refeudalizing process. At the same time, he ratifies the strategies adopted by the monetary aristocracy in consonance with the political administration entities, to materialize their mechanisms of concentration of property/wealth, in order to enhance their reproductive interests of accumulation.

In the Latin American context, the contributions of social scientists specialized in the subject and inspired by the European thinker have had a significant impact on academia and counter-hegemonic intellectuality. This epistemic proposition implies a contributive recognition of the decolonization of knowledge, spaces and social forms of interrelating in community, which contributes to (re)think the design of strategies for coexistence under measurable standards of social, economic and cultural equity.

Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski in Old Havana / Alexander Hall

Tourism, Tropical Phantasmagoria and Mercantile Sexualization

The bet of the Cuban State/Government for the development of tourism, characterized fundamentally by the capture of foreign currency in disconnection with the infrastructure works, the deterioration of the internal commerce, the road networks, the agricultural production and the national industry, define the interests of the political leadership, also marked by the militarization of the most lucrative businesses of the national economy.

The patterns that define this model are not only impoverishing, since they only produce benefits for those who hold the highest positions in the nation’s stratified hierarchy. In addition, the main areas of social security, such as health, education, culture and sports, suffer a gradual decline due to the lack of investment, the absence of a coherent, inclusive and fair regulation, and the massive emigration of professionals abroad, due to the increase of precariousness.

The economic policy strategies implemented by the bureaucratic-partisan leadership are focused on the tourism industry, sustained by a commercial propaganda aimed at consumption and enjoyment of the environment that characterizes the Caribbean climate of the island; while sexual stereotypes of mulattoes are reinforced as a stigma of representation, also marked by the idealization of feminine beauty, usually conceived around this “racial composition,” offered to foreign visitors through commercial propaganda circulating in magazines and posters throughout the island.

The persistence of such an accumulative matrix as “State policy” offers few possibilities for breaking with dependence on the external market, which in turn generates a service mentality distanced from local needs and reproducing coloniality in daily life. Likewise, the public has very little knowledge of any research from a scientific perspective on the ecological costs implied by the extension of this activity, which has become an industry for foreign investors and national businessmen and it is not alien to the capitalist logics of worker subjugation due to the salarization of workers; without overlooking the levels of environmental pollution and energy demand caused by its permanence over time.

Alternatives for an Eco-socialist, Democratic and Popular Urban Management

The reversal of the urban scenario marked by inequality, the (de)democratization of public space in the face of the commodification of land, the systematic deterioration of residential infrastructure and the gentrifying particularism that distinguishes Havana’s architectural environment calls for the adoption of new forms of urban management focused on the socialization of citizen welfare, through the implementation of measures from a perspective that has the human being as a protagonist/conscious subject in the transformation of the space in which he/she develops his/her material existence.

The adoption of policies aimed at achieving a scenario of greater territorial justice requires the decentralization of power to higher levels of autonomy by local authorities. In this way, conditions would be created for the inhabitants to take part in the planning of the budget for social spending. This fact demands the participatory, horizontalized and democratic presence of the popular bases according to their priorities, urgencies and community needs.

The incentive of such practices would distance itself from authoritarian forms of management and would make the actions of public officials transparent, while promoting fundamental decisions that concern the population in a conscious manner through the principles of direct democracy. In this way, it would help to reconfigure centralized command patterns, which contribute little to the optimization of productive processes. Instead, such methods represent a burden of the militaristic/partitocratic legacy that has distinguished for decades the exercise of politics on the island.

Regarding urban management, strengthening production and housing cooperatives (given their durability and unquestionable resistance in crisis scenarios, motivated by the conscious participation of workers in decision-making), would be an excellent alternative to recover the productive deficit that persists in the country, while reducing the segregation generated by the land and housing commodification practices that aggravate the gentrification scenario. For the materialization of an urban space based on greater levels of equity and justice, it is necessary to adopt policies aimed at generating wealth in a sustainable, ecological, cooperative and socialized manner.

Likewise, it is also necessary to break the extended imaginaries that characterize the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, since the political proposal of its proponents promotes economic underdevelopment, through the implementation of a dependent and neocolonial economy. Nevertheless, such scheme of cultural colonialism has been consolidated through governmental tourist propaganda that promotes a phantasmagoric Antillean scenario, while reinforcing the racial and sex-gender stereotypes of the Caribbean, promoted by the current ruling class, who is integrated by state capitalists and partisans/authoritarians. Paradoxically, such projection contradicts the stated collectivist values promoted at a discursive level by its top leaders, functional to the economic interests of a bureaucratic-military oligarchy that solidifies its accumulation patterns through the persistence of a remittance/import growth model.

The construction of any emancipatory project demands the rupture with the existing practices of coloniality so as to encourage endogenous potentialities, workers’ empowerment and economic democratization (autonomous-decentralized) through the promotion of cooperativism, in a way that leads to the decommodification of the land through socializing policies of public benefit. Finally, it is urgent—given the climatic and civilizational crisis—the incentive of investments prioritized towards the generation of renewable energy sources focused on the promotion of harmonic-sustainable growth, so that it is possible to materialize the libertarian ideals in their most comprehensive conception of social justice.

Balconies in Old Havana / Alexandrer Hall


[1] Judith Butler, Ernest Laclau and Slavoj Žižek: Contingencia, hegemonía, universalidad. Diálogos contemporáneos en la izquierda, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Buenos Aires, 2000.

[2] Alan Touraine: Crítica de la modernidad, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 1994.

[3] Tony Cliff: Capitalismo de Estado en la URSS, Marx21 Ediciones, 2020.

[4] Herbert Marcuse: El marxismo soviético, Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1975.

[5] Aníbal Quijano: La colonialidad del poder, Fondo Editorial Casa de las Américas, Havana, 2017.

[6] Henri Lefebvre: El derecho a la ciudad, Ediciones Península, Barcelona, 1978.

Alexander Hall Lujardo (Havana, 1998). BA in History and Afro-descendant activist. He is a militant for democratic socialism. His main research topics are focused on studies on poverty, racism, inequalities, heterodox Marxism, black, socialist and popular republicanism.


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