Havana’s urban ruin is no accident. The more than sixty years of abandonment of an entire city are the result of a crazy policy of the Maximum Leader that has been little investigated.
Invisible, industry and investments do not exist. Urban decay is ignored, skilled labor disappears, urban planning is conspicuous by its absence. In the visible, pavement becomes dirt, walls crack and crumble, roofs collapse, pipes rot, sidewalks crack, floors break, buildings collapse leaving mountains of rubble that no one picks up. Vegetable sprouts invade the gardens. Grass grows in the streets. Goats, dogs, chickens and pigs swarm the avenues of once model neighborhoods. There are guano shacks, carts pulled by donkeys, tractors circulating through the streets of Vedado and soups simmering in flowerbeds occupied by the homeless. The average Havana resident lives in the midst of a desolate, semi-aggressive and oppressive reality.
Urban planner Paul Dobraszczyk, in his book The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay, mentions three general causes that contribute to urban decay. Let’s see how these apply in the case of Cuba’s capital. First are natural causes, such as floods and hurricanes. Inclement weather is always a danger for Havana, a city facing the sea, in the middle of the hurricane path of the Caribbean Sea. But the storms that passed through Havana did not leave a noticeable aftermath of destruction in the capital during the Republic. Social causes such as revolutions, fires and vandalism follow. Here enter projects of urban redefinition after the destruction by generalized violence (which does not apply within the strict totalitarian reality). Finally, there are economic and urbanistic causes that lead to the progressive physical deterioration of buildings and infrastructure. Here Havana takes the top prize.
The apologists of Castroism justify the crisis of urban conservation during the 60’s as “the need to divert resources against the danger of an American invasion.” They blame it on the blockade. And the following and subsequent decade? It is not that Castro did not have money in the 1970s to try to preserve Havana. He will have it in spurts from 1972 onwards when the CAME agreements are signed and the USSR sends $11 million a day to Cuba! Castro’s government squanders much of that money on crazy war ventures in Angola and Ethiopia. When has there ever been a concerted effort on the part of the owner-of-all State to limit the wear and tear on the infrastructure in Central Havana or Old Havana?
In Wasting Away: An Exploration of Waste, urbanist and MIT professor Kevin Lynch explores abandonment as another cause of urban decay. But the kind of abandonment he investigates means not inhabiting. Lynch does not mention the relevant issue, which is deliberate urban abandonment out of antipathy and as state policy. And who would mention such a thing? That is precisely our thesis, and the beautiful Havana is a nefarious example.
Havana and the Fate of Castroism
Since the triumph of the revolution in 1959, something unusual and unforeseen happened. In less than ten years, Castroism plunged the country into inexplicable misery. Again, the misfortune is not caused by epidemics, like the great famine in Ireland in the 19th century; or by the civil war in post-republican Spain; or by an environmental crisis, like Ethiopia in the 1980s. Cuba’s misery is a self-made and self-imposed misery.
Let us imagine the passage of time on the neglected Havana buildings. The sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, the millennium. When was there never any carpentry or masonry work done to recover skylights, windows, renovate arcades on the upper floors of the mansions of Centro Habana, restore the beauty of the balconies of Reina Street or Paseo del Prado, renew the original ironwork or the tiles of thoroughfares rich in façades and balconies like Egido and portals of Galiano? Was maintenance given to those boulevards full of festive stores in San Rafael and Neptuno? Today they are pitiful ruins. When was the damage to the infrastructure of Old Havana caused by the “added” mezzanines perpetrated by migrations coming from the countryside, further destroying (even unintentionally) what was already destroyed? Acid questions in the face of the absurdity of Castroism.
Someone will allude to the renovation projects undertaken by the Office of the Historian of Havana. And even though the effort is commendable, the works carried out constitute a tiny percentage of the real needs of the capital in ruins.
Architect and professor at the University of Miami and Notre Dame Rafael Fornés recounts the experience of one of his trips to Havana in 2016 in the company of architect Massimo Scolari:
We went to La Cabaña, because Massimo is a lover of ancient fortifications. At the end of the visit, he was pointing out to me that many of the restorations on the stone were poorly done. The people in charge know that many renovations are defective, some even end up worse. Imagine a poorly done filling that ends up rotting the tooth. A Cuban colleague told me that the restoration treatment of the stones of La Cabaña has done more damage to the construction than 400 years of erosion. This has to do with the invasive non-organic materials used. For example, they use acrylic paints on the walls of the 17th-19th century buildings, instead of using whitewash. There you have the old Manzana de Gomez, today Manzana Kempinsky. The hotel premiered to great fanfare, but the reconstruction of the first floor in 2017 is pitiful. They messed up the beauty of the original galleries and left an inhospitable courtyard. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara even put on a performance for the disappearance of the bust of Mella. The original ornamentations were not respected and they finished them with cheap materials. A botched job.
The year is 1959. Cuba is the fourth most urbanized country in Latin America with 35 percent of the population living in urban areas (currently Cuba does not even reach the 17 position). Havana is a vital energy center, with 70 percent of industry and 90 percent of commerce passing through its port. Only six percent of the population lives in tenements.
What is Havana’s appeal? A city blessed with a winding coastline, a temperate climate, a superposition of well-represented architectural styles and a rational and elegant urban grid. Cubans and foreigners alike migrate to Havana because it is the island’s most important city. Seventy-five percent of the national industry, excluding sugar, is located here.
Fidel Castro’s dream of ruralizing Havana dates back to La historia me absolverá (1953). Since then, he promises:
The revolutionary government would solve the housing problem by resolutely lowering fifty percent of rents, exempting from all taxes those houses inhabited by their own owners, tripling taxes on rented houses, demolishing the infernal tenements to erect in their place modern buildings of many floors and financing the construction of housing throughout the Island on a scale never seen before, under the criterion that if the ideal in the countryside is that each family owns its own plot of land, the ideal in the city is that each family lives in its own house or apartment.
The Urban Reform
The Urban Reform, approved on October 14, 1960, appeared to implement a policy of social equality, but failed miserably in less than a decade. Journalist Rogelio Fabio Hurtado is succinct, yet accurate:
In 1959, the revolutionary government dictated the general reduction of rents to 50 percent, a measure that obviously had the support of the beneficiaries and the disagreement of the ones in the losing side. Who were these landlords? Not all of them, far from it, were owners of multiple houses or platonic rich people. There were families of modest means who had invested their hard-earned savings in building one or two small houses or a small passageway to whose rent they entrusted their old age. The measure was popular but arbitrary, and it discouraged new investments. After the Urban Reform, private capital was strictly forbidden to enter the housing construction sector, which was now totally in the hands of the state, which also took charge of the houses of families leaving for the United States. Although almost 50 percent of the population became property owners, the apartment buildings in Havana (which constituted the majority of the buildings in Centro Habana) were deprived of maintenance. Castroism never implemented an administrative system to take care of the upkeep of the thousands of apartments or multi-dwelling buildings in the capital. The sale and purchase of housing was prohibited. Only the exchange of houses of similar value was authorized. The application of this law generated, on the one hand, inflexibility in the face of the change in demand for housing and, on the other hand, the development of a black market (to achieve the sale and purchase of housing). As with everything in Castroism, what seemed good turned out to be outdated and inoperative.
As early as 1970 it became clear that the reform has not worked. Here we list basic problems that apply still today:
- There are no markets for rehabilitation and construction materials (and the limited and persecuted black market offers no guarantees).
- There are no rehabilitation brigades that can be hired, no cooperative entity, and no chamber of artisans in charge of supervising the self-builders.
- There are no lines of credit for rehabilitation and construction, nor subsidies as part of an urban rehabilitation program (with the exception of the historic center administered by the Office of the City Historian).
- There is no “horizontal property law” adapted to Havana’s particular circumstances (the management committees of each of these properties do not have legal personality to record and apply for loans).
- The prohibition of the sale and purchase of housing makes it legally impossible to adapt to new circumstances, whether it is a reduction in housing consumption or changes within the family.
The Ideological Antecedent of Ruralization (via Engels)
Let us return to ruralization. Nine years after the triumph, the Cuban communist leadership comes face to face with the incorrigible problem of the enrichment of the individual. The revolution, self-proclaimed heir of Marxism-Leninism, can in no way betray its great-great-grandfather Marx in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The devastating blow to the—already weak—Cuban economy begins to take shape. I am referring to the so-called “Revolutionary Offensive,” in which more than 55,636 small businesses, equivalent to 33 percent of the country’s economy, are intervened. It is the most merciless process of ideological purification in the history of Castroism.
For Castro, man’s work should never exceed the usufruct necessary for his minimum survival. Beyond this, work, defined as such, disappears and its perverse clone, illicit enrichment, emerges. But all enrichment is by definition “illicit,” since it invariably results in the exploitation of the labor of others (Marxist surplus value).
The history of the development plans of the revolution since 1968 reflects this dream of “conquest of communism” which extends to the “rectifications of errors” of the 1980s.
Here is the fragment of Castro’s speech, on the occasion of the inauguration of a town in the capital’s periphery within the Havana Cordon (1968):
The city continued to grow for four centuries, and with the establishment of our pseudo-republic at the beginning of the century, together with the phenomenon of intervention and colonization by imperialism, you had to add the whole phenomenon of the growth of the city, where all the rich families of the country came to live: landowners, owners of sugar mills, factory owners; and, in short, that is why you see so many luxurious houses around Havana, where today some 70 thousand students are housed. The rich in Cuba used to build truly sumptuous houses.
Havana bears an irreparable stain. Being the great city of the colony and later, during the republic, the capital of the Creole bourgeoisie. The city’s “luxury” (what others would simply call coherent architecture and urbanism) is the reflection of a moral weakness. Hence, in the early years of the Revolution, the former homes of the bourgeoisie are converted into dormitories for scholarship recipients (many are looted).
Eventually, the revolutionaries become the nouveau riche. Those “sumptuous” houses, designed by a whole generation of Cuban architects during the 1950s, in neighborhoods such as Siboney/Atabey, Laguito and Cubanacán, no longer house students. They are now “frozen zones” of limited access for diplomatic personnel, generals, apparatchiks, in short, Castro’s nomenclature and his guests of occasion.
Castro does not even understand the urbanistic importance of an avenue or a park, as demonstrated in this 1959 speech to the College of Architects: “When an avenue has been built, it has not benefited the people. When, for example, the Fifth Avenue of Miramar, so beautiful, with its flowers, with its double lane, who has benefited? It has benefited those who live in that area, it has benefited the clubs that had taken over the coastal area, but it could not really be said that the people had benefited.”
Castroism owes much to Marxist ideology (and not a little to Engels). Marx was not interested in urbanism. His thought was abstract. Not so Engels, great publicist of Marxism and right hand of the author of Das Kapital. In the essay The Great Towns (1845), Friedrich explores specific urbanistic objectives, such as the morphology of the streets, the size and density of housing, the social conditions of overcrowding and environmental pollution in cities like Dublin, Manchester, London and Edinburgh.
His conclusion is that the capitalist industrial boom (typified by England at this time) only accentuates the schism of rural-urban impoverishment. The argument is repeated and expanded in Anti-Düring (1877):
The abolition of the separation of town and country is therefore not utopian, also, in so far as it is conditioned on the most equal distribution possible of modern industry over the whole country. It is true that in the huge towns civilisation has bequeathed us a heritage which it will take much time and trouble to get rid of. But it must and will be got rid of, however, protracted a process it may be. (Emphasis added.)
What is Engels’ solution? The integration of the countryside to the city as a containment to city decadence. Friedrich, precisely, proposes the ruralization of the city.
Castro is not the only disciple of Engels. Lenin admired Engels’ conjecture of “abolishing the antithesis between the city and the countryside.” Hence Stalin, Lenin’s outstanding pupil, adopted the hypothesis as part of the First Five-Year Plan of the USSR (1928-1933), known as Kollektivizátsiya. Forced agricultural “collectivization” turning agriculture into a “new industry.” The result? An inconceivable human and environmental disaster. Millions dead, millions displaced and two genocides: the Ukrainian Holodomor and the Kazakh famine.
Now we can understand why Castro declares that Havana must pay a price:
The population of the City of Havana will redeem itself from that kind of colonization to which it had subjected the rest of the country. Because Havana, more than the capital of Cuba, was the metropolis of Cuba; and now Havana will be able to be the capital and not the metropolis, because it will cease to be a burden and will become a tremendous help to the country. That is to say that Havana has the mission and the obligation to help the rest of the country. (Emphasis added.)
Urbanists take note, Castro boasts of ranting against worldly Havana, bossing around the rest of the country. A capital at fault, “narrow” and without a “big river”:
In Havana and its surroundings there is an accumulated population of more than a million and a half people. In addition, the colonizers of this country located the City of Havana in its beginnings, four centuries ago, in one of the narrowest regions of the country, where there was no large river. Of course, there is the Almendares River, which is a small stream. Those who know what a river is know that the Almendares cannot be called a river.
A witness to the events, anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos, psychoanalyzes Castro’s growing neurasthenia with the capital:
From 1959 onward, Havana is relegated to the status of a feminine entity to which the misogynist discourse aimed at “sinful” women, accused of leading a “bad life,” is applied. Its attractiveness, international prestige and centrality are blamed for Cuba’s decline. Its cultural prominence, its architectural achievements, are silenced and the political discourse is focused on the aspect that will become predominant as its image: its nightlife, its famous bars and cabarets, its gambling halls and, above all, prostitution. Putting an end to this focus of “immorality” became a way of legitimizing the revolutionary project. Those of us who lived on the island during that period, in the mid-sixties, remember Fidel Castro’s long nightly monologues on the obsession that occupied him at that time, which originated in the discontent over the shortages that were beginning to punish the population. A culprit was needed, and Havana, which already bore the sign of the negative, was blamed for consuming a large part of the resources produced by the country, while it produced nothing. Havana’s condition as a “sinful” woman was translated into the will to punish her, to deny her the makeup and care necessary to preserve her beauty and avoid the ravages of time. (Emphasis added.)
Rafael Fornés brings another angle to the same issue:
I will tell you that Castro hated the capital, and even had plans to demolish Old Havana. I have seen that plan in the book The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965, by Eduardo Luis Rodríguez. The introduction shows a photo of the plan to destroy the old quarter. Just after the triumph of the revolution, Castro demolishes El Mercado de Tacón, known as La Plaza del Vapor; a monumental three-story block on Galiano Street, full of small businesses; while the upper floors were destined for some two hundred rooms. In its place he built a dreadful parking lot. The well-known architect Frank Martínez told me about a conversation he had with the person responsible for the demolition, Cesario Fernández, known as “Zapatón.” Cesario also wanted to demolish the Colonial Art Museum, in front of the Cathedral, to “open up the façade of the plaza,” according to him. Frank insulted him. Another blow was when the architects’ association was closed and the profession was left orphaned. Castro hates architecture because it is an elitist profession. Then comes the destruction of symbols that represent that corrupted Havana. First, the invasion of the guajiros to Havana on July 26, 1959. They asked people to host them. In my house we hosted one. There is a book of photos by Mayito (García Joya) of the occasion. Then there is the destruction of the monument to the Maine of Félix Cabarrocas in 1961. Castro ordered the demolition of the bronze eagle and removed the busts of McKinley, Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt. This was followed by the destruction of the monument to Tomás Estrada Palma in the 1970s. They ripped out the statue and the shoes remained (which anchored the statue to the pedestal). I even remember Eusebio Leal criticizing the action on national television. They had vandalized the pedestal with graffiti. He said, “How are you going to ask people not to vandalize if the government has already vandalized?”
[End of Part I]
 (According to Wikipedia) Cyclones that passed through Havana during the Republic: October 1910, known as “the five-day cyclone”, more than 100 people perished. October 1926, category 4, with 600 deaths. October 1933, in the midst of the revolution against Machado, with a death toll of four. October 1944, the famous “cyclone of ‘44,” with a death toll of seven.
 Unless we call “conservation” the hasty shoring up of the main arteries of Central Havana and Old Havana for the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1978.
 The conclusions are taken from the graduate thesis: “Política y Propiedad de la Vivienda en Cuba, un Análisis Histórico y Comparado” for the José Antonio Echeverría School of Architecture. Supervised by Mario Coyula. Revista inviNA 72, August 2011, Volume 26: 19-62. Accessed, April 26, 2023.
 Fornés’ thesis is that Castro hates architecture as a profession. “At the beginning Zapatón is the minister of construction. But that ministry was called Ministry of Public Works, that is, it was in charge of everything concerning public works. With Castro it became the Ministry of Construction. I studied architecture. The Faculty of Architecture became the Faculty of Construction. There is even a moment when they remove History of Architecture from the curriculum and then give it another title: History of Human Settlements. What does that tell you?”