HAVANA | I would like to suggest a thought experiment. What if every single person in a community had collectively decided to completely abandon their town in the 1960s without taking a thing with them, and for the ensuing 60 years no one set foot anywhere near there. Then, one year ago, the descendents of that diaspora returned to the community with little but the clothes on their backs and tried to make a life there without any of the modern conveniences of today.
Besides sounding like the premise for a promising reality TV series, that’s also the best way to conceptualize the current state of Havana, Cuba.
Since President Barack Obama permitted Americans to visit Cuba and rolled back the U.S. commercial embargo first put in place by President Kennedy, many people have evinced an urgency to visit the island — and especially Havana, its capital — before the subsequent liberalization inevitably despoils the city’s historic architecture with some gaudy capitalistic edifices.
After visiting Havana I would like to put people fearing such a development completely at rest. Nothing is going to change here anytime soon, and even if it did, it is hard to see how any change would make this a less inviting place to visit, let alone live. The sad little fact that confronts anyone who comes here with two open eyes is that 60 years of statism has resulted in an utterly ruined city and a completely impoverished citizenry. That some old buildings are still standing is of little consequence.
The town smells like the 1960s, thanks in part to the smell of burning garbage wafting over the town from a dump on the town’s outskirts, along with the emissions from automobiles from the 1950s and the odd Lada. I was unprepared for pungent air pollution triggering a Proustian-like memory, but we all have our eccentricities.
The old city’s famed architecture does have some charms, but it is not remarkably different than similar enclaves I’ve visited across Latin America except for the unfortunate fact that the buildings are almost completely unkempt and in danger of disintegrating. Here and there are ones that have completely collapsed. People have died from this lack of upkeep.
The sad and unnecessary degradation has no discernible charm, at least not to me, and the notion that the city in its current state represents some sort of unspoiled oasis — a perspective that more than one tourist I encountered here felt obligated to share with this perfect stranger — is simply condescending and smacks not a little of a colonial perspective the country’s socialist revolution was supposed to do away with.
I understand how these people arrive at this perspective — people will let their brains construct the most outrageous lies to comport what they observe with their preconceived notions. (I think of the people who referred to David Letterman or Jay Leno as being funny anytime after 1994.) However, glorifying Havana in its present state of degradation takes cognitive dissonance to an extreme.
Havana is not unique in having an architectural core sheltered from development for a time: The Peronists managed to immiserate Argentina for decades and the poverty left the stunning architecture of Buenos Aires largely in place for five decades — untouched by brutalism or the other grotesque architectural post-war fads — when something approaching normal economic growth resumed in the 1990s.
The difference between the two countries is that today, those buildings are now preserved, cared for and contain modern conveniences. What’s more, its populace can comprehend the cost that the country’s stasis imposed on their country, which went from the having one of the most developed countries in the 1920s to its current shambling state. Having a few more buildings with classic architecture survive does not compensate for that in anyone’s mind.
Today, Argentina at least offers its citizens a semi-functioning market economy and the opportunity to obtain gainful employment, start businesses and earn enough to support a family. Cuba does nothing of the sort, and the fact that the husks of once-elegant buildings remain does not disguise the fact that the entire city is little more than a fetid slum. While it’s admirable that the populace soldiers on in this city of abject poverty, glorifying this mode of existence is profane.
While it may indeed possess a more communal lifestyle than we see in most American communities, it’s not by choice. When another American I didn’t know felt obligated to point out to me how much people seemed to enjoy chatting with one another along the esplanade, I suggested to him that we might also spend our evenings commingling with our neighbors in the cool evening air if we lacked air conditioning too.
I wish it were true that a snap of a finger could bring 100,000 Cuban diaspora returning to the island, reclaiming their family possessions and planting the shoots to create a functioning economy, but I don’t see what might convince its current government ever allow such a thing. I am certain that the status quo — which involves a handful of Americans visiting the island and the odd hotel construction — isn’t going to cut it.
• Ike Brannon is a senior fellow with the Jack Kemp Foundation.
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