HAVANA IN RETROSPECT
From the charm of the late 50s to the diversity it represents in present days, Havana is a complex city that has unmistakable individuality. We trace the history of the “virgin city” to see how society, culture and politics have changed over time to make Havana the place we know so well today
Words: Emily Georgieva
Photography: Scott Fleming
07 April 2019
Most of those who were born in Havana would probably never leave their home – some because they can’t afford to, others because they are so attached to the city that they wouldn’t do it for the world. There is an explanation for all these reasons. There is a lot of things that still make this Cuban gem a city that evolves slowly. In some aspects Havana is behind other big cities where travellers tend to desperately want to visit. But at the same time, the city has a soul that cannot be found anywhere else and that makes it a valuable treasure in its own terms.
Havana is 500 years old and it is often being referred to as the “virgin city”. Most of the buildings are new, even though seeing houses collapse on daily basis is sort of a normality. Most of the architecture in the area, at least 80% of it, was completed between 1900 and 1985. This was a forbidden city for the Americans for a long time. Only as of recently there have been direct flights form America to Havana. For the longest time travelling to the city was not encouraged. Only since 2015 American citizens don’t need a solid reason to justify their visits such as trip to see family, travelling for business or out of journalism duties.
It may be young, but Havana can’t be thought of as innocent. In the 1950’s the city became a preferred stop for mafia leaders, who were determined to establish a gambling industry there. It didn’t take long before that happened. Casinos were taken over by storm. Multiple businesses were created out of thin air. The hotel industry was on the come up, but even though this strengthened the city it also encouraged all kind of problems. Corruption and drug dealing spread across the territory of the whole city.
The financial situation in the country is not the best either. The currency rates and the minimum wage makes it hard for people to be able to afford much luxury. Getting what is considered a “high paying job” such as becoming a lawyer, doctor or teacher, is not encouraged much. There are multiple reasons behind this. The wealth people would accumulate when working in those sectors won’t differ much from the money one would earn whilst working in the hospitality or hotel industries. This is mostly why some young people are discouraged to follow such footsteps and instead prefer to stick to different jobs that don’t necessarily require higher education.
Existing as a place that is still recovering from the Cold War, Havana has many faces. Some visitors who choose to roam the city return to tell stories of a place where the locals still depend on basic things to survive and don’t fight to change a system that might be financially oppressing them. Some say that locals would smile and appear happy just so they can take tourists’ money, which is a sad aspect of the truth. Think about the freedom visitors have when going to Havana – one can take a tour around the city in a stylish cabriolet designed in the late 50s driven by the owner who’s going to give you insights on the city’s history as they’re showing you around. The poor political reality of Havana speaks louder than words. But then again, almost everybody who visits this Cuban paradise returns astonished by it. No traveller could deny that Havana is a place that stands in a time different than the way time goes everywhere else. The sandy beaches and forest-covered hills are only part of it all. Life is just different over there. Music is wild and salsa is addictive; the rum is rich, and the sugar is sweet. The nights are long and wild.
Havana is a beautiful place – without a doubt. It has character, attitude and interesting history. There are not many places on earth where you will see women in their 80s smoking cigars and retro cars sliding down the streets like it’s no big deal. Tourism there started in the 50s and has continued to exist ever since. It has become something that not just the city, but the whole of Cuba is defined by. Foreigners have an itch to explore this “forbidden land” because it is interesting and offers what a lot of big cities don’t – contrast and contradictions.
A stay at a hotel is very expensive so a good alternative to it is to think of staying at a casa particular - in other words in a house with a Cuban family. The food, the music and architecture reflect the individuality of Havana. It is a vibrant place that never stops moving. Locals are just like that too. People seem to always be busy with something over there, but also know how to slow down and have a good time. Perhaps this can be explained with how little the city was affected by major technological changes. For example, internet access in some areas is still hard to get a hold of. In this sense, the detachment form the US blockade could be considered to have had a positive effect on the country. It gave it a bit more individuality.
Independent businesses are now encouraged by the government, which means that travellers can see art happen before their very eyes. Painters exhibit their work in in front-room galleries. Dance teachers spread the passion for dancing from their homemade studios. People meet up for lunch in family owned restaurants. Musicians play in local small bars and even perform on the streets. There is a sense of community and closeness that is never going to go away. Those are the things that give Havana so much soul. No matter the difficulties that locals face the spirit of Havana will always mean that the future is bright. One of the best places to visit in Cuba, Havana is so interesting because it is pure. It doesn’t try to pose as anything it isn’t. Things there just balance themselves out and nomads get to see this place for what it really is – diverse. What a beautiful approach to life this is!