It was Cicero who said, more than 2,000 years ago, that "the face is the mirror of the soul." Paraphrasing the illustrious Roman, Havana is the face of the Castros' "revolution." It is the country's most visible one, just as Montevideo is the face of Uruguay, and London that of England.
Almost 62 years of regression wrought by Fidel and Raúl, Havana is a shadow of what it once was. It is a decaying city evoking an abandoned, poor and ailing old woman, falling apart, little by little; in 2020 alone seven Havana residents were fatally crushed when the buildings they live in collapsed.
And we are not talking about a place like Kabul, or Addis Ababa, but of a city that was famous worldwide for its beauty and unique charm. Starting in the 1920s, the international press and dozens of Hollywood films celebrated Havana as the most captivating city in Latin America, a dazzling place for its glamor, its architecture, its lights, and its contagious magic. For many it outshone Rio de Janeiro, its main competitor.
A March 2010 story by an American historian on the Antiqueweek site begins: "There was no other place in the Western Hemisphere comparable to Cuba." A meticulous description follows of Havana between 1950 and 1960 when, according to the piece, the Cuban capital was "the playground of the rich and famous" from all over the world.
When Conrad Hilton went to personally inaugurate the Havana Hilton in March 1958, he stated that choosing beautiful Havana to build the largest, most beautiful and best hotel in all of Latin America, and the chain's largest worldwide, had been a smart move.
Christian Dior, perhaps the most famous clothing designer of all time, had only two ateliers outside of Paris: one in New York, and the other in Havana. Dior was afraid of flying, and the only time he got on a plane was to travel to Havana, in 1950, to inaugurate his exclusive Christian Dior location in El Encanto, the largest, most exclusive and finest department store in Latin America, with many Hollywood celebrities frequenting the place.
The curious thing was that it, in the end, it was the capital of a small country, manifesting Cuba's surprising economic and socio-cultural might.
On the cutting edge of technology
Very few know today in 1906 Havana was the first city in the world with direct-dial telephones, without the need for an operator; or that Latin America's first electric tram operated in Havana in 1900, or that in that same year, before any other country in Latin America, the first automobile showed up in Havana.
In 1837 Havana was the first city in Latin America, and the third in the world (after England and the US) to have rail transport (Havana-Bejucal) for passengers and cargo. The world's first demonstration of electric-powered industry was in Havana, in 1877, and 12 years later the city boasted the first public lighting system in the Spanish-speaking world, Spain included.
The first building in the world built with reinforced concrete was the FOCSA, in 1952, in 1953 the world's most modern television studios at that time were built at Radiocentro: those of the CMQ; and, in 1951 Havana was the first city in the world to have central air conditioning in a hotel: the Riviera.
In 1958, Havana was the second city to have color television and to create a color-only channel. A year prior it was only the second city to have a three-dimensional and multi-screen cinema, at the Radiocentro cinema (today the Yara). And before that Havana had been, in 1922, the second city (and country) in the world to have a radio station (PWX). In the late 1950s it had more cars and televisions per inhabitant than any other Latin American capital.
All this information can be corroborated on the internet.
The city’s public transport service was very efficient, with thousands of buses passing almost right next to each other. I remember that at the corner of Infanta and San Lázaro there were about ten bus lines running to every part of the capital. The fare was eight cents.
The nightlife was vibrant, and there were more movie theaters than in New York
Havana was equally famous for its hopping nightlife. It had the most spectacular cabaret in the world, the Tropicana; hundreds of night clubs, and great Coney Island-like amusement parks, and others.
The Blanquita Theater, seating 5,500, was in the early 1950s the auditorium with the greatest indoor capacity in the world.
New automobiles from General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford were sold in Havana before they were in many cities in the United States and around the world.
And, believe it or not, Havana had more movie theaters than New York and Paris. According to the 1959 Cuban Film and Radio Yearbook, at the end of 1958 there were 121 movie houses in the city - a number topping the two most famous cities on the planet. And that's not even counting the cinemas in Regla, Guanabacoa, Cojímar, Santiago de las Vegas, Jaimanitas, Santa Fe, Arroyo Arenas, and other cities in Greater Havana. In 1959 I counted them all and I remember there were 135, many of them funded by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century Fox, and Columbia Pictures.
No capital in the world has regressed so much
But let us return to the current reality. "No other capital in modern history, without having suffered a war or devastating natural catastrophes, has regressed as much as Havana." The opposite is nearly always the case: over time, cities improve. Bogotá, and Panama City, for example, are more beautiful today than they were in 1958.
In Havana it is the other way around. There are hundreds of buildings in shambles, or cracked and propped up with poles, about to fall. There are piles of rubble and ruins everywhere, like Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo or Stalingrad at the end of World War II.
Nauseating garbage heaps exude a foul stench, and there is fetid sewage water everywhere.
Today it is dangerous to live in some areas of Havana. An average of three homes collapse per day, about 1,000 a year, according to an official report. This year, in January, three girls between the ages of 11 and 12 died were crushed by a balcony that fell on them in Old Havana. In July, in Centro Habana, a Communal Services employee died when a wall fell on him, and in that same month in El Cerro the elderly María Magdalena Olivares died, buried in her own home.
In September 2020, in Old Havana, Rosa María Sortís, 69, and a 74-year-old woman named Elena perished, crushed by their respective homes. And on October 14 a building in Centro Habana fell and smashed three cars; in one a man cheated death because he was in the back of the vehicle, which was less affected.
Unhealthy neighborhoods abound in Havana, with makeshift huts and shacks, without drinking water or proper drainage, with areas flooded by sewage, and infested with rodents, mosquitoes and cockroaches. If someone who had seen Havana in 1958 visited it today, they would not believe their eyes. No matter how much their guide, the Granma daily, or the TV told them about the "achievements of the revolution," they would know that it was all a grotesque lie.
And, the longer the Castro dictatorship lasts, the more ruinous the city will become. Architects, engineers, economists and urban planners report that when the Communist nightmare is over, billions of dollars will be needed to rebuild it and restore it to its former majesty. And they are working on ideas and project to undertake this colossal task.
Today the people of Havana cite Góngora: "yesterday I was a marvel, and today I am but a shadow of myself." But, like the mythological phoenix, Havana will rise from its ashes.