Back in the 1950s before the Cuban Revolution and Castro’s transformation to an authoritative Communist state, Cuba was at her glory. The 50s were filled with money, mafia and decadence as some of the world’s wealthiest Americans came to Havana’s playground to enjoy her nightlife, music, gambling, prostitution and rum. During this time period, Havana’s architecture was also at her best with magnificent colonial mansions, casinos and clubs for the wealthy few Cubans who amassed their riches over the years in the sugar and tobacco trade.
All of Cuba’s glory and decadence came to an end after the Cuban Revolution. The casinos and clubs were closed down for good, fully furnished beautiful mansions and villas were left as the elite Cubans were forced into exile, and any kind of new building in Cuba pretty much stopped except for ugly, Soviet-looking apartment buildings and equally unattractive new tourist hotels.
Slowly over time, the beauty and grandeur of Cuba faded away as Havana’s historic buildings began to decay and deteriorate due to lack of maintenance, lack of funds, an aggressive climate and non-existent governmental programs to preserve Cuba’s architectural heritage.
It is often said that Cuba is so amazing because she is frozen in time- to before the Cuban Revolution over 50 years ago. Yet architecturally she is not in good condition and much of Cuba’s architectural treasure is threatened.
According to Isabel Rigol, a leading architect in Cuba who we met with during our stay, a big part of the reasoning behind Cuba’s deterioration of buildings is that the country does not have a true culture of preservation. Given Cuba’s harsh climate of high heat and humidity, many of the once gorgeous buildings from colonial days are in rapid states of decay, deterioration and ruin. Crumbling paint and dilapidated buildings are a common site because quite simply there is no governmental program for maintaining buildings in Cuba.
Furthermore, with an extremely low average salary of $2.50/day most Cubans simply do not have the extra money to buy paint and supplies to fix up their homes. It is more important for them to put healthy food on the table than buy a can of paint for an outrageous sum of money.
Sadly, public entities never had the capacity or money to repair buildings and streets yet like everything in Cuba, slowly at a snail’s pace this is changing. The last few years has seen more and more foreign and local investment go into restoration projects in a few key cities such as Old Havana and Trinidad. Over one-third of Old Havana has been restored thanks to such programs in part sponsored by UNESCO who declared both Old Havana and Trinidad a World Heritage Site. But an enormous task lies ahead in order to restore all of Cuba’s architectural heritage. It will take a lot of commitment, time and money in order to ensure that these jewels are not lost.
Following are some examples of the restoration in progress and the enormous task that lies ahead to save Old Havana.
Walking around Old Havana, I was surprised to see so many buildings and old mansions in the process of renovation. Once gorgeous buildings and mansions of a rather decadent era are today in various states of decay as time leaves her mark. Some have been beautifully restored to their previous grandeur while others are slowly but surely being re-gentrified.
There are also lots of buildings and mansions being left behind. Hopefully restoration will start soon before it is too late.
If I close my eyes for a moment, I can imagine what Old Havana looked like back in the ’50s. It must have been utterly sensational.
It is such a pity that there is so much being lost right before your eyes. Signs of decay are abundant in the peeling paint, the crumbling facades and the deteriorating walls of Cuba’s phenomenal past.
Look at the untapped beauty that could exist if all this was someday restored.
The Oficina del Historiador has been assigned the duty of rehabilitating Old Havana. Let’s hope they have the financial and political commitment to succeed.