Enchantment and Ruin: Mario Coyula’s Havana

Havana by now can be imagined as one city in two countries. The fiery splendor of Old Havana has emptied money and momentum and much of its future into Miami. But the magic and mystique in the name are rooted forever in the island of Cuba. This was the message of the whoops and tears among returning exiles (who, under the Bush dispensation, could visit no more than once ever three years) when our charter flight touched Cuban ground late in December. The jazz piano giant Chucho Valdes said as much to me eight years ago, explaining why — unlike his father Bebo Valdes, who’d expatriated to Sweden, or his Grammy-winning Irakere bandmates Arturo Sandoval and Paquito Rivera, who became American stars — he himself had never left home. “How can I leave Cuba?” the autochthonous Chucho pleaded. “This is where my music comes from, where my music lives.”

Havana plays tricks with our sense of time as well as place. Fifties Havana moved to Miami, but the visitor keeps feeling that our stateside Fifties, my Boston Fifties, are alive again here: in the fat fish-finned Plymouths and Pontiacs, of course; equally in the black phones and seven-digit phone numbers and the calm voices who answer them; in the family worship in places like the Church of Our Lady of Charity in Centro Havana; in TV baseball without commercials, and stadium baseball with small crowds under yellow lights, so like Braves Field in Warren Spahn time. It is almost twenty years ago that Robert Stone, the American novelist, observed Havana as “an exercise in willpower, a dream state being grimly and desperately prolonged.” But back in that “dream state” of the pre-Revolutionary mid-Fifties, Graham Greene’s famous vacuum-cleaner salesman and spy, Wormold in Our Man in Havana, found himself held to the spot, even then, “as though to the scene of a disaster. Time gives poetry to a battlefield…” It still does.

We’re talking here with the world-traveling Cuban architect and planner Mario Coyula about the allure of a wreck. Havana is one of the rare world cities that has no skyscrapers and no shantytowns, almost. It is a gorgeous fairy godmother with warts and missing teeth. Coyula makes many points here that I’d not have noticed: Havana historically was not a city of the poor, he notes. Cuba’s poverty was mostly rural, and in the capital it was artfully disguised. By the Fifties, he says, Havana was growing self-destructively. Curiously, the Revolution that has neglected Havana so spectacularly was also lifting standards in the rest of the country and may, in fact, have saved Havana from drowning in rural immigrants. In the long run, he argues, Havana could discover as other cities have that stagnation brought blessings. Worse, less reversible than stagnation would be to turn Havana into Las Vegas or Tijuana with “horrible big hotels” financed by a few foreign investors. The wise mean, he suggests, might be “a little of everything” — many thousands of investors and planned development — with a sense of history.

For many centuries Cuba, and especially Havana, was a springboard for Spain to conquer and plunder central and south America. Later it was also a springboard for the US to go into Latin America. So we have to find a niche for Cuba — what will be our role? In 1958 Havana was already a great world city and Miami was a sleepy town of retirees. Now Miami is a big ugly city, except for a few nice places, but it’s very alive economically. I don’t know if the money is from the drug trade, but it took away part of a role that belonged to Havana as a pivot between North and South America. I think we need to face this. And in any way we think about the future, it more and more depends on the relations with the US. We need to accept each other, and accept differences, be more tolerant.

Mario Coyula in conversation with Chris Lydon, in his apartment studio in Havana, December 19 2008

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  • nother

    Wow, the conflict is this mans Cuban world is vast and palpable. He lays it all on the table for us (so much truth that’s it’s hard to digest), his struggle to reconcile the detriments of gentrification, with the benefits of capitalization, mashed together with the endearing and suffocating status quo. The dilemmas discussed here are profound, and they are easily extrapolated into the globalized world.

    It’s like when I go visit my mom in the suburban town where I went to high school. I turn down the long straight street of Main and gladly stop at crosswalks before the pedestrians even step off the curve. I cruise that strip with pride and check off familiar little shops that no longer line downtown – a strip mall of nostalgia. The red and brown buildings without their proud shopkeepers stare back like empty eyes sockets. Shortly thereafter, I pine for that humane image of wide sidewalks and narrow benches, as I pile my half-off underwear and two-for-one shaving creams into my car and search for my out of a full and peopleless Wal-Mart parking lot – albeit (and this cannot be understated) with a few more dollars in my pocket.

  • A friend from Chile, growing up with tales of the Cuban revolution, passed through Cuba on his way home and was sobered by the reality but couldn’t put it into words. Now I understand a little better … muchas gracias, Chris.

  • wellbasically

    That quote was the part that hit me. Ten thousand small investors instead of a few big ones. This is the right attitude for Boston too, because we are caught up in the hero-worship of big institutions coming in and redoing entire neighborhoods.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Excellent conversation. The candor was illuminating. The myriad of problems discussed here also create a variety of opportunities. Much appreciated this discussion, and all the conversations in Cuba. Thank you Chris.

  • wmcduff

    Here in the states, as we contemplate the relative poverty that accompanies massive unemployment rates, this picture of Cuban poverty speaks volumes. I don’t wish a depression on my country, but if one comes, the example of this man’s wisdom and dignity is a hopeful one.