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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