HAVANA TIMES — The collectible stamps that came in Cuba’s EVA-brand cigarette packs, showing nude twenty-year-olds from the 1940s; a “Red Sunday” voluntary work medal issued in Holguin in 1984, capable of inspiring overwhelming feelings of nostalgia for a mere 2.00 Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC); the immense Coca-Cola signs, now very much in vogue in the décor of new private businesses on the island – these are some of the striking things one can come across in Cienfuegos.
La Fernandia, a small antiques shop in the downtown area, is one of the first telling signs that identify Cienfuegos as a tourist destination. There’s also its ocean drive, lined with palm trees and filled with bicycle taxis, on the prowl for out-of-towners.
In contrast to the self-employed in other provinces, the people of Cienfuegos have invested in restaurants or rooms for rent with prices no lower than 30 CUC the night, instead of opening food or clothing kiosks.
The city’s main attraction is no doubt its French-styled architecture, characterized by eclectic mansions boasting domes and bay windows that have no parallel in any of the other cities in Central Cuba. The Terry Theatre and Palacio de Valle (“Valle Palace”) are among the most exceptional edifices in the city.
A day in Cienfuegos suffices to discover that ice-cream cones are crowned with copious amount of ice cream, that city residents wash and sweep the city’s downtown boulevard almost frenetically as night falls and that local visual artists provocatively include the figures of Lenin and Jose Marti in their works.
The city borders a large bay. A ferry takes you to the Fortaleza de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Jagua (“Our Lady of the Angels of Jagua Fortress”), across the water. During the short trip, one can set one’s eyes on an immense sign painted on a concrete wall, reading: “Welcome to Socialist Cuba.”
By the looks of it, “socialist Cuba” begins at the exact point where the fortresses’ touristy charm ends. Very few foreign visitors traverse the stretch of road that separates this area from the island’s one nuclear city.
A few kilometers from the settlement, once reserved for physicists, chemists and nuclear engineers, the gigantic dome of what was to be Cuba’s first Electronuclear Plant (CEN) slowly deteriorates, abandoned to the elements.
Access to this reminder of a colossal failure is forbidden. The community’s bakery (and even the hard currency store) may have been named “CEN” as a means of compensating those involved in the project symbolically.
What remains of the Nuclear City (and that socialist Cuba of days past) are its unfinished buildings, now empty and covered with painted slogans such as “Homeland or Death” or “We Will Never Surrender.” The locals appear caught in an endless battle with the glorious ghosts of the country’s past.
To visit Cienfuegos is to experience two moments of the Cuban experiment simultaneously. The historic monuments and Nuclear City embody and pit the pro-Soviet triumphalism of the eighties against the pro-capitalist pragmatism of our days.
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