Old Havana or old Havana?

By Gaby Rabassa

Group of tourists in Old Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez
Group of tourists in Old Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Many foreigners long to visit Old Havana and the majority of Cubans do as well. Every year, millions of tourists walk along its cobblestones, enjoying the best attractions, hotels and attractions the city has to offer. This is the Havana we find in guide books, on websites, labelled “exotic, interesting”: a place you have to go to at least once in your life. This is Old Havana, the beautiful Havana.

Founded in 1519 and baptized San Cristobal de La Habana in honor of Havana’s patron saint, the city owes its name to the chief Habaguanex who controlled the area in the years leading up to its colonization. Today, it is our capital and the most populated city in Cuba and the Caribbean islands as it has 2,125,320 inhabitants (2015).

It’s history is as old as its architecture. It has the Capitolio which reflects – even though it’s a great neoclassical building- imperial dominance at the time, a Cathedral, the Malecon, a Theatre which in its early years was considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, initally named Tacon, a Lighthouse Fortress, a Square, the Museum of the Revolution, which still displays the wounds it suffered in the revolutionaries’ attack to overthrow Batista and his tyranny.

In 1982, UNESCO named the Historic Center a “World Heritage Site” and recently it was recognized as one of the “New 7 Wonders Cities”.

But my Havana, my old Havana, doesn’t appear in photographs and people only come to this city to discover and show off its losses. My Havana made up of sweat and risks, of noises that don’t only take place in working hours, of faces which wipe away their anguish with a smile. The Havana that puts on a “bembe” (ritual, popular celebration of African descent which is defined by its ritual drumming party) next to the Hotel Inglaterra or that puts up a tin roof, while curious onlookers watch, because there isn’t a window and it doesn’t have enough wood in the “barbecoa” (a small wooden room, built as a second floor in old houses with high ceilings).

My Havana packed with “yumas” (this is a vulgar term used to call foreigners, especially visitors from the US) and “jineteras” (prostitutes), “bicitaxis” (tricycles that act as taxis) as well as “ruteros” (smaller buses which substitute taxis at a much lower price). My Havana of poor and rich kids, private “guaguas” (buses) and “camels” (old chassis fused together which have two humps on the roof imitating a camel pulled by a tractor trailer engine. Of drunk people sitting on the University’s steps or next to the Ceiba Tree in Fraternity Park. Of peoples, of people, of Cubans, of habaneros who spice up daily life with rumba.

The Havana where tree ferns hang from half-collapsed and humid buildings, which never sleeps because tanks need to be filled with drinking water at three in the morning.

My hidden Havana, “chusma” (vulgar people or places), wrinkled, abused, dirty. My dead Havana that has been resuscitated over a thousand times.

My old Havana which under Cuba’s scorching sun, makes me raise my hand hoping that a taxi will stop and in five seconds, makes me develop an existential crisis deep within me, when the “almendron” (US cars from the ‘40 and ‘50s which are what most of our collective taxis are nowadays) driver shouts at me: old Havana?

19 thoughts on “Old Havana or old Havana?

  • That article is odd and strange.

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    • If you make a first visit to Cuba and to Havana you will have more understanding.

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      • I’ve lived in the islands for many years at a time. My experiences in revolutionary Grenada also leave me with wonderful memories, as did my time in Cooperative Republic of Guyana, and even the German Democratic Republic, and numerous democratic socialist and social democratic nations. I know what I’m talking about. Don’t be a hypocrite, my friend. Solidarity Forever!

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        • I should explain that Cuba is a different island and country from Grenada, Guyana and the German Democratic Republic. You very obviously have not a clue about the reality of Cuba, its people and the Castro regime.
          Why did you leave the various socialist paradises which you list? How could you possibly decide to go and live under the protection of the free capitalist world?
          As usual you have to parrot a piece of communist blether.
          You claim to know what you are talking about, but that is far from obvious to anyone reading your contributions in these pages, for the impression given is one of ignorance.

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          • Is there a difference between CErmie’s blether, whatever that is and your ubiquitous, pretentious, and probably little read, blather ? By the way, I think that as a native of the Caribbean, CErmie possesses more reason and validity to assert his interest in Cuba, than you, a privileged Scotsman, of imperial leanings w/ certainly not un ting of Cuban swing in your bones, who’s connection, like many others like you, does not extend beyond happening to have a (younger) Cuban wife. But I digress. What I really would like to know since you demand that CErmie move to ” a Socialist Paradise” , is, what the hell are you doing in Cuba,(all the while telling the Cuban’s how they should run their country) , if it is such a terrible place? The old cliche, “If Cuba is so great, move there”, works in reverse you know.

          • I have previously explained in these pages why my home is in Cuba.
            I have not endeavored to tell Cubans how they should run their country, but I have analysed the problems created by the Castro family regime, the backgrounds of the more significant figures within that regime, the history of revolution in Cuba, the causes and the history of the US related to Cuba.
            Admittedly, criticism is made relatively easily because of the evident failures of the regime based upon the inadequacies of Communism.
            I had not previously realized that being a Scotsman was a privilege, but accept your word for it.
            On many occasions in these pages I have written of my deep affection for the people of Cuba and my love of the country’s beauty. Neither is a consequence of the oppressive regime which has held total power and control over the daily lives of the Cuban people for far too long.
            You obviously wish to sink into the pit of personal abuse by trying to involve my wife. Shame on you!

          • I live in a socialist country, and am proud of it. We have just discovered that you do NOT. You most certainly do NOT live in Cuba, and you know it, and now we do too. You are simply anti-Castro and anti the Revolution, a real counter-revolutionary. Do what you must do. You really should get a life, my friend. I wish you peace and understanding.

          • Thank you Conrad for your good wishes. As I sit drinking coffee at our local El Rapido and waiting at the Empresa to purchase our bread, I shall now reflect upon you in a more favourable light.

        • “… I know what I’m talking about…”

          No, you don’t. You have never been to Cuba yet you pretend to be an expert while at the same time posting the most inaccurate, out-of-touch opinions imaginable.

          My offer to fund your visit and show you the real Cuba stands.

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          • Send me your cheque.

          • Do tell us why Conrad that your greed for a cheque is of more importance than responding to Eden’s very kind and helpful offer. How is it when as one obviously ignorant about Cuba, you don’t wish to visit the country – at least once?
            May I ask you as a Mennonite, whether your Church is still opposed to communism?

    • I don’t know who you are or where you live, but the author replicates exactly the sights and sounds from the Havana I got to know from my vantage point of a house on Calle Diez de Octubre in the late nineties. So the camels are still rolling now? Some have told me no, they are gone. I did not find the article strange at all. It brought back a lot of feelings both on my part and the part of my friends there.

      Reply
    • That’s because you’ve never been to Cuba.

      My offer to pay for all your expenses in Havana still stands. I’d love to show you the real Cuba instead of the mythical one that only exists in your head.

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      • Eden, can I take advantage of that offer too ? As a member of the shrinking US middle class, travel abroad is slowly slipping beyond my reach although both my wife and I work full time. (Kind of like the malcontents you’d meet on the Malecon years ago – complaining that they couldn’t visit the US & Europe as if free airline tickets and room and board were standard perks with capitalist electoral democracies.) Anyway, ven aca, I somehow missed the “Real Cuba”of which you speak, myself, a pesar de having spent time there for months on end from 1993 onward. I can’t believe how I have been duped, right in front of my own, naive eyes all these years. But then again, the Communists are famous for that. To save you money, I’d even stay in the old, cuca infested Hotel Bruzon near the Terminal,were it still open. I assume we will be guided and educated through this land of horrors by that renown Scottish expert on Cuba as well…?

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      • Nice try Garden of Eden. I want a numbered cashier’s check. Better yet, you can wire the funds via Western Union.

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        • Nice attempt at dodging the fact that you know nothing whatsoever about day-to-day life here.

          Keep posting your misinformed opinion. It’s always good for a chuckle and I certainly appreciate the laugh.

          Reply
          • Cuba is my second home.

          • In your fantasy world perhaps.

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