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  • Alex Horn

A Reflection on Cuba: History, Economy, and Place

Disclaimer: This article is a reflection on my personal observations during a ten-day course in Havana. Outside of that course, I have not done an extensive study on Cuban history or its political economy. The thesis of this article is based on my impressions and observations of the Cuban built environment, but a ten-day trip cannot provide a comprehensive understanding of a society's functions.

Over winter break, I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Havana, Cuba to take a course called “Havana’s Art & Culture: The Intersection of Planning, Architecture, Preservation, and Economics.” The course focused mainly on Havana’s built environment, and how it reflects Cuba’s politics, economics, history, and culture. We explored the history of development in Havana, using each neighborhood as a case study for an era of Cuban history. Over the last 60 years, the United States’ relationship with Cuba has been a highly contentious issue, as Cuba was the closest Soviet-aligned country to the U.S., being less than 100 miles south of Florida. Soon after the revolutionary government took control in 1959, the U.S. cut all diplomatic ties and declared a complete embargo. While the USSR collapsed in 1991, the embargo remained, and normal relations were only restored in 2014. American officials argue the embargo encourages political freedom for the Cuban people, however, it has failed to move Cuba towards liberal democracy after 60 years, and the U.S. has close alliances with strictly anti-democratic countries, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So this begs the question, why does the U.S. continue to have such an adversarial relationship with Cuba?

Cuba's modern history has been defined by its relationship with colonialism. Christopher Columbus “discovered” Cuba during his first voyage to the Americas, and for the next four centuries, it would be ruled under Spain’s colonial empire. Like many Spanish colonies, Cuba was governed either directly by Spain or by Cuban elites, and this naturally stoked resentment. By the 19th century, the Cuban independence movement was in full force, and by 1898, Cuban nationalists had succeeded—the last country in the Americas to gain independence from Spain. The wars for independence did not rid Cuba of colonialism, as when Spain left, the U.S. entered. The Cuban War of Independence was a part of the Spanish-American War, in which the U.S. sought to annex several Spanish colonies, including Cuba. The U.S. won the war and staged a military occupation of Cuba. The U.S. would officially leave in 1902, though its influence would remain.

The recently restored Plaza de Armas in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana).

One of the professors we met in Cuba remarked that Havana is primarily a 20th-century city, and this seems to be quite true. Through the first half of the century, the U.S. kept Cuba as a de facto colony, with Cuba having no right to manage foreign relations, and the U.S. keeping the right to intervene in all domestic affairs. Cuba saw significant foreign investment during this time, which is reflected in the built environment. Havana was nearly completely rebuilt by foreign capital during the early 20th century. For example, take the Hotel Nacional, in El Vedado. The Hotel Nacional was financed, designed, and built by American firms, and was owned and operated by a variety of American corporations. Buildings throughout Havana were built and renovated by American firms, to the taste of American tourists, with profits destined for the United States. In fact, American mafias established their Cuban headquarters in the Hotel Nacional, and it‘s said that mafias ‘owned’ Cuba during this time. Another one of our Cuban professors argued that Las Vegas only is what it is now because Havana wasn’t.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba (National Hotel of Cuba). Viewed from the Malecón.

In 1952, Fulgencio Batista staged a coup, beginning a six-year dictatorship where at least 20,000 political dissidents were killed. The U.S. tolerated Batista’s regime, as he was close with the mafias and he allowed American corporations to continue to dominate Cuba’s economy. By the end of the dictatorship, Americans controlled a majority of Cuban mines, public utilities, and railways, amounting to $1 billion in assets. It should have been no surprise when—after 400 years of de jure colonial rule and another 70 years as a de facto colony—the Cuban people sought a change.

The U.S. argues for the embargo on Cuba because of a socialist description of Cuba’s political economy, and the revolution indeed set out with the goal of enacting socialism. They took those first steps traditional of socialist revolutions—nationalizing the means of production (especially those controlled by U.S. companies) and seizing the assets of the most wealthy. However, socialism requires not just government control of production, but also democratic control by the workers. What I saw in Cuba is that—while most people work for the government—profits remain with the government, and the government does whatever with it they please.

An under construction hotel in El Vedado, set to become the tallest building in the city. Viewed from in front of the Hotel Habana Libre (Hotel Free Havana)

Today, Cuba is investing more in tourism than its people. Construction and maintenance of nearly all buildings completely stopped after the revolution—with one exception. One of our Cuban professors said that, on average, three buildings in Havana crumble every day. Many buildings in Havana have become empty façades with no interior, exacerbating the severe housing crisis, where upwards of a dozen households share a single housing unit. No new housing seems to have been built, nor any existing housing maintained. The only buildings under construction are hotels and other infrastructure and attractions for tourists. Similarly, Cuba is facing a severe transportation crisis, with highly scarce gasoline and a minority of households owning cars. Despite this, we saw significantly more government-owned tour buses than public transport for Cubans.

The empty façade of a building in Centro Habana

This is not socialism, nor is it communism. Throughout Havana, there’s a lot of political street art and messaging promoting the existing government. There was a surprising lack of socialist messaging, with most messaging just being generally pro-revolution, or generally celebrating the leaders of the revolution. Economist Richard Wolff defines state capitalism as where the state functions as the capitalist employer—the state hires and fires, supervises employees, and collects profits. In contrast, Wolff argues that socialism requires the employer-employee distinction to be abolished, and for workers to collectively distribute any profits from their labor. Cuba is not a socialist country, rather it just has a very strong system of state capitalism. The presence of capital—and the subsequent inequalities that capital creates—is just as strong in Cuba as it is anywhere else.


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