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Cuba and the Invasion of the Big-Box Stores

Richard Louv / Jan 08 2009

For Release January 11, 2009
Citiwire.net

Richard Louv President-elect Barack Obama is reportedly considering a new American relationship with Cuba. That’s long-overdue good news. But the new administration should consider this cautionary note: “An invasion of one Madonna is equal to ten Marine divisions,” according to Miguel Coyula, a noted city planner in Havana.

When Coyula made this observation in 2001, he didn’t think that either brand of invasion–cultural or military–was a good idea. At the time, Coyula, concerned about the future of Havana’s unique architectural heritage, was speaking to members of the Citistates Group, a collection of U.S. city planners, professors, and journalists looking into Havana’s architecture and urban planning. The visit took place before the Bush administration severely limited the ability of delegations of American professionals to visit Cuba.

That day, Coyula, one of the first of many officials and private citizens that we interviewed, led us on a tour of his kingdom, the vast “Maqueta de la Habana,” a warehouse-sized scale model of every building, street and tree in Cuba’s largest city. The low-tech but impressive planning tool was made of scraps of recycled cigar boxes. The miniature buildings were color-coded–dark brown for the Spanish colonial period, yellow for the 1900-1958 period, and white for those few buildings built since the revolution.

Havana’s beauty and spirit, even in miniature, can move a visitor to tears–as Neal Peirce wrote in his column shortly thereafter. Since 1987, Peirce and Curtis Johnson have written major reports for newspapers in 25 U.S. metropolitan regions. But they’d never seen a city quite like Havana, which Peirce called “one of the urban treasures of the planet.” Peirce’s column endorsed the idea of the United Nations declaring an “international architectural emergency” to save the city’s 500 years of architecture, including the globe’s largest collection of Spanish colonial-period buildings. All is in peril from heat, salt, humidity, hurricanes and Cuba’s poverty–and with melting of barriers, a potential invasion of Big Box Stores.

“As you can see, Havana is a time capsule,” Coyula told us. Many Americans know about the classic U.S. automobiles that were frozen in place in 1958, the year of the revolution. Havana’s streets are still full of ancient Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles, though their innards often incorporate transplanted parts from Russian Ladas. (In a typical Cuban bow to practicality, old missile heads are planted as traffic barriers.) The architecture, protected from the worst impulses of modern urbanization by communist indifference and the trade embargo, is less known.

“In 1959, I don’t think urban planners had any ideas about preservation,” said Isabel Rogol, a Cuban professor of public affairs, who has worked to preserve the old city. “There had been a master plan for the city in the 1950s, done by famous architects based in the U.S., which would have destroyed and replaced these old buildings.”

New Urbanist architect Andres Duany (a native Cuban who’s lived for decades in Miami) has argued that Havana’s urban quality exceeds any Latin American city, indeed all U.S. cities south of Washington. Duany means Havana’s preserved design, not the decay, which grows worse every year. Centuries old buildings crumble. Roofs cave in and balconies fall, sometimes killing Cuban families.

Ironically, those Americans who rail against the evils of government regulation might enjoy this nation, where sewage flows directly into the bay, where joggers are unsafe at any speed because government spends few public funds on filling sidewalk potholes; where home improvement projects are unrestricted by regulation. The U.S. urban experts visited one typical home where a family had built a cinder-block wall on a balcony of rotting wood overhanging their living room — which happened to have no ceiling.

Lifting the embargo, if that happens soon, could bring needed capital for the repair and preservation of the best of Havana’s architecture. Or it could destroy it. Coyula’s suggested to us the embargo be lifted gradually. Surprisingly, his opinion was shared by many Cubans we met, although they had suffered under communism and the embargo.

The Obama administration will soon debate the future relationship between Cuba and the U.S. One topic of discussion should be the obligation that U.S. government and businesses have to help Cuba achieve an orderly and respectful transition to a free market economy.

Here are some ideas for a liberalized but better Cuba, suggested by Peirce and other members of the Citistates Group: Place an emphasis on local job creation and give contract breaks to homegrown entrepreneurs. Foster a tourist economy that benefits small and neighborhood-based enterprises, not just foreign-held mega-hotels and resorts. Nurture locally-owned stores ahead of foreign-owned chains. Create modest-scale retirement housing for foreigners instead of the massive, walled-off communities that now ring many American cities. Require that developers invest in the restoration of historically significant buildings.

The three C’s of Cuba’s past and possible next chapter–colonialism, communism and commercialism–need not define its future.


Richard Louv is a member of the Citistates Group and author of “Last Child in the Woods.” His e-mail address is rlouv@cts.com.

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