Havana: 500th Anniversary

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A crowd estimated at 30,000 celebrated with Grammy Award winning group Los Van Van

There is a very shortlist of cities in the Americas that have celebrated a 500th birthday. November 16, 2019, the citizens of Havana hosted the 500th Anniversary of the founding of their beautiful city by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar.

Huge crowds attended several free concerts all along the Malecon seawall. A driving rain Friday night merely delayed the Birthday celebration. Cubans are use to the weather of their island home. The Saturday night crowd was estimated at over 30,000 listening to rhythms of Grammy Award winning band, Los Van Van, Saturday night November 16th.  Music and dance has been a huge part of Cuban culture for these 500 years. A grand fireworks display began around 10pm from the Castillo del Morro in front of Havana harbor.

Noticeably quite a few young people of Cuban descent mostly from Miami, attended the celebration. As noticeable was the fact that not many other U.S. tourists were in attendance.  Most tourists and dignitaries in attendance were European, including the King of Spain. Three years ago Havana was full of U.S. tourists.

There are 192 countries in the world but only one country is off limits to U.S. citizens – embargoed for nearly six decades. No matter what the initial goals of this policy it has been an abject failure. It has not led to any Cuban government changes, it has not been good policy for the U.S. government. The isolation has had only superficial political benefits for both sides while promoting isolation for the sake of… isolation.

Promising change began in 2015 with the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, a relaxation in travel restrictions, and a visit from President Obama. The Trump administration has rolled back most of those initiatives.

The U.S. trades freely with Vietnam whom we fought a terrible war, and the Peoples Republic of China. The embargo is a relic of the Cold War that needs to end with a rational modern policy in its place.

Cuba has been off the grid for almost 60 years. It has become an almost mythological land that time stood still. Where about half the cars on the road are pre-1959 era. In reality it’s a beautiful 700 mile long island in the middle of the Caribbean rich in 500 years of history and culture, with warm friendly people.

Teatro Capitola

While standing on a balcony behind the Capitol building looking at what once was the magnificent Teatro Capitola that held many famous performances including the great Enrico Caruso. The roof was gone, trees growing through windows, it had suffered as many other classic old buildings in Havana. I mentioned to a new friend who was an immigrant from Austria who had lived in Cuba for two decades, that it was a shame to see a great structure in such decline.

This started a conversation about Cuba. The theory held by many was this embargoed and isolated island had stood still during 60 years of decline.

He compared Cuba over the past six decades of social and cultural evolution to the evolution that inspired the writings of Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands. The physical evolution of the species impacted by extreme isolation that over the eons and millennia have caused through natural selection, changes in the species over millions of years that helped prevent their extinction.

The phenomena in Cuba has been a social evolution and cultural evolution in three generations that has changed the very nature of the island’s inhabitants. Like natural selection, the evolutionary changes in Cuba have resulted in a society that has become tolerant and hopeful, both eager for change and cautious of change. Decades of promises have evolved a unique Cuban stoicism. An accepting culture that has been forced to turn inward and longs to be part of the world again.

It was a very illuminating discussion for this 500th Birthday as seen from the perspective of an observant immigrant. Cubans have been impacted by the 60 years of isolation imposed by the U.S. embargo.  The observations from this non-Cuban resident’s perspective cite a distinct cultural and social evolution.

Today the sons and daughters of sugar cane cutters that were once stuck in un-educated rural poverty of Cuba have risen to be the architects, the artists, and musicians of today’s Cuban society.  Without education opportunity, they would not have evolved. The country boasts an education system of over 11,000 schools, the highest literacy rate in Latin America, and trains more engineers than it requires. Today Cuba has provided Latin America with thousands of highly trained physicians – a very odd export.

One of the most prideful cultural evolutions is the music of Cuba. Music has always been an important part of the culture but the past six decades has caused tectonic shifts in Latin Jazz, timba, and son that have impacted the world. It is one part of Cuban culture that the inward focus, combined with music education helped flourish and could not be embargoed. Now famous Los Van Van and Irakere (both Grammy Award winners) exported their music to world. The Buena Vista Social Club phenomena awoke the music world and was a much needed boost to Cuban pride in the dark recession of the post-Soviet 90s. Musicians have always been a celebrated part of their society.

Havana Jazz Festival 2017

Authors footnote: Cuba was the host country for the International Jazz Day, April 30, 2017 led by nine-time Latin Grammy Award winner Chucho Valdes.

The cultural evolution stands along side of a decaying and near collapsing ancient infrastructure. The electric grid fails frequently.  The sewer systems barely function is some places. A private property ownership system is evolving slowly but there are no deeds only leases. This has exaggerated the deterioration of once magnificent neighborhoods and structures.

Cuba is saddled with an economy that has not evolved into a modern system. The current system of two currencies is broken and forces the worst of capitalist inequalities and socialist inefficiencies. Where a trained engineer can earn a better living working in tourism. Evolutionary changes in telecommunications and finance have been very slow. Cuba knows that change is coming, but fears a hard landing and would prefer an evolutionary path to a modern society similar to the evolutionary change to a market society in Vietnam.

The embargo itself has evolved into the excuse for every mistake that has been made for sixty years – on both sides!




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