How Much Will Cuba Change?

President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba later this month has its many detractors both here in the U.S. and in Cuba. Normalizing relationships is beneficial for both countries, for the region, and especially for ordinary Cubans, but Cuba will no doubt change. I wonder what will be lost.

I visited Havana in 2009 so I could see it as it is before America, with its fast food and chain stores, returned and reduced everything to bland sameness. Here are a few things I hope won’t disappear.

Callejón de Hamel

Located between Calle Arumburu and Calle Hospital and about 10 minutes’ walking distance from the US Interest Section (now the consulate) in Vedado, Callejón de Hamel pulses with Afro-Cuban music starting at about 11 a.m. on Sundays. The rhythms, the vibe uniquely Cuban.  

Havana Callejón de Hamel
Callejón de Hamel

All around are murals by well-known local artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalon.

Havana Callejón de Hamel
Mural at Callejón de Hamel
Mural, Callejon de Hamel
Mural, Callejon de Hamel

Centro de los Orishas, Regla

Located about 20 minutes’ drive from Havana, the Centro de los Orishas in Regla is an open-air museum with wooden sculptures that depict the santería gods, Obbatala, Yemaya, Chango, Ochun, Babalu Aye, Eleggua and Ochun.

Havana, Shango and Ochun
Change (red) and Ochun
Havana, Yemaya

Billboard Free Cuba

Probably the first thing you’ll notice in Cuba is that there is no commercial advertising, no billboards hawking products. Instead, there are murals and signs extolling the revolution, and the country’s achievements. 

Havana mural

We I found this 300m mural on Mercaderes Street, across from the Marqués de Arcos mansion. Created by the artist, Andrés Carrillo, along with the architect Jaime Rodríguez, sculptor Nicolás Ramos Guiardinú and students from the San Alejandro Art Academy, the mural is made up of 52 panels that depict 67 outstanding historical and artistic figures in Cuba.  

Havana Libre
Vivo en un pais libre

Translated, this mural proclaims, “I live in a free country.” I’m sure the irony isn’t lost on the Cuban people.

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

I found this etching of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the Argentine-born doctor, guerrilla leader and a major figure in the Cuban Revolution on a sidewalk.

Havana Che

And this one across from Plaza de la Revolución (if you’ve ever seen video of Fidel Castro speaking to a multitude of people, that’s where they’d gather). Interestingly, it almost faces the statue of José Martí, another important historical figure.


José Julián Martí y Pérez

There are several memorials to José Julián Martí y Pérez, a poet, journalist, revolutionary and national hero who was born in Havana more than 160 years ago and is revered as the father of the revolution.  

Statue of Jose Marti
Statue of Jose Marti

However, to me, this one shows Martí’s humanity.

Jose Marti

The inscription at the base reads, “to timely prevent with the independence of Cuba that is spreading through the Antilles the United States and fall with that additional force over our American lands. All I have done so far, and will do, is for that.” – Jose Marti, May 18, 1895, hours before dying in combat.

Havana’s Classic Cars

You’ll see these classic American made cars all over Cuba. Some, like this one, are surprisingly in pretty good condition. I wonder how quickly their Cuban owners will exchange them for much needed cash (and if the government will allow it). 

Havana car
Havana car
Classic Car taxi
Classic Car taxi 

Black Flags

One thing that, thankfully, has disappeared are the Black Flags. On February 6, 2009, the Cuban Government hoisted 138 black flags, each with a star, to commemorate the lives that were lost during the Bay of Pigs and other tragic events that the Cubans have attributed to the U.S. Government. Although the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961, it maintained a presence in Havana.  

This photo doesn’t show it but the U.S. Interest Section is to the left of the flags. The building is several floors high and on the outside, near the roof, which lined up near the top of the flags, was a crawling informational sign with news and political information (Cuba controls information its citizens are exposed to). The thinking is that the government placed the flags there to obscure the crawling sign. The flags were removed in 2011 so the president will not see them when he arrives in Cuba later this month.

Havana's Black flags
Black Flags, Havana Cuba

Change is inevitable, even in a communist country like Cuba. The challenge for the government is to manage the change as well as the expectation of its citizens, many of whom are like my friend, Emilio, who’s happy to establish relations with the U.S. As Emilio said, “La gente esta muy contenta por el restablesimiento de las relaciones entre los dos paises.”

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13 comments on “How Much Will Cuba Change?

  1. Loved this look at Cuba, Marcia. I also fear the blandness that will likely befall and destroy the uniqueness of this place. I want to see it in its ‘before’ state and experience the richness of the culture and cuisine — I am not eager to see Golden Arches and green mermaids.

  2. Very interesting post, Marcia, and I love the sculpture and mural photos. I have Cuba on our radar, but we are waiting a bit to see what develops so-to-speak. I like your thoughts on seeing the country before western influences settle in. It’s definitely a country shrouded in mystery to those in the western world and it’s exciting to see the doors opening isn’t it?

  3. Whenever I think of Cuba I think of their classic cars. I guess with relations resuming with America there will be an influx of newer cars? I love the look of the classic cars and the mechanics must be an inventive lot, making parts to keep them running. The wooden statues of Centro de los Orishas in Regla are unique. My favourite is the blue!

  4. You know, I saw new cars and even a dealership which surprised me. But I loved seeing the old American cars – some were in really good condition. Fifty-plus years of the embargo has taught Cubans how to be resourceful – they sure know how to keep those cars humming.
    The blue statue is Yemaya, queen of the ocean, hence her blue color.

  5. Hi Patti, you should definitely go! Just today I saw that the US is going to loosen travel restrictions before the president’s visit. It’s definitely exciting to see things opening – and I hope they keep opening up.

  6. Thanks, Jackie!
    LOL, sadly, that’s what I fear will happen and maybe sooner than we think. You should go, Jackie, especially now that travel there is getting easier.

  7. It would be. I’m not sure if any government is up to the unique challenge of opening up its country to development. It will be interesting to see how the Cubans manage.

  8. I always associate classic autos and cigars with Cuba, so it’s nice to see the other things you showed us. That multistory image of Che Guevera is huge. I hope that Cuba doesn’t change too much now that the embargo is lifted. I was listening to an NPR report this morning about Obama’s visit, and it seems that a few representatives from worldwide hotel chains are also headed there to look into taking over some of the hotels.

  9. I was in Cuba, gosh, nearly 20 years ago. Not in Havana but in the south, in Santiago. It would be interesting to see the differences that’s (sadly, in some cases) bound to happen. Surely, they can’t get rid of Che… surely not…

  10. Interestingly, only US chains were not in Cuba. A Spanish chain was already there when we were there.
    Oh, and the embargo is still in place, waiting for Congress to lift it.

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