With this final blog post on Cuba, I expand my focus. Previous Cuba posts were more specific, whether they focused on artists; on urban murals by a single artist; on those classic, pre-1960 cars; on sculpture dedicated to a single, heroic figure of Cuban history; or on a single architectural complex.
This final photographic essay embraces a larger cross-section of public art: murals, posters and sculpture in Havana. It pictures people I encountered on the streets of Havana as they went about their daily activities. It offers a compendium of images that simply caught my eye from Havana’s main cemetery and elsewhere. Finally, it take us to Las Terrazas, an eco-community outside of Havana in the province of Artemisa.
Murals, Posters and Political Art in Havana
On January 1, 1959, Cuban dictator and president, Fulgencio Batista, fled the country and left it to Fidel Castro and the revolutionary government that remains in power today. This painted poster captures this historic event and sets the stage for much of the public art to be found in Havana. If my encounters of urban murals are any indication, a much larger precent of them are political than would be the case in most any other city that I know. Not only is this urban art mostly political, much of it celebrates a familiar handful of heroes of the Cuban Revolution.
The following images reveal some of my encounters with art on the street, whether banners, posters or painted murals.
This detail of a fairly long mural on a wall in the Vedado may require some explanation. The three profile faces depict Julio Antonio Mella, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara. The latter two, of course, fought in the revolution with Fidel Castro. Mella was a generation older, a founder of the “internationalized” Cuban Communist Party, and was assassinated when Che was merely one-year old. The words above them translate as Study, Work, Rifle: three activities that Castro saw as essential components in the education and political indoctrination of all Cubans. The three words are the motto of the Young Communist League, founded in 1962.
The same three appear below. To Cubans, the meaning is clear, even without the words.
Calixto Garcia University Hospital is the oldest of Cuba’s medical-teaching institutions. As is well-known, all Havana residents have access to free medical care. But one may ask why this billboard appears above the entrance and features Che? Here’s why. Before joining Castro in 1955–as a doctor, I should note–Guevara had concluded that access to medicine was an essential component for social change in Latin America. His words, as seen on this billboard, might best be translated: “We must value, but millions of times more, the life of a single human being over all the property of the richest man on earth.” These words came from a speech Che gave on August 20, 1960 at an opening ceremony organized by the Cuban Ministry of Public Health.
Carrying across the vast expanse of what was the Plaza Cívica before it was re-named Plaza de la Revolución six years later, this steel mural celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Camilo Cienfuegos in 1959. His words, Vas bien, Fidel (“You’re doing fine, Fidel”) were his supportive reply to Castro at a rally of January 8, 1959. The building dates from 1954, designed by Ernesto Gómez Sampera.
This earlier mural of Che Guevara is taken from a famous photograph by Alberto Korda Gutiérrez. Accompanying it are Che’s words, Hasta la Victoria Siempre (“Always toward victory”). The building dates from 1953, designed by Aquiles Capablanca and Henry Griffin.
This could mean several things. “Long Live a Free Cuba.” It may refer to a Cuba free from the bullying and interference of its American neighbor to the north, both before and certainly after 1959. It may just as well refer to the wish of many Cuban exiles for a Cuba free from its present dictatorial Communist regime under the Castros. It may even refer to a cocktail–and even this cocktail, the Cuba Libre, has a political twist, in that it became popular at the end of the Spanish-American war. This is a highball of Coca-Cola, Rum and lime juice on ice. Take whichever you prefer.
This poster reads: Volverán! Como Lo Dijo Fidel (“They will return! As Fidel stated”). It refers to the Cuban Five (or the Miami Five): Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González. They were Cuban intelligence officers arrested in 1998 by the U.S. government and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder. By 2014, all five had been released.
This large mural was painted over four days of May, 2012 by a group of Cuban artists, designers and students under the direction of a British professor from the University of Bedfordshire, Noel Douglas. It may best be understood as an example of the internationalization of the Occupy Movement against inequality. The movement made its debut in lower Manhattan in 2011 as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
We see a crouching, demonic figure holding the earth’s globe, which it has been greedily consuming. The mural’s concept is the fight of the 99%–the common person–against the 1%–the very wealthy and the large corporate interests. The demon, embodying the 1%, is tethered down, á la Gulliver by the Lilliputians. Only here, the tethers are fish hooks which pierce its skin. The multitude of inscriptions tattooing its body list international corporations and their stock prices: Disney 92.3, AT&T 1122.3, McDonalds 412.1, Apple 522.41, Hyundai 34.42, etc., etc.
This mural was made as part of the Havana Bienniale of 2012. See this link for details.
Public Sculpture in Havana
One of several sculptures on the beautiful, harbor promenade, the Alameda de Paula, this is a detail of a statue of Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista. Guillén, the national poet of Cuba, was also a journalist and political activist. A major inspiration on his work came from a visit to Cuba by the American poet, Langston Hughes, and Guillén would become known for melding the dialect and rhythms of black Africans into his writing, becoming a recognized practitioner of the international Négritude movement.
Hilgemann’s work, also on the Alameda de Paula, was a product of the Havana Bienniale of 2015. It is formed by the process of implosion: as the air is evacuated from inside the hollow form, atmospheric pressure takes over and forms (or deforms) the stainless steel polyhedron. Here is a video showing the process of forming another of his sculptures.
This rather traditional monument to a man standing on a raised plinth might not capture one’s interest, mine included. However, its placement in the middle of Linea, a major Vedado thoroughfare, caught my attention. Who is this person, Frías y Jacott, who is also referred to as the Conde de Pozos Dulces (Count of Sweet Wells)? The accompanying plaque just left me ever more curious: Sabio agronomo y publicista insigne a cuyo senio creador se debe el haber concebido y trazado el reparto del Vedado ( “Wise agronomist and famous publicist whose creative sense is due to having conceived and traced the distribution of the Vedado).
Frías y Jacott was a scientist, agrarian reformer and journalist. Between him and his brother, José de Frias, and his sisters, Ana and Dolores, his family owned much of the land in what today is the Vedado. In 1859, he (and his sisters) gave their hacienda and farmland to the city of Havana and helped to oversee the subdivisions that would form the development of one of Havana’s most elegant suburbs.
The central promenade of Avenida G is dotted with sculptures of famous leaders from Central and South America. This unusual one of Omar Torrijos shows him as a bust rising from two irregular masses of stone. With clenched hands, he appears to be clutching the stone to his chest. This gesture makes sense, once we know who he is. Torrijos was the dictator of Panama from 1968-1981. His gesture is that of joining the two sides of the Panama Canal. Although the Canal was built much earlier and opened to shipping in 1914, Torrijos was instrumental in having Panama regain control of the Canal from the United States in 1977.
Chinese men first emigrated to Cuba in 1857, brought there to work in the sugar fields. This black stone, fluted column, more like an obelisk because it has no capital, commemorates the contribution of some 2,000 Chinese who fought against Spain for Cuban independence in the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). General Gonzalo de Quesada praised these Chinese fighters with these words: “There was not one Chinese-Cuban traitor, there was not one Chinese-Cuban deserter.” In my research, I have encountered discrepancy as to the date this monument was erected. I will stick with 1991, but whatever the date, the recognition was curiously late in coming.
With a flight of doves at the top, the American Communist intellectuals, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, are bracketed by their words and date of their death by electrocution in New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility: Por la paz el pan y las rosas en frentemos al verdugo / Ethel y Julius Rosenberg / Asesinados el 19 6 1953 (“For peace bread and roses we face the executioner / Ethel & Julius Rosenberg / Assassinated on June 19, 1953”).
It turned out that Julius, who did work for Soviet Russian intelligence, only leaked radar information and not bomb information for which he was accused; Ethel’s role was minimal. In the words of Alan Dershowitz, Julius was guilty of spying and also was framed by false evidence; Ethel was framed by “the perfidy of one of her lawyers.” As an antidote to the moral lapse of American justice, Cubans gather here every June 19 and hold a memorial service in honor of the Rosenbergs.
The Dominican general, Máximo Gómez and his horse look out to sea from atop a Doric Temple of the Homeland. Below the temple is a base which includes Gómez’s mausoleum. There is much more to this large monument, but I prefer this distant view that reveals its axial connection to the urban streets. Gómez commanded Cuba’s Liberation Army during the Wars of Independence.
This monument was dedicated to the 266 people who died aboard the USS Maine, when it exploded and sank in Havana harbor, February 15, 1898. This event precipitated what was called, in America, the Spanish-American War (which lasted for three months). In Cuba, that war–the country’s third war to liberate itself from Spain–lasted three years (1895-1898). Soon thereafter, it was clear to Cubans that the US government might not have Cuba’s best interests in mind. In December of 1899, President McKinley told Congress “the destinies of Cuba are in some rightful form and manner irrevocably linked to our own.” The following year, Senator Orville Platt drafted an amendment that guaranteed America’s right to intervene in Cuban domestic affairs. He also would later write that “Cubans are incapable of stable self-government. In many respects, they are like children.”
Thus, this monument became something other than one of cooperation between allies. And so, in January, 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution, a mob dismantled several parts of this symbol of American imperialism, among them an American eagle and busts of William McKinley, Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt. The next month, clearly with Castro’s approval, this inscription was added: “To the victims of the Maine who were sacrificed by the imperialist voracity and their desire to gain control of the island of Cuba February 1898 – February 1961.”
These two photographs show two sections of an expansive open area just off the Malecón. The area was intended as a gathering place for celebrations and protests and would be able to seat over 10,000 people. The first photograph pictures one of several low, concrete walls embedded with bronze plaques that celebrate great people–not only Americans as we see here–but from around the world.
The second photograph, with its 138 flagpoles and Cuban flags, first appeared on the western edge of this space in February, 2006. The building hidden behind it is the United States Embassy, designed (and built) in 1950 by the firm of Harrison & Abramovitz. In January of 2006, the Bush Administration installed an electronic message ticker on the fifth floor of the building from which it scrolled five-foot high messages in promotion of human rights. Here were some of those messages:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up: Martin Luther King. No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent: Abraham Lincoln. How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxicabs and cutting hair: George Burns. In a free country you don’t need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country? and Some go around in Mercedes, some in Ladas, but the system forces almost everyone to hitch rides.
One can imagine the displeasure of the Cuban government at these messages, and so up went the flagpoles in order to block Cuban citizens from seeing the signs. Thus was born the Plaza of Dignity. Each flag stands for one year that Cuba struggled for its independence–beginning with its wars with Spain (1868) and continuing into 2006 against American imperialism. In a welcome gesture of warming relations, American President Barack Obama pulled the plug on the electronic ticker board in 2009.
At several points at the edges of this urban park, one encounters irregular, tilted walls of concrete. Etched on the concrete in negative relief are human figures, banners and words. These walls were designed by the team of Mario Coyula, Sonia Dominguez and Armando Hernández. Architect Mario Coyula called it “the first abstract expressionistic commemorative monument in Cuba.” It commemorates an event that took place on the 27 of November, 1871, when eight young Creole medical students were shot and bayoneted by a right wing paramilitary group which supported the Spanish government.
The Cuban government had tried to erase the names of the martyred students from all records. Thus, in the top photograph, their names are resurrected (and I include their ages): Alonso Álvarez de la Campa y Gamba (age 16) / Anacleto Bermúdez y González de Piñera (age 20) / José de Marcos y Medina (age 20) / Ángel Laborde y Perera (age 17) / Juan Pascual Rodríguez y Pérez (age 21) / Carlos A. de la Torre y Madrigal (age 20) / Eladio González y Toledo (age 20) / Carlos Verdugo y Martínez (age 17).
José Martí would cite this execution as an example of the worst aspects of colonialism and wrote: “They died for the world and were born into glory;” and later, Che Guevara would remark that “Their only crime was to be Cuban.”
This last example of public sculpture is within the Cemetery of Cristóbal Colón, and one of its designers is (again) Mario Coyula. It represents a linear unfurling of Cuban flags made out of brushed stainless steel. It includes the rolling hillocks below it as well as a section beyond the flags where the copse of trees can be seen in the top photograph. It also is referred to as the Pantheon for the Heroes of the 13th of March. Apparently, it operates as a sundial which, on every March 13, would highlight the 1957 attack by young revolutionaries on the Presidential Palace in their failed attempt to assassinate Fulgencio Batista.
Cemetery of Cristóbal Colón
In Havana, be sure to look up. Besides the expected activity at street-level, balconies above are major foci of socialization in the denser urban centers.
Our Lady of Regla is the patroness of the sea, sailors, and Havana. Syncretic religious beliefs also make her a Santería diety, Yemayá, the African goddess of the ocean.
Antonio Augusto Leyva-Sánchez, who was just opening up his store, proudly shows us the pictures of his grandchildren in Miami.
Chiviricos, fried dough, is a popular street food in Havana.
Cubans keep their home fronts painted and bright, even though the price of a can of paint may exceed half of their average monthly salary.
The giant mural of a reclining woman on the rear wall was painted in 2015 by American artist, Ricky Mastrapa.
The Paseo de Martí (aka, Paseo del Prado) certainly is one of the finest public places and promenades in Havana. First named Paseo de Extramuros in 1772, since it then was beyond the city walls, it was remodeled in 1834 and then again in 1929 under Raúl Otero as part of a new plan for Havana designed by J. C. N Forestier. It consists of a wide, tree-lined pedestrian promenade flanked by the benches seen here and raised slightly above the street on either side.
Stilt dancers entertain the public, accompanied by the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the conga.
There is fishing in Havana, but not a fishing boat in sight. That is, first, because fishing is a government monopoly in Cuba, and, second, because private fishing boats might “accidentally” leave Cuban waters and drift the hundred miles north to Key West, Florida.
One wonders what these men catch off the Malecón sea wall. Apparently not much in close. However many are “balloon fishing.” They blow up and attach government-subsidized condoms to their lines so that the lines float and carry up to 900 feet into the coastal waters, where they are more likely to catch a bonito or red snapper.
The CocoTaxi is named for its resemblance to a coconut shell. Alejandro was our driver for a morning jaunt into Havana’s western suburbs.
The Cuban Flag
The Cuban flag is ubiquitous. One encounters it often, draped down the side of a building. I suspect most of these are government buildings or, as in the case of the Hotel Nacional (first photo), a building that was nationalized in 1960.
The Cuban flag consists of three blue and two white stripes and an equilateral triangle in red which contains a white star. It was designed in 1849, though not officially adopted until 1902. The blue stripes represent the three departments into which Cuba was divided. The white represents purity of ideals. The triangle acknowledges the three ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. And, for me the most interesting, the star was to represent the new state of Cuba that should be added to the United States of America. How we seem to mis-apply our power so often and so clumsily!
Flora in Havana
Las Terrazas: Artemisa
Two centuries of timbering and charcoal harvesting had turned this once lush area in the Sierra Rosario mountains into an eroded, infertile environment. In 1967, the Cuban government began a reforestation and land reclamation project that would transform Las Terrazas into a major example of sustainable, rural development. In 1985, UNESCO declared it a Biosphere Reserve: a “living laboratory” based on biodiversity and sustainable use.
We toast our last night in Havana from the Loma de Taganana, the hill on which the Hotel Nacional stands and enjoy the view out to sea.