After what seemed like years of preparation, my family and I finally arrived in Havana. Immediately, I asked myself—why does this city continue to mesmerize curious tourists from all over the world?
Havana’s old world charm—vintage cars of which there are 60,000 all over the country, old buildings that date back several centuries, cobblestone streets that have withstood many tumultuous political events, etc., bring any visitor back to the 1950s, when the pace of life was much slower and less complicated than it is now. In fact, some seasoned travelers have given Havana the tag, “a city untouched by time.”
Fusterlandia was our city tour’s first stop. Located in the northwestern edge of Havana is this neighborhood filled with brightly colored mosaics and sculptures, considered masterpieces of visual artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster.
After spending time in Europe, and influenced by Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona, Brancusi in Romania, and Picasso in Spain, Fuster decided to use the roof, walls, doorways, and benches of his residence and studio in Havana to record his artistic development. These “works of art” eventually attracted 80 of his neighbors who then allowed the artist to do the same thing to their respective residences, and this unique area of gaily decorated homes is collectively known as Fusterlandia.
Our next stop was the five-square-mile Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana’s most important landmark. It is where Fidel Castro held many of his political rallies, the same square where the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass for the Cubans during their respective visits. Standing 109 meters tall and dominating the square is the Jose Marti Memorial, a tribute to Cuba’s national hero: a prolific writer, who led the revolution against Spain.
Among the many important buildings around the Plaza is the Palace of the Revolution, which is Cuba’s seat of government and the Communist Party. Another building, which houses the Ministry of Information and Communication, has its facade displaying the giant image of a revered Cuban rebel, Camilo Cienfuegos, with the quote written below the image, “Vas bien, Fidel” (You are doing well, Fidel). This was his response to Fidel Castro who asked if converting a military barracks into a school was the right thing to do. The quote eventually became the slogan for the Cuban revolution.
On the opposite side of the square is the Ministry of the Interior. Its facade displays the giant likeness of Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary, who is hailed as a hero in Cuba for his role in the Cuban Revolution. The quote, “Hasta la Victoria siempre” (Towards Victory Always) is scribbled below his image—the face that has become a global symbol of rebellion.
I didn’t realize Guevara played a very important role in Cuba’s history as all I knew about him were his being an Argentine national, and of the things attributed to him by Argentina’s First Couple, Eva and Juan Peron, when I watched the musical, Evita. These dealings with the Perons later turned out to be false because history will prove that Eva was already dead and Juan was already in exile in Spain long before Guevara rose to popularity.
The Cubans loved Guevara so much for his role in helping them win the guerrilla war against the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. After the war, Guevara was given Ministerial functions and designated as Cuba’s ambassador to the world. He was eventually executed by the Bolivian army when he tried to foment revolution in that country. The Cubans retrieved his body from Bolivia and buried him in a beautiful mausoleum in Sta Clara, a city right in the heart of Cuba.
Another noteworthy landmark in Havana is the imposing Hotel Nacional de Cuba, perched on top of a hill, looking majestic with its architectural mix of neo-colonial and art deco designs, and offering a breathtaking view of Havana Harbor, the seawall, and the city. This hotel used to be the seat of the Cuban Mafia which had extensive operations in the US mainland, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and even in Europe.
Although Cuba has very strong ties with Russia and China, it has allowed a United States Embassy to open in Havana. This is housed in a large building along the Malecon, the eight-kilometer esplanade and seawall that stretches along Havana’s coastline. But, what puzzles me about the operations of this US Embassy is that, although it is open to the public, Cubans cannot apply for their US visitors’ visa in this facility. They have to fly or sail to the US Embassy in Guyana for that purpose.
Right in the center of town is the beautiful, classic baroque Gran Teatro de la Habana which has been in existence for the past 103 years, and is home of the Cuban National Ballet. It was originally built from donations by immigrants from Galicia, Spain, to serve as their social center and, in fact, the building was originally known as the Galician Center of Havana.
There are many other interesting things that endeared Havana to me and my family, but those will have to be discussed another day. Until now, several weeks after our Cuba visit, I continue to be mesmerized by its Latin vibe, its mysterious allure, its magical charm that’s why I’m still on my “Spanish mode” as I say—La Habana es, sin duda, una joya de destino que me encantara’ por mucho tiempo, ademas de darme la oportunidad de practicar mi Espanol (Havana is, without doubt, a jewel-of-a-destination which will charm me for a long time, aside from giving me the opportunity to practice my Spanish).
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