For the past fifty-plus years, Americans have essentially been banned from vacationing, or spending U.S. dollars, in Cuba. Our vision of flamboyant cabarets, classic cars, and smoothtalking habañeros smoking cigars is based on old movies and hearsay. But this has changed. Obtaining a license that allows access into the isolated country, whether it be for humanitarian purposes, study, or journalism research, is easier to accomplish, and now affordable. Direct flights from New Orleans to Havana have begun.
Travel agencies, such as the Kenner-based Cuba Travel USA, assist with acquiring the appropriate license and booking the trip. So if New Orleanians decide to visit the archipelago, what should they expect? Many will be surprised to discover that the city of Havana is strikingly similar to New Orleans, especially in terms of architecture. During my recent trip to Cuba, I saw these similarities firsthand.
Sitting in the back of a taxi, en route to Havana Vieja, or Old Havana, I watched young couples stroll along the Malecon seawall, while taking in the balmy Caribbean breeze. When I arrived into the core of this historic city, I was greeted by a feeling of festivity that reminded me of the French Quarter. A man on stilts shook maracas for a group of merry tourists, musicians in light cotton shirts played trova music, and waiters carrying trays of spicy food waltzed through crowded outdoor restaurants.
But the most notable parallel to New Orleans, particularly, the French Quarter, was apparent in the architecture. Long windows with wooden shutters and wrought-iron balconies adorn brightly-colored casas. Open courtyards, peppered with palm trees, welcome sunlight, while adjacent arcades provide shelter from the rain. Majestic cathedrals serve as the backdrop for plazas bustling with artists, booksellers, and locals selling souvenirs. Narrow cobblestone alleyways are filled with cozy bistros.
Havana, which sits on Cuba's northern coast, bears traits of the architecture found in other countries, such as Spain and France. This Caribbean city of 2.1 million people boasts an eclectic range of architectural styles. Moorish, Baroque, and Neoclassical architecture remains prominent, while traces of austere Soviet Union styles can also be found.
Like New Orleans, Havana possesses historical importance as a trade route. Europeans considered this tropical city to be a gateway to the New World. In fact, New Orleans and Havana were trading partners, up until the embargo. Because of its importance, Havana was frequently attacked by buccaneers and French privateers.
The Spanish, who had the strongest presence on the island during the 16th and 17th centuries, built a network of stalwart fortresses. Examples include the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, which is the second-oldest fort in the Americas, and the Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro. This grand structure was built in 1589 and dominates the entrance of the Havana harbor.
Baroque architecture, derived from the Portuguese word barroco, which means "elaborately-shaped pearl,"emerged under the Spanish Crown, when the island experienced a boom in the sugar industry. Wealthy slave owners and merchants constructed grandiose homes, cathedrals, and commercial buildings.
Characteristics of the baroque style with a tropical twist include wooden window grilles (rejas), arched galleried walkways (portales), and mezzanine fl oors (entresuelos). The Catedral de San Cristobal is a stunning example, along with the Palacio de los Capitanes, which was once the home of high-ranking Spanish military offi cials.
Another characteristic Spanish architecture is the prominence of city plazas. Havana contains four main squares: Plaza de Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco de Asis, and Plaza Vieja. Each square, with its street musicians and outdoor art shops, is reminiscent of the French Quarter.
New architectural styles appeared in the 19th century. When French missionaries fl eeing a slave rebellion in Haiti arrived in Cuba, they introduced Neoclassical architecture. This style, which mimics the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, was meant to contradict the ostentatious structures erected by the Spanish.
Buildings with imposing Doric columns and spacious courtyards represent Neoclassicism. The style became so popular that Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier referred to Havana as the "City of Columns."
The Gran Teatro de la Habana, along with the Capitolio Nacional, a structure that ironically resembles the U.S. Capitol Building, is a prime example. This massive work of architecture took more than three years and 17 million in U.S. dollars to build. It is now the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology.
Trade between Cuba and the United States increased in the early 20th century. Havana quickly became a flourishing cosmopolitan city. Rich with culture, it boasted renowned writers, musicians, and artists. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, who both called New Orleans home, were ardent fans of Havana. In 1958, about 300,000 American tourists visited the city.
After Castro seized power in 1959, wealthy landowners left the country, and the U.S. enforced an embargo with Cuba. The country slipped into a dire financial situation. It only worsened when the Soviet Union, which funded the Cuban government, collapsed.
Today, a fundamental difference between the architecture of Havana and New Orleans is preservation. While historic buildings in French Quarter have been refurbished and maintained, structures in Havana have fallen into disrepair. Mold coats once-majestic homes and buildings crumble, often causing fatalities.
Cuba simply lacks the money that is necessary to preserve Havana's historic relics. John H. Stubbs, Professor of Preservation Practice at Tulane University's School of Architecture, has led architectural preservation tours through Havana. He has also written numerous books on the subject, including Architectural Conservation in Europe and the Americas, which was co-written by Emily J. Maka .
He notes that tourism on the island has increased, along with the rehabilitation of several historic sights. Also, foreign investors have stepped in to assist with creating the infrastructure that will accommodate both locals and tourists.
The Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana formed a restoration plan, which claimed that 90% of the buildings in Cuba were architecturally valuable. In 1982, Old Havana was added to the World Heritage List. Many of these historic buildings have been transformed into housing for the poor and disabled, medical facilities, and museums.
Though 45% of Old Havana remains uninhabitable, the organization continues to pursue new restoration projects. Its extraordinary success, thus far, has been celebrated by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientifi c and Cultural Organization) and serves as a model for rehabilitating other cities in the Caribbean.
Like New Orleans, Havana is proving its ability to overcome challenges, both manmade and those presented by nature, and return to the vibrant city it once was. I certainly plan to visit Havana again and look forward to seeing the progress that has been made. After all, I have visited numerous cities abroad, but felt most at home in Havana.