Havana through a dirty looking glass

havana-before-castro-2

I recently purchased Peter Moruzzi’s book, Havana Before Castro.

After sitting for well over two hours, reading the well-written text and looking at the many wonderful photographs from the author’s collection, I still came away disappointed.

I grew up and came of age in Havana during the Batista regime and actually lived there for two more years after the arrival of Castro in 1959. I was the only child from a middle-class family – both my parents held jobs – and I was given a good education in a private Catholic school.

Although my family was by no means privileged, I was fortunate to be afforded many opportunities that enriched my growing up with cultural experiences. My parents took me to the theatre, to concerts, to museums in Havana, and later in my teens and on my own, I continued to enjoy what would eventually become my lifelong career in the arts.

And therein lies my disappointment with the book.

By not mentioning one single fact about my birth-city’s many artistic and cultural assets and limiting the book’s narrative to the description and, at times, the celebration of Havana’s underbelly: its casinos, whorehouses, porn cinemas, gangsters, political corruption and, on the plus side, its ostentatious night clubs and restaurants and its frequently horrendous mid-century architecture, the author fails to give an even-handed and thorough description of the city in which I grew up.

Nowhere in the book is there a mention of the many (over a dozen as I recall) theatres where month after month one could see the best of American and European plays. If there is a mention of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, which gave regular concerts in the architecturally significant Auditorium Theatre, led by world-class conductors such as Erich Kleiber and Igor Markevitch, and which presented international soloists in its annual season, I cannot find it.

Is there anywhere in the book a passing mention of Havana’s many art galleries or the National Museum of Fine Arts? I cannot find one. Did the author ever hear of the Cuban National Ballet? Did he know that Havana had an international opera season? Did he ever research one single fact about the University of Havana and its many illustrious graduates?

These days I hear again and again from friends and acquaintances wanting to go visit Cuba “before it changes”. I try to gently give those who ask for my opinion a reality check. I tell them to go see Havana, the already changed capital of my birth country. My wife and I did last December (2015) not expecting to encounter the Havana where I grew up half-a-century ago.

That Havana is gone.

What remains and what I encourage my friends  to see is the old city that dates back to the early 1500’s, which the Cuban government, with the help of Unesco, has been renovating. Meet the people. Breathe the salty ocean air. Listen to the music which is everywhere. Look at the art. Eat some black beans and rice with minced meat and plantains. Drink a mojito.

None of that has changed. Politics will change and that still gives us all hope. But Havana already changed.

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