Last month, during our Jane Jacobs centennial tribute, I interviewed three influential urbanists: Jan Gehl, Richard Florida, and Andres Duany. Toward the end of my talk with Duany, I veered off topic, because I wanted his take on Cuba. Obama had just completed his visit to the island nation, and it was clear things were about to change, perhaps radically. As it turns out, Duany—who was born in New York City but spent his early childhood in Cuba—had a lot of experience there, prior to the presidential visit, and is now actively engaged in helping planners in Havana rezone the harbor. Here’s an edited version of our fascinating talk on Cuba.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AD: Andres Duany
What’s your take on where Cuba is going? Have you been back since Obama lifted the sanctions?
Not since. But I used to go to Cuba quite a bit. We prepared the model codes that are now in place in Havana. We couldn’t officially “work” in Cuba, but we taught the planners how to write the codes. So the smart codes are now in the major cities over Cuba, particularly the areas that are subject to development. They are published, which is what makes them official. They don’t vote them in. They publish them.
What was it like to work with the regime in Cuba?
Things change so quickly in Cuba, because it is top down governance. You cannot answer that question, except by asking: What year are you talking about? For example, I can’t even tell you whether the food is good or bad. I have said the food is terrible in Cuba, and then somebody will say: have you been there recently, the food is now excellent. Top-down regimes can turn on a dime. And so to answer your question, I don’t know what it is like since Obama lifted the sanctions because I haven’t been in Cuba in eight months. We will be going to Havana to advise on the master plan for the bay, to prepare it for tourism, towards the end of September.
Right now the word is that what drove the opening was not only Obama, but that Venezuela can no longer help Cuba economically. Cuba depended on Russian subsidies, and then Venezuelan subsidies. But now Venezuela is broke. Cuba requires tremendous subsidies, because it is not energy self-sufficient. So they must now open to tourism, massively. Obama’s trip was convenient, but an opening to the U.S. was economically necessary.
And Obama was unfettered by an upcoming election and didn’t have to worry about Florida.
Yes. And he is incredibly attractive to the Cubans. When Obama was elected, I happened to be in Cuba, and people were saying, “Yes, you had slavery, but nevertheless you elected a black president, what a marvelous country.” So Obama is beloved in Cuba.
But that is what the people said. After he left, the editorials in the official newspaper, Granma, were withering. Quite rude. For example, “His humor fell flat or his entire speech should have consisted of apologies for everything the United States has done to Cuba in the last 60 years.” And then, “The opening is non-negotiable unless the Americans get out of Guantanamo.” So here you have two completely different perceptions. The visiting Americans, because they don’t read Granma and don’t watch Cuban television, think that it’s all going marvelously well. But…not really. Yes, they’re going to accept mass tourism, because they have to. But they are maintaining the other constraints.
Talk about the work in Cuba. What are you going to be doing there?
Twenty years ago I began to notice how Communism affects real estate. How it affects urbanism. I realized that the codes in Cuba, the Communist codes—because the government initiates all buildings—do not protect against developers. They are concerned with modification of buildings by individuals. The government is “benevolent,” and not rapacious, as in capitalism, so why code bigger buildings? As Cubans began converting dwellings and starting little businesses you get this, for us, unusual code. Capitalist codes protect the city from abuses by the big guys, the developer. Cuban codes protect the city against the little guy, the individual.
Then I realized that Havana was vulnerable—that Spanish and other developers had negotiated much to Cuba’s disadvantage. Havana had gotten nothing back, while the developers had done whatever they wanted. They don’t pay real estate tax. There are no taxes in Communism because the buildings belong to the government. So the developers were laughing all the way to the bank. And there were other looming problems. They didn’t understand why developers, for example, would want to build out on the ring highway. “Why would anybody want to be out there?” And I’d respond, “Have you heard of Wal-Mart? Do you realize that if a Wal-Mart gets built there, everybody who doesn’t have a car becomes a third-class citizen? That the shops of your beloved downtown will never revitalize?” I was saying things like that until their ah-ha moment: could you please help us write codes that administer a vaccine against capitalist development, which we don’t understand—which will destroy, finally, the cities?
We were funded to teach the planners of Cuba about codes. We have helped on one and they have written them. This one for the Bay of Havana may be different. These codes are primarily for places where developers are likely to be interested in.
Now, with the opening of American tourism, Cuban hotels can’t handle the influx. There are not enough rooms in Havana. So they will let cruise ships in immediately. The functions have been transferred to the new Port of Mariel. The Bay of Havana, which does have some old towns on it, is being deindustrialized and demilitarized, but cauterizing the influence of tourists, so it won’t overly undermine the egalitarian Socialist ethos.
Do you think the regime is sustainable if the island is suddenly flooded with tens of thousand of tourists, 365 days a year. Doesn’t it just inevitably change things, in a way that would be politically destabilizing?
Yes. But they can slow it up. Tourism in Cuba is not new. The entire world could go there, except Americans. It’s the quantity that’s about the change. So Cuba knows tourism. What they don’t like is that the tourists choose the good restaurants and good hotels, the good shows and good museums and avoid the others. So you get a society where the good restaurants are making money and the bad restaurants aren’t. Rather than raise the level of all of them, they are controlling access with group tourism. In the last year, before Obama, tourism had become group tourism. And it was very tight about what you did. They try to distribute the tourists to the bad restaurants and bad museums. It is surreal. Instead of helping the bad restaurants become good restaurants, they allocate your schedule so that the wealth [the business] is distributed evenly. So there can be some pretty awful tours of Cuba. Now, that may change on a dime, as I have said.
Can you talk about the specifics of the bay master plan?
One of the difficulties is that there are already contending master plans by national and foreign entities. It is funny how some things are not centralized in Cuba. One of the more difficult tasks is to sort out and resolve the contending master plans.
You’ve done that before.
Yes. But one of the reasons they want us, as opposed to some other planners, is that I am Cuban. It takes a lot of verbal energy to reconcile the people involved. But I’ve also said: we only need to code the first quarter of a mile from the shore. After that the existing socialist master plans can continue, as only the coast has value. This is stunning to them. Because there is such a housing shortage, they think all of the urban land is valuable. I tell them: Yes, in Communism. But in capitalism, it isn’t. In capitalism, the developers want the amenity of the water. If you look at the coast of Miami, the high rises are less than a quarter of a mile deep inland. Behind that is one of the poorest cities in the country.
They said, OK, we get it. I have also told them, if they want a stable society they had better get to work on building housing for their people and not just for the tourists. Social inequality is a tinderbox in Latin America. Cuba had lots of problems, but social inequality is not among them. And that is not something they should add to their list of problems.
I am hoping to bring professors and their students for the follow up work on affordable housing in Cuba. There is no payment. We can plan, but we must not do the detailing that is required. The local architects and the schools on both sides of the Florida Straights can.