Fuster 1.Cuba Main copy

Havana’s Evolving Public-Private Landscape

Since the 1959 Cuban revolution, the island nation has served as a socialist petri dish for the autocratic control and centralized distribution of resources, including common infrastructure, such as roads, parks, and other public spaces. This system of community centered assets includes the many prados (monumental pedestrian oriented streets), bulevars (shopping boulevards), malecons (waterfront promenades), and parks that were built before the revolution. In recent times, the process of public space placemaking has cultivated some new forms of Cuban urbanism, developed in part by a creative class of visual, performing, and culinary artisans, whose work also supports Cuba’s all-important tourism industry. These new public and semipublic spaces raise some interesting questions about the interface between socialist public and private enterprise, and the power of the creative class to support political and cultural change.


One of Havana’s most historic public spaces is its malecon, which runs for 5 miles alongside the Gulf of Mexico, where it’s also within convenient walking distance for a large number of the city’s residents. Local folks call it “Havana’s Longest Sofa,” with reference to a continuous sea wall that doubles as a perch for everything from date nights and family gatherings to personal preening, dancing, and even saltwater fishing. 


Freshwater fishing and other cultural and naturalistic activities can be found in a tranquil 1,730-acre public park and environmental refuge known locally as the Havana Forest (Great Metropolitan Park). 


During the past three decades, these kinds of common public spaces have been amplified and extended through the creative discovery and innovation of local placemakers and cultural entrepreneurs. Contemporary artist José Rodriguez Fuster’s fanciful musings began with the design of his own home, which he claims was inspired by the work of Pablo Picasso and Antonio Gaudí. Fuster’s boundless creative energies soon spread onto the walls and fences of the surrounding neighborhood. Before long, tourists discovered his creations and branded the neighborhood “Fusterlandia,” and it soon became a regular stop for local tour guides. With tourists pouring into the neighborhood, entrepreneurial community members began to create pop-up retail sites with Panama hats and other local arts and crafts for sale. The result is a whole neighborhood that serves as an integrated community art park with small, privately owned tourism enterprises.


In Cuba, there are different ways to define public space. Since all public events are required by the Cuban government to be either free or open to the public for a maximum price of 5 cents (in U.S. currency) per ticket, there are many public spaces that exist inside of buildings. Fabrica de Arts is a large multi-use contemporary arts campus that is owned by the Cuban government but managed by a cooperative of world-renowned musicians and interdisciplinary artists. As required, access to the space is free and open to the public. However, a clever arrangement of privately owned and managed bars and art galleries contained within the complex also provide local artists with opportunities to sell and personally profit from their wares.


Cuba’s new cache of creative enterprises also includes small artist studio businesses like Habana Light, founded by local artist Kadir Lopez Nieves and cultural entrepreneur Adolfo Nodal. Their mission is to restore and artistically expand the city’s extensive collection of Art Deco and Midcentury Modern neon signs. The Habana Light studio includes both a workshop for the restoration of existing signs and a program to train a new generation of creative neon artists, along with an art gallery and venue for public and private entertainment events.


Other kinds of public art spaces can be found in the city’s traditional performing arts venues. The historic Teatro Martí, located in the historic Habana Vieja, has been delivering a wide range of public theater and performing arts events for more than 150 years. Farther out in the neighborhoods, the Benny More club provides not only an intense musical performing arts space, but also an opportunity for the community to dance together and celebrate the legendary Latin rhythms that are such a vital part of local culture.


No collection of Cuba’s creative placemaking would be complete without recognition of the hundreds of industrial artisans who own, repair, and merchandise the country’s formidable fleet of vintage American automobiles. In fact, large sections of Havana’s historic prado, as well as the venerable Revolution Plaza where Cuban socialism was born, are now dominated by vintage vehicles serving Havana’s tourist industry. Pedro (shown below) is one of the artisans who inherited his historic 1955 Chevrolet sedan from his father and grandfather. This family legacy brings not just aesthetic rewards, but also financial ones, as the combined owner/driver/mechanics of these historic cars are now free to operate as private businesses, averaging single-destination rides across the city’s public space throughways that exceed the $20 to $60 monthly salaries of most Cuban citizens. These discrepancies between government and private-sector incomes are beginning to challenge Cuba’s socialist principles, as more citizens long to get in on the higher-income opportunities that were recently adjudicated in the 2019 update of Cuba’s Constitution.

A relatively new kind of placemaking in the culinary arts is raising even more questions about the resilience of the country’s socialist ideals. For example, La Guarida Paladar began in 1994 as the dining room in the Oscar-nominated film Strawberries and Chocolate. Soon after, when the Cuban government agreed to allow local citizens to create paladars (restaurants) with up to 12 seats within their own homes, they jumped at the opportunity. Since then, La Guarida has expanded its exquisite inside and outside dining and performing arts spaces into one of Havana’s largest and most successful culinary and entertainment venues, winning first place in the 2023 World Culinary Awards. However, with prices that far exceed the reach of most Cuban citizens, this and other exclusively private-dining venues present challenges for a socialist government that is built around the promise of a balanced quality of life for all of its citizens.


The fact that Cuba’s creative class is making headway in transforming public space into private enterprise is not surprising. It’s often the artists and artisans who advocate and foreshadow changes that later become commonplace. History shows that the impact of these changes can be consequential, as they were when artists transformed New York City’s SoHo neighborhood into what would eventually become upscale apartments and condos, or when performing artists gathered in the open fields of Woodstock, New York, to amplify a civic discourse that helped presaged the end the American war in Vietnam. As the pounding of the ocean waves on Havana’s longest sofa continues to intensify, one can only wonder whether it will be a similar awakening among the creative class that turns the tide of community discourse about contemporary public and private challenges such as climate change or global threats to equity and democracy.


All photos by the author.


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