Will a Modernized Cuba Lose Its Soul?
It’s been seventeen years since I first set foot in the Havana airport. It was tough to make it through customs in those days. Today, President Obama arrived on Air Force One. Many people here seem especially anxious about what could be coming to this culturally remote and now politically idiosyncratic Caribbean enclave. It’s a country on the cusp of both change and uncertainty.
My first trip to Cuba was filled with some important lessons about austerity and simplicity. I recall an animated gathering of Cuban men, and the buzz of machismo storytelling, in the backyard of a local home. The event was fueled by large quantities of dark rum poured from wax paper cartons, the kind that milk usually comes in. It seems that glass bottles were reserved for exports and tourists, so local folks were left to get by with wax paper.
Getting by was, and still is, a way of life here. I remember hearing about the Cuban solution for broken carburetors. While those 1950’s American cars might look charming on Cuban postcards, it’s a different thing to actually own one, because when the thin metal butterfly valve gets twisted sideways in your carburetor, there’s no American dealership to take it to, no AutoZone down the street where you can buy spare parts. The solution is to find an old beer can, bang it out with a hammer until its flat, cut out a new butterfly valve and screw it carefully back into the carburetor’s narrow cylindrical throat.
In Cuba they call this Resolver.
Resolver means, “fix it.” No need to whine about something you can’t have, just get over it and come up with a solution. It is for this reason that most of the American cars in Cuba are known as “Frankensteins” by the locals. Take, for example, the ’53 Chevy owned by my taxi driver. While the body might be all American, the new diesel engine and transmission are pure 2016 Hyundai, the rear end (differential) came out of a 2015 Toyota, and the slave cylinder that drives the hydraulic brake system was scavenged from an old Mercedes Benz.
Some similar attitudes can be found in design. In architecture, one has two primary materials to chose from in Cuba: concrete or stucco. Stone is reserved mostly for public buildings, and clay, which might otherwise be used for making bricks, is used for plumbing fixtures and decorative pottery. There are, however, somewhat fewer limitations on paint, so when you want to kick things up a notch you can at least apply a coat or two of color. You know that boring, old metal stair going up to the roof in your inner-city courtyard? Just paint it red and it won’t look quite so ordinary. And while you’re at it, paint the floors and walls bright white, red, azure blue, and lime green and watch the whole space transform into a stunning outdoor lounge. With a little more polychrome you can also gussy up that ugly old cistern in the courtyard into a platform for some local artifacts.
The Cuban people live close to nature, so it’s probably no accident that many of the local colors mimic the tropical hues of the local flora, and in every courtyard you can also expect to find plenty of plants blooming in clay pots or built-in planters. On the other hand, if find yourself confronted with an ugly pile of rubble at the edge of a beautiful natural seascape on Rancho Luna beach, you might want to just paint the rubble thing white and let it sit there quietly as an artistic counterpoint to the stunning natural landscape.
Other natural connections can also come in the form of simple shapes and patterns. Delicate circular and floral designs are often wrought from spartanly thin and easily malleable strips of iron and steel, and then crafted into handrails or security gates. Triangles and diamonds show up with some regularity. It may (or may not) be coincidental that triangles also carry symbolic meaning in many primitive cultures— pointing upwards they represent masculinity, down femininity, and with diamonds you could have it both ways. In the case of Jose Gonzales, a gifted jeweler in the southeastern coastal town of Cienfuegos, small strands of silver wire are wrapped frugally around carefully polished local semiprecious stones. Jose’s quest is not to win design awards, but, as he puts it, to reimagine the primitive spirit of Behique, who served as a helper for Cacique, a name for the Western Antilles’ most admired pre-Columbian kings and god figures. These kinds of simple and elegant design solutions are all part of a frugal, but meaningful, and often spiritual way of life in Cuba.
Similar attitudes have recently found their way into the formal art scene in Cuba. In the early 1960’s, excessive cost overruns and construction challenges designed into the Instituto Superior de Artes (Havana Art Schools) in the early 1960’s forced Fidel Castro to declare a moratorium on excessive design solutions, and a call for a new balance between creative expression and thrift in Cuban art and architecture. Recently with the new expansion of the private sector, Cuban design is now experiencing a resurgence, albeit with a sober but refreshing sense of designing within often severe limitations in materials and economic resources. Examples can be found in many new paladares that are springing up all over Havana, in local fashions created by young designers, and in some public cultural buildings such as Fabrica de Arte Cubano, the new hotbed of creative thinking.
Recently with the expansion of the private sector, Cuban design is now experiencing a resurgence, albeit with a sober but refreshing sense of designing within often severe limitations in materials and economic resources.
When President Obama steps out on the tarmac in Havana, his presence will bring the hope of an American style of abundance and prosperity for the Cuban economy, and for most of the Cuban people. Later this week, the Rolling Stones will perform a concert in the parking lot at the Havana Stadium. The new American ethos will bring some shiny new technologies, building materials and the newfound wealth it will take to pay for them. Last December architect Frank Gehry sailed into Havana aboard a streamlined yacht he designed for himself, “to offer his expertise in Cuba,” according to a government statement. One might soon be able to imagine an AutoZone in every neighborhood, a Starbucks around every corner—and maybe someone will even get around to replacing those dreamy old-fashioned yellow (sodium) street lights with some dazzling new white halcyon bulbs.
Assuming that these kinds of modern advancements are now all but inevitable, perhaps it will be useful to think about what Americans might learn from the Cuban people in return: like the kind of power that can only be attained through personal resilience, the kinds of freedom that can only come through frugality and austerity and a certain kind of elegance that comes in a life lived with fewer material expectations.
Special thanks to my friend Adolfo Nodal for his help with identifying the new arts and design scene in Havana. As the former General Manager of the Department Cultural Affairs for the City of Los Angeles, and an avid preservationist, Al’s current passion is to restore and reconstitute the vintage neon signs of Havana. Contributions to the cause can be made at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/light-celebrates-peace#/