Havana Beyond the Ruins

Havana Beyond the Ruins: Cultural Mappings after 1989
Edited by Anke Birkenmaier and Esther Whitfield
2011, Duke University Press
329 pages, plates

THE striking message of this book for those new to this theme is that the image of Havana as a fixed, disintegrating monument to socialist intransigence and the past is completely wrong, and the city’s many transformations offer considerable hope for its future. Anke Birkenmaier and Esther Whitfield have brought together an interesting collection of contributions by architects, scholars and writers to explore the many meanings and possibilities of the Cuban capital and how it has been portrayed in culture. The focus is on the post-Soviet era in which the Cuban state, struggling to cope with the island’s sui generis economic problems, reinvented the city as a tourist destination. Yet despite Cuba’s unique circumstances, Havana remains wholly and proudly Latin American, sharing many of the challenges faced by the sprawling capitals that can be found throughout the region and, according to Nicolás Quintana, offering a dormant potential for a broader urban revival that may be unmatched in the region. Quintana identifies the beneficial paradox that lies at the heart of its survival over the last 50 years: “… due to the ‘dormant condition’ in which Havana has been surviving for over forty-five years, it lays waiting in ruins but, at the same time, has not been ruined beyond repair by uncontrolled development.” [p 109]. If Quintana’s contribution is tainted by his retrograde and, frankly, arrogant political position – “It is our serious professional duty to be ready when Cuba is finally incorporated – by democracy and free enterprise – into the community of free nations…” this does not detract from the general optimism about the city’s future that can be found throughout this book. – EC