In Cuba property thaw, new hope for a decayed icon

December 17, 2011 - 9:40 AM
Cuba Along The Malecon

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, DEC. 18, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - In this Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011 photo, a tourist takes pictures as an old car drives along Malecon avenue in Havana.Just about anywhere else in the world, it would be a playground for the wealthy, diners in four-star restaurants and tourists willing to spend hundreds of dollars a night for a million-dollar view. But along the seafront boulevard, many buildings are dank, labyrinthine tenements bursting four or five times beyond capacity, plagued by mold and reeking of backed-up sewer drains. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)

HAVANA (AP) — Along Havana's northern coastline, storms that roll down from the north send waves crashing against the concrete seawall, drenching vintage cars and kids playing games of chicken with the salty spray.

Fisherman toss their lines into the warm waters, shirtless men play dominoes on card tables, and throngs of young people gather on weekend nights to laugh, flirt and sip cheap rum.

This is the achingly beautiful and most instantly recognizable part of Havana's cityscape: the Malecon seafront boulevard, with its curlicue lampposts and pastel buildings rising into an azure sky.

Just about anywhere else in the world, it would be a playground for the wealthy, diners in four-star restaurants and tourists willing to spend hundreds of dollars a night for a million-dollar view.

But along the Malecon, many buildings are dank, labyrinthine tenements bursting beyond capacity, plagued by mold and reeking of backed-up sewer drains. Paint peels away from plaster, and the saline air rusts iron bars to dust. Some buildings have collapsed entirely, their propped-up facades testimony to a more dignified architectural era.

Now, for the first time since the 1959 revolution, a new law that permits the sale of real estate has transformed these buildings into extremely valuable properties. Another new law that allows more people to go into business for themselves has entrepreneurs setting up shop and talking up the future. And a multimillion-dollar revitalization project is marching down the street improving lighting, sidewalks and drainage.

The year has seen some remarkable first steps toward a new Cuban economic model, including the sacrificing of a number of Marxism's sacred cows. The state is still firmly in control of all key sectors, from energy and manufacturing to health care and education, but increasingly people are allowed to engage in a small measure of private enterprise. Officials say the changes are irreversible, and this is the last chance to save the economy.

Yet Cubans will tell you that change comes slowly on the island. Strict controls on foreign investment and property ownership mean there's precious little money to bankroll a capitalist revival. Even some Malecon denizens who embrace the reforms see a long haul ahead.

"It's not that I see the future as black, more like I'm seeing a little spark from someone 3 kilometers away who lit a match," said Jose Luis Leal Ordonez, the proprietor of a modest snack shop."But it's a match, not a lantern."

Leal's block, the first one along the promenade, has offered a front row seat to five decades of Cuba under Fidel Castro. The residents of Malecon 1 to 33 have watched the powerful forces of revolution play out beneath their balconies, and today they're bracing for yet another act as Castro's younger brother Raul turns a half-century of Communist dogma on its ear.

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Given that Cuba's national identity has been inextricably bound up with its powerful neighbor 150 kilometers (90 miles) to the north, it is perhaps fitting that the Malecon is the legacy of a "Yanqui."

The year was 1900 and the country was under U.S. control following the Spanish-American War. Governor General Leonard Wood, who commanded the Rough Riders during the war with friend Teddy Roosevelt as his No. 2, launched a public works program to clean up unsanitary conditions and stimulate the economy. A key element was the Malecon.

At that time Havana ended about a block from the sea, separated from the waves by craggy rock. Raw sewage seeped into the bay nearby, so fishermen and bathers avoided this part of the waterfront. Only later would high-rise hotels and casinos spring up to make the Malecon a world-famous tourism draw.

For those early American occupiers, "The idea was to create a maritime drive so the city, which until now had its back to the sea, would begin to face the ocean," said architect Abel Esquivel. Since 1994, he has been working with the City Historian's office to restore the crumbling Malecon.

As the boulevard and promenade took shape, buildings sprang up on this block. One of the first was a three-story boarding house for singles and childless couples who occupied 12 apartments.

Today those have been subdivided horizontally and vertically, again and again, to take advantage of every last inch of space, and some 70 families live crammed into every nook and cranny.

Leal runs his cafeteria in the home where he was born 46 years ago, at the dark crux of an interior passageway. It caters mostly to neighbors and goes unnoticed by tourists on the sun-drenched walk outside.

A lifelong supporter of the revolution, Leal is grateful for the opportunity to live rent-free and earn two master's degrees on the state's dime. Still, after years of frustration working for dysfunctional government bureacracies, he quit his state job. He opened his snack shop May 1, and already it brings more income than before, enough even for his daughter's upcoming "quinceanera," her coming-of-age 15th birthday party.

He is one of the people on this block who is buying into Castro's entrepreneurial challenge.

Another is Omar Torres, who operates a private restaurant known as a "paladar" on a second-story terrace with sea and skyline views. He praised the government for lifting a ban on the serving of lobster and steak and allowing him to more than quadruple the number of diners he can seat.

Downstairs, an artist runs an independent gallery selling paintings of "Che" Guevara and cityscapes to tourists. Although he doesn't own the house, he's so confident in the future that he's using the income to remodel his rental.

Elsewhere folks are letting out rooms to travelers, and newly licensed street vendors are now legally peddling peanuts in tightly wrapped paper cones.

"Cubans dream of truly feeling like masters of their own destiny, for the state not to interfere in personal matters," Leal said. "Until now the state told you that you couldn't even sell your home."

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From its early days, the Malecon was a place to see and be seen, to celebrate a success, drown a sorrow or woo a sweetheart. By the 1920s it was a favorite strip for middle-class Cubans who motored up and down to show off their vehicles.

Havana developed without a strong central plan or dominant core, and the Malecon became one of its most important communal spaces, said historian Daniel Rodriguez, a Cuban-American researcher at New York University.

"I think the closest thing Havana has to an urban center is this long seawall," Rodriguez said. "It's a long, ribbony main square."

Today the concrete promenade stretches 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the harbor to the Almendares River, the last section completed in 1958 under strongman Fulgencio Batista.

Those were heady times, when the city's nightclubs pulsed with a mambo beat and mafia casinos on the Malecon drew planeloads of American tourists. But their days were numbered.

The following January, the young rebel Fidel Castro marched triumphantly into Havana and in short order began seizing mansions and apartment buildings and redistributing them to the poor, triggering a tectonic shift in housing as well as the rest of the economy and society.

Castro declared private real estate incompatible with the revolution's ideals. "For the bourgeoisie," he said, things like "country, society, liberty, family and humanity have always been tied to a single concept: private property."

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In a country where everyone is guaranteed a place to live, millions are jammed into dilapidated, multigenerational homes. The government is landlord to vast ranks of tenants who pay nothing or a nominal rent of around $2 a month. Sapped of any sense of ownership, some cannibalized the old buildings, ripping out wood, cinderblocks and decorative tiles to use or sell. That, combined with the punishing climate, has stifled upkeep and hastened decay in the buildings on the Malecon.

One of them, the Hotel Surf, was a beauty when Griselia Valdes arrived here as an 18-year-old newlywed in 1963. The entryway was tiled in pink and black with white benches and a restaurant on the ground floor. The rooms even had air-conditioning.

The glass bricks that lined the front wall are long gone, demolished by big storms. A drainpipe dumps over a spider web of electrical wires hanging at eye level in a passageway, while rainwater filters through the walls and spills into the lobby. The elevator was taken out years ago, but with the motor left rusting at the top of the shaft, people fear it could come crashing down any day.

"Mostly it is us who have abused the building with the subdivisions, with the banging and the crashing," Valdes said. "From neglecting it, from indolence."

Jan Ochoa Barzaga, who lives in the hotel's basement, is pessimistic about how much Raul Castro's reforms can change things. The factory worker finds it very frustrating that his girlfriend, like many others in Cuba, received a free university education from a generous government, but is languishing in a low-paid job.

Ochoa Barzaga tried to make the sea passage off the island in 2009, but was caught and returned home. If he had another opportunity to leave, he wouldn't think long.

"If they opened it up again," said the 32-year-old. "I'd be out of here."

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The Malecon continued to serve as center-stage throughout Fidel Castro's rule, with the military conducting war games along the seawall during the 1960s after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. In 2000 a flag-waving Castro personally led marches along the seawall to demand Cuban raft-boy Elian Gonzalez's return from the United States.

Four years earlier, with Cuba buckling under a severe economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands marched through the streets with makeshift plywood and inner-tube rafts and set off from the Malecon in a desperate gamble to reach Florida. Many failed.

On Aug. 5 of that year, riotous protests erupted on the boulevard and surrounding streets that were likely the biggest challenge to Castro since he took power. Amid looting and dozens of arrests, Castro addressed the crowd from atop a military vehicle.

"We were witnesses to all that," said Torres, the private restaurant owner, who saw the multitudes from his balcony. "You began to reconsider the meaning that Fidel has for Cubans, because in a moment of chaos and uncertainty, his presence was something else. Even the rioters began shouting, 'Fidel! Fidel!'"

That image of a robust, charismatic father figure faded when illness forced him from power five years ago.

The future is left to Raul, who at 80, is five years younger than his brother. He has dropped one bombshell after another with his economic reforms. None caused more of a stir than the measure legalizing the real estate market.

There's no sign of an imminent gold rush along this block of the Malecon, or anywhere else. Few individuals hold title to these homes; most rent from the government. Meanwhile the new law contains protections against individual accumulation of property or wealth, and officials insist this is no wholesale embrace of capitalism.

"All these changes, necessary to update the economic model, aim to preserve socialism, strengthen it and make it truly irrevocable," Raul Castro said in December 2010.

There's also the question of money: Cuba has only a tiny middle class with the kind of coin to not only buy a seafront home but afford the maintenance needed to keep the corrosive air at bay. The new law bars anyone not a permanent resident from buying property, including exiles who still imagine a day when they might return.

For Jorge Sanguinetty, who grew up a few blocks from the Malecon and was an economist for central planning under Fidel Castro before fleeing in 1967, the history of the seawalk is personal.

"I was like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. I used to go fishing there, walking through the rocks. We could see the salt from the waves on our windows during the storms," Sanguinetty recalled, saying he still dreams about it more than 40 years later. "You have to see a sunset (on the) Malecon. They are absolutely sensational."

Sanguinetty, founder of the international development group DevTech Systems, is writing a book about potential redevelopment in Cuba and has followed the issue closely over the years. He said the same forces that caused the Malecon's decay also added to its charm.

"The stagnation of Havana had this unintended consequence: Even though many things have fallen apart and are no longer salvageable, Havana will remain very desirable because uncontrolled development didn't take place," he said by phone from his office in Miami. "So there are many jewels there architecturally, and the Malecon is one of the most beautiful jewels in the crown."

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When it comes to the Malecon, the City Historian's Office wields near-total control. A largely autonomous institution, it collects undisclosed millions of dollars each year from the hotels and tourist restaurants it runs in restored buildings, and plows a big chunk of that back into rehabilitating more. The office recently said it has more than 180 projects, on top of the hundreds already completed.

The result has been an architectural rebirth that's on display in the gleaming Spanish-American cultural center, a rescued former tenement next door to Leal's building. A few doors away is a near-total rehab with brand-new apartments upstairs from a state-run restaurant, a mixed-use model that could be repeated.

There are also reminders that money is tight. Residents here remember how in the early 2000s, at the site of the collapsed Hotel Miramar, a fancy hotel from 1902 where tuxedoed waiters once attended to a fashionable clientele, Fidel Castro and Chinese President Jiang Zemin laid the cornerstone for a $24 million hotel to be built with help from Beijing.

Construction mysteriously froze after just a few weeks. Today, bricks form a single uncompleted first story and a faded artistic rendering tacked to a fence depicts the glassy, hyper-modern structure that never got built.

Despite the decay and unfulfilled hopes, the residents say they live in a magical place that creates a sense of community that doesn't exist even one block inland.

"I'm right on what we call the balcony of the city," said Leal, the cafeteria owner. "For me there's no place more sacred than where I live."

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Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.

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Peter Orsi can be reached at www.twitter.com/Peter(underscore)Orsi/