A Walk on the Pre-Revolutionary SidePosted: January 16, 2012
It has to be said that almost all the more interesting buildings in Cuba predate the Revolution.
On a fine day in Vedado, I strolled from the Monumento del Maine on the Malecon to the Monumento Vuelo Lam, which is only five blocks from the river Almendares and the suburb of Miramar on the other side. Vedado, smarter than Centro Habana to the east, is an early 20th century district of large houses, which were once for single families but which are now institutions or multi-family homes.
The Monumento a la Victimas del Maine (Monument to the Victims of the Maine) is a memorial to the blowing up of the ship USS Maine in Havana’s harbour in 1898, which killed 260 sailors on board. I don’t think anyone revealed who blew up the ship, but the Cubans believe it gave the USA a pretext to enter the war of independence against Spain, at a time when the Spanish troops were pretty much defeated anyway. A plaque approved by Fidel Castro reads, in translation: “To the victims of the Maine, who were sacrificed by imperialist voracity in its eagerness to seize the island of Cuba.” (Cuba, Moon handbook by Christopher P Baker, 5th edition 2010, p.84)
From the monument at the seaward end of Calle 17, you can see the Hotel Nacional a little to the east, where La Rampa meets the Malecon. The hotel was built in the late 1920s and opened in 1930. In the 1940s and 50s it was a haunt of Mafiosi from the United States, including Lucky Luciano. They saw Cuba as a convenient off-shore money-laundering casino.
Down Calle 17, between streets M and N, stands the 35-storey Focsa building, constructed of reinforced concrete in the mid-1950s, before the 1959 Revolution.
Across one block to Calle 19, and the pale Iglesia (Church) San Juan de Letrán. Parque (Park) Victor Hugo, further down the street, is a grassy square with memorials to the French author of Les Miserables, to the mother of independence figurehead José Marti, and to the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, RIP 1981.
Back on Calle 17, some of the vast pre-Revolution mansions are protected with elaborate security. The Instituto Cubano de Amistad con losPueblos (Cuban Institute of Friendship between Peoples), at no.301, is a huge 1920s villa, not open to the chance visitor despite its name. The equally palatial Casa (House) de Juan Gelats, at no.351, houses the Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, for the Cuban artists and writers who are approved of or tolerated by the government.
Down at no.502, the Museo de Artes Decorativas (Museum of Decorative Arts) occupies the mansion of the Count and Countess of Revilla de Camargo, whose guests included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The Count and Countess exited Cuba in 1961, unable to take their possessions with them, and their property was acquired by the Castro government. There is a sumptuous Oriental room, and a manor-house English room among the French antiques.
Past the residence of the British Ambassador, a manicured white mansion with posters for the London Olympics on the railings outside, to Parque Lennon, named for John Lennon. This park has a statue of the assassinated Beatle, complete with spectacles, who have their own custodian. How would the real John Lennon be treated if he were alive in Cuba today? Would he be regarded as counter-revolutionary?
I wandered on to a shady little park between Calles 15 and 13, with a bandstand in the centre, to see the Monumento Vuelo Lam, a bronze artwork of a flying bird-like human, by Alberto Lescay Merencio. The bronze is named for the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, whose work features humans as a sort of fusion between human and bird.
I think I preferred the seated, bowed, post-Revolutionary figure on the grass nearby.