Herman Portocarero, a former diplomat in Cuba, refers to the seaside Malecón, the wall and promenade that run along Havana’s coastline facing north toward the United States, as “the last rampart of the Cold War, a frontier between two worlds.”
“You sit on it, watching the ocean, and become part of the history of the world,” the former EU and Belgian diplomat writes in his book “Havana Without Makeup.”
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Many Cubans refer to the wall more prosaically as the sofa, a giant outdoor gathering place to socialize, share a bottle of rum with friends, fall in love, check emails, take a rest from everyday cares, fish with buddies who may or may not be catching anything, or just watch the endless parade of humanity that floats past.
It is here that Cubans staged the “Maleconazo” protest during the austere period known as the special period and launched themselves into the waves to head north toward the United States during the rafter crisis of 1994. Through the years, the Malecón has been the scene of countless marches, including the entry of Fidel Castro and other rebels into the city after a triumphal journey across the island following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Construction of the Malecón, which was originally called Avenida del Golfo, first began in 1901, only to be suspended and started up again in the 1920s and then again in the 1930s. In Cuba, it often seems as if all roads lead to the Malecón.
It is here along the Malecón, which runs from La Punta at the foot of El Prado west to La Chorrera fortress, that the U.S. Embassy sits. Towering above the wall and the seaside highway is the iconic Hotel Nacional, where everyone from American gangsters, Hollywood stars of yesteryear, presidents from around the world and Winston Churchill have stayed.
More recently there has been a curious intersection between the embassy and the hotel. The Nacional gained recent notoriety because the U.S. government says a room in the hotel was the scene of one of the mysterious “attacks,” of unknown origin, that have caused 26 diplomats stationed at the embassy to fall ill.
Although only one eighth-floor room was reportedly involved, in a level 2 travel advisory issued for Cuba, the State Department recommends that U.S. travelers avoid the hotel. Saying there is no danger, the hotel has returned the room to its inventory, and tour groups from the U.S. still regularly book rooms at the Nacional.
Despite the symbolism of the Malecón as “the last stand against the other side, the ultimate frontier,” says Portocarero, “on Saturday nights we choose to ignore it. So we turn toward the city and just have a good time.”
In addition to the endless possibilities for people-watching from a perch on the Malecón, nature in all its glory or wrath, from fiery sunsets to gargantuan waves that come crashing over the wall when a cold front moves in, is on display.
Sometimes it’s just an entertaining meteorological phenomenon, a cause for endless selfies or playing chicken with the waves. During a cold front last November, girls staged an impromptu dance in the waves and cars skidded through the mist even though portions of the seaside highway had been closed.
In “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” Carlos Eire’s memoir of his boyhood in Havana, he recalls piling into the family car with his friends when the salty waves were high to be “swallowed by the breakers.” Car surfing they called it.
But other times, the waves are too strong, sometimes 20 to 30 feet high, and they penetrate blocks inland, causing flooding. Cubans sometimes say it means that Yemayá, the orisha or goddess of the ocean in the Santeria religion and the patroness of sailors, is angry. Last year, Cuba experienced 11 cold fronts, three in January alone — making the first month of 2018 the coldest January since 2011.
Just before Christmas this year, the waves also came crashing over the seawall and the water penetrated blocks inland, damaging businesses and homes near the Malecón. When Hurricane Irma hit Cuba’s north coast in September 2017, waves more than 30 feet high swamped buildings along the Malecón, stripping away their paint, breaking windows and causing some collapses.
Among ideas that have been discussed to cut down on flooding are raising the height of the wall to 1.25 meters (4.1 feet) above the sidewalk and constructing seawalls off the coast. New buildings must be constructed of more water-resistant materials, and while retaining the architectural integrity of older buildings, ground levels also must be raised and such spaces be used only for commercial, not residential, purposes.
Across the Bay
One of the best vantage points to see the sweep of the Malecón is from across the bay in Regla.
Thousands of Cubans flock to the Church of Nuestra Señora de Regla, which sits just above the ferry dock, every Sept. 7 to venerate La Santísima Virgen de Regla, a black Madonna also associated with Yemayá, on her feast day.
On other days, entrepreneurial Cubans sit outside the church selling flowers or offering to read visitors’ fortunes or perform ritual cleansings.
Because of long life expectancies, a low birth rate, and out-migration by younger Cubans, the island has the oldest population in the Americas.
More than 20 percent of the population is 60 years or older.
Average life expectancy for a Cuban is 78.45 years — 80.45 years for women and 76.5 years for men.
But Cuban leaders know the future belongs to the young.
In his Jan. 1 speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Raúl Castro, the 87-year-old head of the Communist Party of Cuba, said: “The revolutionary process is not circumscribed to the biological lifetime of those who have initiated it, but to the will and commitment of the young people who ensure its continuity.
“The new generations have the duty to ensure that the Cuban Revolution is forever a revolution of young people.”
Whether that message resonates with Cuba’s younger generation remains to be seen.
Havana at 500
As the government commemorates 60 years of the Castro revolution, the capital city of Havana is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its founding. On Nov. 16, 1519, Diego Velázquez established Havana in its current location.
Since the 1982 designation of Old Havana and its fortifications as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Office of the City Historian has slowly been refurbishing the centuries-old architectural gems of the old city. But in recognition of the 500th anniversary, other projects and initiatives have kicked into high gear or are nearing completion.
The final touches of the restoration of El Capitolio will be completed this year. Although permanent commissions of the National Assembly of People’s Power have already moved into offices in the building, the legislative chamber is too small to accommodate all 605 National Assembly deputies, so the number of deputies will have to be reduced at some time in the future or the National Assembly will continue meeting in the Convention Palace on the outskirts of Havana.
Other projects range from completion of new hotels and setting up a Railway Museum of Cuba in Old Havana to restoring the first meeting place of Cuba’s House of Representatives and launching the capital city’s first bicycle-sharing operation.
The city also will be holding the 13th Havana Biennial along the Malecón and Paseo del Prado in 2019.
Although Cuba missed its 2018 target of 5 million international visitors, welcoming instead 4.75 million, tourism officials hope the Biennial and other events associated with the 500th anniversary of the city will help boost international arrivals in 2019 to 5.1 million.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi