5887 - Havana, Capital of Spectacle

Following the transfer of sovereignty over Spain’s ‘Ever-Faithful Isle’ to the United States (1989), the modernization of ‘the Pearl of the Caribbean’ reflected expanding US hegemony and economic penetration of Cuba. In contrast to the introvert colonial capital, confined between the city walls and the bay, and drawn toward terra firma, twentieth-century Havana developed in extrovert fashion. Construction of the Malecón - Havana’s new centre of social spectacle - opened the way for sprawling and income-segregated suburban growth along the oceanfront. WWI brought astonishing prosperity to Cuba. Havana’s population doubled by 1925 and the city expanded rapidly. Commercial highrise construction transformed Habana Vieja into an ‘Invisible City’ (Carpentier). At Centro Habana competing groups - state, private enterprises and foreign communities - vied for public spectacle. And suburbs were designed for a society ‘rushing to live in English and in motor cars’. Following the collapse of colonial class hierarchies, participation in the new market culture, governed by the normative standards of US hegemony, appeared as the only available option for Cubans aspiring to a better life. Everything Yankee was cool in the youngest republic of the New World. Prohibition time in the US was cocktail time in the Americas’ capital of nightlife. Machado’s minister of public works, Carlos Miguel de Céspedes, sought to transform Havana into the ‘Nice of America’. By the 1950s the North American ‘shopgirl’s dream’ ( Weekend in Havana, 1941) was only a forty-minute flight away. Havana boasted the world’s largest per capita number of Cadillacs in 1954, but its middle- and working-class population found it difficult to maintain their standard of living. The insecure economy and soaring prices encouraged conspicuous consumption and speculative investment. Batista’s 1952 Condominium Law radically transformed Havana’s skyline and fostered a spectacle of vanity. Organized crime from the US, in partnership with Batista’s government, increased dramatically its operations in ‘the Latin Las Vegas’. This paper explores the social, political and cultural developments that shaped Havana’s urban landscape in the Republic (1902–58).

Keywords: Havana, architecture, spectacle, Cuban Republic

Author: Philippou, Styliane (Independent Scholar, France / Frankreich)


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