The Most Beautiful Ruin In The World: “Havana Without Makeup”

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“Not everything can be preserved.”

Last night, the Cuban Program Institute of Latin American Studies kicked off their semester-long lecture series, Cuba and Beyond, with former Belgian and European Union Ambassador to Cuba, Herman Portocarero. He came to discuss his book “Havana Without Makeup: Inside the Soul of the City” as well insights into the inner-workings of an island community with a rich culture and many contradictions. Staff writer Isabel Sepúlveda brings you the highlights.

Making the trek up to the 8th floor of the International Affairs Building with a couple minutes to spare, I sat with my notebook and free cookies and immediately noticed the casual Spanish conversation throughout the room. By the time people had settled into their seats and introductions were beginning, I came to the realization that I was quite possibly the only undergraduate in the room and everyone else seemed to have a great deal of background knowledge about the topic at hand. Though I was originally worried the conversation would go over my head, it ended up being one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had on campus.

Herman Portocarero opened the talk with a fifteen-minute overview of his views on the city of Havana, and Cuba in general, after years as a diplomat. He talked about the physical construction of the city, describing it as “the most beautiful ruin in the world” and discussing the history, such as the mass exodus of urban whites after the rise of Castro, that caused it to achieve that description. He talked about the soul of the city, which he believed to be in its authentic culture and people coming together, as well as the ethnic and cultural make-up of the people of Havana: largely white but with perhaps the strongest influence of African culture in Latin America. Having not read his book, I was not quite sure if these were the topics covered within, but nonetheless, it was interesting to see what he believed based on his extensive experiences.

He also touched on two key questions. The first: what makes Cuba so special? His answer was that it was a country of contradictions. The second: was it, meaning the Revolution, worth it? He believed, once again that in Cuba’s own region, the Revolution allowed it to escape many of the issues facing other Latin American cultures, such as high social inequality and high rates of citizen-on-citizen violence, though at an expense. He seemed critical of the system he viewed, but ultimately respectful of the culture he had been living in for so many years.

The rest of the talk was dominated by a question and answer section, to which Portocarero brought his unique perspective to matters diverse as the arts, the emerging Cuban real estate market, current US-Cuba relationships, infrastructure, and problems facing Cubans in the future. Combined with the expertise of Cubans and other scholars in the room, the hour and a half of Q&A was a fascinating look into a cross-section of Cuban issues. Here are some of the highlights.

In a question on the pressing matter of US-Cuba relations, with special consideration of the recent sickness of American and Canadian diplomats followed by the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from the US embassy, Portocarero expressed his disappointment that it had come to this and that he thinks the bout of sickness was not intentional on behalf of the Cuban government, perhaps a malfunction of security equipment. However, he expressed hope that Cuban and US society will expand together, even if politicians do not.

He also spoke about the psychology of the Castro brothers as Cuban leaders and the political class as a whole. Citing specific moments of conversation with these controversial figures, as well as referring to them by their first names, Portocarero illustrated just how close and knowledgeable he was about these figures. He spoke of their desire to roll back reforms in order to leave their mark on society while leaving the younger generation as they wished and how this translated into modern bans on independent lawyers.

Finally, in many questions he spoke to Cuba’s future, and Havana’s in particular. He said that not everything can be preserved. From beautiful city blocks that need to make way for new development to an increase in capitalist reform, Portocarero spoke of changes already made, such as the opening of a legal real estate market, and those that needed to be done to propel Cuba forward, such as increased investment in infrastructure.

At the end of the discussion, I felt knowledgeable about Cuba in a way I never had before, having gotten an intimate look into the inner workings of a country I had only read about in news stories. Afterward, there were copies of his book for sale, as well as free copies of the Cuban Program’s book about US-Cuba relations under Obama. I made sure to grab one of the latter, as well as a schedule for the rest of the lecture series. If you have a spare few hours during the semester and any interest at all in Latin America, I would highly suggest you check out one of these lectures; if they’re anything like this one, they’re sure to be worth it.

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