Havana: Autobiography of a City

Havana: Autobiography of a City

by Alfredo Jose Estrada

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Alfredo José Estrada's intimate ties to Havana form the basis for this "autobiography," written as though from the city's own heart. Covering the island's five hundred year history, Estrada portrays the adventurers and dreamers who left their mark on Havana, including José Martí, martyr for Cuban independence; and Ernest Hemingway, the most American of writers who became an unabashed Habanero.

Deeply personal and affecting, Havana is the accessible and complete story of the city for the history buff and armchair traveler alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781403975393
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/18/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,045,618
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Alfredo José Estrada was the editor-in-chief of Vista magazine, which is distributed in over thirty newspapers and is the largest publication for U.S. Hispanics in the country. Born in Havana and educated at Harvard, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Read an Excerpt


Autobiography of a City

By Alfredo José Estrada

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Alfredo José Estrada
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-11466-2


Hatuey's Revenge


To find a book in Havana, you go to the Plaza de Armas.

It is a postcard-perfect square on the seaward side of Obispo Street, shaded by banyan trees and royal palms. From the belltower of the nearby Church of San Francisco de Asís, which affords you a seagull's view of Habana Vieja,* it resembles a lush, verdant pool, as though foliage had flooded the cobblestoned streets. But this is deceptive, since beneath the canopy of leaves are marble benches, Moorish-style fountains, and carefully tended flower beds. At the center is a statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a hero of Cuban independence. Even on the hottest day there is a cool, salty breeze from across the bay, and the gnarled trunks of the banyans are garlanded with bougainvillea blossoms.

Books are a scarce commodity in Havana. What few bookstores there are, such as the art deco Moderna Poesia near the Parque Central, are usually empty save for Soviet-era technical manuals and hagiographies of Che Guevara and other revolutionary icons. Those in the know head for the Plaza de Armas, where each morning the booksellers line the porticoes of the colonial palaces that frame the square. Unlike their counterparts on the Seine, who have permanent stalls, the bouquinistes of Havana must display their wares on makeshift shelves or folding metal tables. There are books of every description, from worn paperbacks to tomes of calfskin leather, as well as old newspapers like the Havana Post and vintage magazines like Bohemia. Rain is a constant danger, and they have plastic sheets to cover their precious inventory in case of an aguacero, as the abrupt midmorning showers are called.

In the 1990s, the Cuban government flirted with free enterprise to attract tourists. This was the time of paladares, restaurants in private homes that served the best food in Havana, and jineteras, who offered their own fare on the Malecón. Vendors were allowed to troll the streets of Habana Vieja, and a flea market called a candonga was set up on the Avenida del Puerto, where you could buy kitschy souvenirs such as bongo drums or carved coconuts. It was then that the Mercado de Libros (book market) was established in the Plaza de Armas. It is often described as an old tradition, but there was no need for it before the Revolution, since Obispo Street was cheek-to-jowl with bookstores. Many of the paladares were later closed and the jineteras were banished to seedier neighborhoods, but Castro left the booksellers alone.

This might seem surprising, given the regime's predilection to control information. For example, access to the Internet is severely restricted and an e-mail address is awarded only to the elite. But a thousand flowers bloom in the Plaza de Armas, and many of the novels on sale are hardly required reading for the New Man. Some are the detritus of the nearly defunct Cuban publishing industry, recycled versions of what can be found at the Moderna Poesia, as well as the usual canon of The Old Man and the Sea and One Hundred Years of Solitude. But there are other books of doubtful provenance, perhaps left behind by tourists. One morning I found a John Grisham paperback in English, an Inspector Maigret mystery in French, and a translation of Danielle Steel in German. Despite the embargo, there were U.S. periodicals as well, such a recent issue of Newsweek and a Land's End catalog. There was even a well-thumbed phone book from Houston, Texas.

The Plaza de Armas appears in countless novels about Havana, drawing literary characters like a magnet. Nearby was Mr. Wormold's vacuum cleaner store in Our Man in Havana, and only a few blocks away, Harry Morgan docked his boat in To Have and Have Not. But there is no danger that the fictional world will supplant the real one. History keeps intruding, for the Plaza de Armas was bombarded by British frigates when they attacked Havana in 1762. It was here that the head of José Luis Aponte, who led an unsuccessful slave revolt in 1812, was exhibited on a pike, and in 1933 the American ambassador, Sumner Welles, announced the fall of the dictator Machado to a cheering crowd from the balcony of the old American embassy at the southwest corner of the square. And Castro himself passed through here after Batista fled in 1959.

The scene is much the same as in a print from the Illustrated London News in 1869. Then the statue was of Ferdinand VII, the Spanish king. The streets were unpaved, but the royal palms had already been planted and the Plaza de Armas maintained an air of serenity amid the bustle of the harbor. Today it is kept in pristine condition for tourists, and mulattas dressed in ruffled skirts and red kerchiefs pose for pictures. Strolling musicians take requests, and horse-drawn carriages pass by the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales on the western side of the square. Here the street is paved with cobblewood, wooden bricks intended to mute the passage of just such carriages. Once the residence of the Spanish governors, the Palacio is now a museum containing a throne intended for the King of Spain but never used and the bronze eagle that once perched atop the monument to the battleship Maine.

Between the Plaza de Armas and the waterfront is another tourist magnet, the Templete. Sheltered by a majestic ceiba tree, it's a mock temple replete with Doric columns, built in the nineteenth century to commemorate the founding of Havana on November 16, 1519. Inside is a vast canvas by the French painter Jean Baptiste Vermay. Entitled First Mass, it depicts the Spanish conquistadors celebrating the sacrament while the Indians kneel respectfully. Looking on from above, perched in the spreading branches of the ceiba, is a brilliantly plumed parrot.

This is the sanitized version taught to Cuban schoolchildren, just as Americans learn about the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock a century later. None of it is true, though there may well have been a parrot.


All night long they heard birds passing.

— Christopher Columbus's log book

In the sumptuous courtyard of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is a larger-than-life statue of Christopher Columbus on a pedestal. Sculpted in 1862, it is an indifferent representation at best, though we don't know what he looked like since there are no contemporary portraits. The most famous statue of Columbus is in Santo Domingo, where he fearlessly points to the horizon. Here he meekly stands with his hand upon a globe, dwarfed by two royal palms. The palace is often used for weddings. Bridesmaids dressed in crinoline pose on the marble staircase, and peacocks strut between the colonnades. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea seems uncomfortable in his marble skin, out of place among the orchids.

I shall refer to the man who "discovered" Cuba by the anglicized version of his name, but in Spain he was Cristóbal Colón. As a brand, Columbus ranks with Coca-Cola. In the United States he has a day of his own, October 12, complete with a parade; in Latin America it is observed as Dia de la Raza. The Quincentennial of his arrival in the Americas was celebrated with much hoopla and auctioned off to corporate sponsors — Budweiser was the "official beer." A movie was even made starring French actor Gerard Depardieu called 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. Yet his statue in Havana has a somewhat guarded expression. What is he hiding from us?

Quite a bit, actually. There are nearly as many conspiracy theories about Columbus as about his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci. Despite conflicting claims from as far afield as Poland, it is generally accepted that Columbus was born in Genoa, although he mentioned it only once (in a will he drew up in 1498) and there is no record of him ever speaking Italian. Columbus wrote in Castilian, Portuguese, and Latin. His life before 1480 is a blank page, and from then on, much of the traditional Columbus narrative is patently false. For example, no sailor of the time worth his salt feared that a ship would fall off the earth when it disappeared over the horizon, and there is no proof that Columbus's crew was about to mutiny when land was sighted. It is equally ludicrous to think that Queen Isabella pawned her jewels to pay for the expedition. Even the date is wrong, since Columbus used the Julian calendar. Under the Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1582, the date of his landfall is not October 12 but October 23.

One problem is that the biographical sources are themselves dubious. The famous log book of the first voyage was transcribed after his death (from a copy) by Father Bartolomé de las Casas, who condemned Columbus's treatment of the natives. What little else we know of Columbus's life comes from the book by his son Fernando, who hoped to burnish his father's tattered image. Even that was lost — the existing version comes from an Italian translation. Another problem is that Columbus himself was very secretive, and often twisted the facts to serve his purposes. We know only what he chose to tell us, and even that is suspect.

Most scholars agree that Columbus landed on what is now Watling Island, in the Bahamas. Not finding much except for a sandy beach, he sailed on to Cuba. But the greatest mystery of all is where he thought he was going. Accepted wisdom has it that Columbus was trying to reach India (hence the name indios, which has stuck) or China (familiar to him from the writings of Marco Polo). But if so, why did he formally take possession of Cuba on behalf of the King of Spain? The Chinese had discovered the compass in the twelfth century and possessed the world's greatest navy. Their ships were as long as 440 feet with crews of 500 and ranged as far as Africa. Imagine the scorn of the Ming emperor at the thought of Columbus and his three ragtag ships making a territorial claim!

Columbus christened the island Juana in honor of Prince Juan, heir to the Castilian throne. This, too, is inconsistent with the supposed landfall in China. Why would he rename it? Also puzzling is the feverish quest for gold. Did Columbus really intend to barter bullion from Chinese merchants with the meager glass beads and trinkets that he carried aboard his caravels? In fact, he stole what little gold he found in Cuba and blithely kidnapped several Taino natives to exhibit them at the Spanish court — overt acts of piracy. Did he plan to start a war between Spain and the vast Middle Kingdom? It seems likely that Columbus knew more than he let on. Perhaps the possibility of a lucrative trade route to the Indies was an easier sell to the Spanish throne than rumors of a New World. Historians have debated this prickly point for generations, and will doubtless continue to do so.

Of course, Columbus no more "discovered" Cuba than he did China. That honor belongs to the precursors of the Tainos, who migrated from the Yucatán to Cuba as early as 4000 B.C. Archaeologists know little of the first Cubans for the simple reason that their departure from the world stage was so abrupt — within a generation after the arrival of Columbus, they would be extinct. Taino was their word for "noble," and not necessarily how they referred to themselves. They comprised a flourishing civilization that stretched from Cuba to the Lesser Antilles. The Tainos lived in villages of palm-thatched houses called bohios and played the same ceremonial game as the Aztecs, in which a rubber ball was propelled with hips and elbows through a stone ring. They employed a sophisticated system of agriculture, growing yucca, corn, sweet potatoes, and plantains in knee-high mounds called conucos, and had trading relations with the Yucatán peninsula and southern Florida. What few artifacts they left behind include bone carvings of ethereal beauty and wooden chairs in the shape of animals called duhos.

Columbus came ashore near a Taino fishing village. His description of the natives is contradictory: He noted in his log book that "in all the world there can be no better people," yet he thinks nothing of putting them in chains and comments that they would make very good servants. Columbus dispatched two of his men to explore the interior, and they returned with tales of a "perfumed weed" called tabaco, and a remarkably comfortable net for sleeping called a hamaca. They might also have returned with syphilis, though this is far from certain, according to historians including Irving Rouse. There was an epidemic of venereal disease in the Mediterranean a few years later, although Columbus's sailors might not have been the source.

Columbus soon departed and would not see Cuba again until his second voyage, a year later. He returned with an armada of seventeen ships carrying fifteen hundred colonists, to establish a permanent settlement. After making landfall in Hispaniola,* he left with three ships to explore the southern coast of Cuba, but soon turned back. Had he gone just fifty miles more, he would have rounded the southwestern promontory of Cuba and proved that it was not the Chinese mainland, as he still claimed. He might also have reached the site of present-day Havana.

This would not occur until 1508, when Spanish explorer Sebastián Ocampo circumnavigated the crocodile-shaped island in eight months and entered Havana Bay to careen his two ships. Careening was an essential and potentially dangerous repair for any oceangoing vessel of the time. It involved emptying a ship of ballast and hauling it on land in order to caulk the hull. The serene, natural harbor was perfect for this, and Ocampo found pitch on the rocks along the shore. He named the site Puerto de Carenas.

By then, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea was dead. Columbus was an archetype of the contemporary entrepreneur who has the vision to launch a start-up yet lacks the people skills to manage it. True to form, he was greedy and mistreated his subordinates, and the stock tumbled shortly after the IPO. The colony on Hispaniola fared so badly that Columbus was hauled back to Spain in chains, though he pleaded his case to Queen Isabella and was reinstated as governor. His final voyage ended in shipwreck as Columbus struggled with the mysterious, still-undiagnosed illness that would kill him. His last days are as mysterious as his childhood. Ignored by the Spanish court and embroiled in lawsuits, Columbus died on May 20, 1506, but it is a myth that he was poor. To the contrary, he had amassed a large fortune, like many a disgraced CEO.

His final resting place is one last conundrum. Columbus's remains were taken to Santo Domingo, but then supposedly transferred to Havana and later Sevilla. Then in 1877, a lead casket bearing his name was found hidden in the cathedral of Santo Domingo. This was enshrined in the Las Vegas-style Faro, a huge lighthouse-shaped mausoleum with 157 spotlights that shine a cross on the night sky. In 2003, a team of Spanish forensic experts tested a DNA sample from the remains in Sevilla, but the results were inconclusive. Like much else about Columbus, we'll probably never know for sure.

In recent years, his reputation has been so tarred by revisionist historians that Columbus is likened more to Machiavelli than Copernicus (two other contemporaries.) But during the Quincentennial in 1992, replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María were built in Spain and sailed across the Atlantic. Sponsored by Texaco, they can be seen today in Corpus Christi, Texas. One has only to stand on the rickety bridge of the Santa María, which measured about seventy-five feet from bow to stern, to realize the enormity of Columbus's achievement, and the awe he must have felt when he first saw the Cuban shore. In his last novel, The Harp and the Shadow, Alejo Carpentier has Columbus's ghost recite his own epitaph:

One day, on the coast of Cuba ... I said that one world ended and another began. ... I had rent the veil of the unknown and entered a new reality that surpassed my understanding, for there are discoveries so momentous — though possible — that by their very immensity they annihilate any mortal who dares to enter them.

His son Diego became the new Admiral of the Ocean Sea. By then, the meager gold mines of Hispaniola were exhausted and the Tainos had been all but eliminated by murder, disease, and forced labor. It was in Hispaniola that the Spaniards perfected the techniques of genocide that they would use so effectively throughout the New World, and there were soon as few as two thousand natives left on that island. In 1511, an expedition of three hundred men embarked to conquer Cuba. But when they landed near the present-day town of Baracoa, the conquistadors were met with a shower of arrows.

This time, the Tainos were ready for them, led by a man named Hatuey.


I saw there so great cruelties that never a man will see their like again.

— Bartolomé de las Casas

Today, Hatuey is best known for the beer named after him. His hawk-nosed profile is on the amber bottle, superimposed on a map of the island. Ernest Hemingway drank Hatuey, the beverage of choice aboard his fishing boat the Pilar. It is the quintessential lager of Havana, known popularly as un indio con dos canoas,* and has washed down countless plates of arroz con pollo since 1926, when it was first brewed by Bacardi. Now the beer can only be found outside of Cuba.


Excerpted from Havana by Alfredo José Estrada. Copyright © 2007 Alfredo José Estrada. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Illustrations     ix
Chronology of Havana, 1492 to 2006     1
Preface: Return to Havana     5
Hatuey's Revenge     19
The Exterminating Angel     35
The Time of the Mameyes     53
Don Tabaco and Dona Azucar     69
Priests and Poets     97
The Apostle of Freedom     113
Remembering the Maine     131
Republic of Rumba     155
Hemingway's Ghost     185
Havana Nights     205
Che's Revolution     223
Adios, Havana     245
Notes     259
Index     269
Acknowledgments     277

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