Cienfuegos: a Tourist and Nuclear City

Daisy Valera

Welcome to socialist Cuba.

HAVANA TIMES — The collectible stamps that came in Cuba’s EVA-brand cigarette packs, showing nude twenty-year-olds from the 1940s; a “Red Sunday” voluntary work medal issued in Holguin in 1984, capable of inspiring overwhelming feelings of nostalgia for a mere 2.00 Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC); the immense Coca-Cola signs, now very much in vogue in the décor of new private businesses on the island – these are some of the striking things one can come across in Cienfuegos.

La Fernandia, a small antiques shop in the downtown area, is one of the first telling signs that identify Cienfuegos as a tourist destination. There’s also its ocean drive, lined with palm trees and filled with bicycle taxis, on the prowl for out-of-towners.

It is also for tourism’s sake that Benny More, the most internationally renowned Cuban musician, appears dancing on a large sign overlooking the bay area or on the wall of a souvenirs shop.

Promoting Eva brand cigarettes.

In contrast to the self-employed in other provinces, the people of Cienfuegos have invested in restaurants or rooms for rent with prices no lower than 30 CUC the night, instead of opening food or clothing kiosks.

The city’s main attraction is no doubt its French-styled architecture, characterized by eclectic mansions boasting domes and bay windows that have no parallel in any of the other cities in Central Cuba. The Terry Theatre and Palacio de Valle (“Valle Palace”) are among the most exceptional edifices in the city.

A day in Cienfuegos suffices to discover that ice-cream cones are crowned with copious amount of ice cream, that city residents wash and sweep the city’s downtown boulevard almost frenetically as night falls and that local visual artists provocatively include the figures of Lenin and Jose Marti in their works.

The city borders a large bay. A ferry takes you to the Fortaleza de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Jagua (“Our Lady of the Angels of Jagua Fortress”), across the water. During the short trip, one can set one’s eyes on an immense sign painted on a concrete wall, reading: “Welcome to Socialist Cuba.”

Mr. DJ Alain Martínez

By the looks of it, “socialist Cuba” begins at the exact point where the fortresses’ touristy charm ends. Very few foreign visitors traverse the stretch of road that separates this area from the island’s one nuclear city.

A few kilometers from the settlement, once reserved for physicists, chemists and nuclear engineers, the gigantic dome of what was to be Cuba’s first Electronuclear Plant (CEN) slowly deteriorates, abandoned to the elements.

Access to this reminder of a colossal failure is forbidden. The community’s bakery (and even the hard currency store) may have been named “CEN” as a means of compensating those involved in the project symbolically.

What remains of the Nuclear City (and that socialist Cuba of days past) are its unfinished buildings, now empty and covered with painted slogans such as “Homeland or Death” or “We Will Never Surrender.” The locals appear caught in an endless battle with the glorious ghosts of the country’s past.

To visit Cienfuegos is to experience two moments of the Cuban experiment simultaneously. The historic monuments and Nuclear City embody and pit the pro-Soviet triumphalism of the eighties against the pro-capitalist pragmatism of our days.

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8 thoughts on “Cienfuegos: a Tourist and Nuclear City

  • Lots of rooms for rent in Cienfuegos for $20.00 per night.

  • Thanks for the comments. Can’t wait to visit Cienfuegos again and see other things I couldn’t this time.

  • As an artist, I find Benny More, who came to fame during the heyday of Cuban music, to be the greatest of the great. I’m sure Gloria and Celia (we’re she still alive) would agree. But you are correct in that today Gloria is probably the most renowned Cuban artist internationally. Unfortunately many Cubans live in a parallel reality where a “Castro filter” exists that only allows approved information to be heard and seen. Gloria is not so popular in Cuba.

  • When you describe the ruins of what luckily never was finished CEN, I guess you have never been to Detroit if you really want to see ruins not just physical but the soul of a city.

  • When I didn’t have the correct change the same thing happened to me, Bob, in nearby Sancti Spiritus; a young man insisted I take his seat. I did, but soon had opportunity to “pass it on” when a woman in her late 80’s or early 90’s got on the bus. I insisted that she take my seat.

  • ? Cienfuegos es la ciudad, que más me gusta a mi ?
    Que bien se vive en Cienfuegos.

  • No matter how many times I visit Cienfuegos, the thing I always think about the city is an experience on my first visit there with a woman while waiting for the local bus. I asked her how much the fare was while holding out an assortment of CUP and CUC coins. She replied that everything I had was too large and gave me a coin to use, probably 20 centavos Cuban. She would accept nothing in return other than a verbal gracias.

    OK, it was less than one cent US. But Cienfuegos still remains the only place I have ever been in Cuba, from one end of the island to the other, where a Cuban proactively gave me money and expected nothing in return.

  • Cienfuegos is a beautiful little town. Some have even gone so far as to describe Cienfuegos as the “San Francisco” of Cuba. I live in SF, so maybe that’s a stretch but it is certainly a charming town. It is interesting that Daisy described Benny More as “the most internationally renowned Cuban musician”. I would have said Gloria Estefan or even Celia Cruz, both of whom were blacklisted by the Castro regime.

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