Cuba’s Pedestrian Boulevards

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

San Rafael Blvd.

Each of the provincial capitals in Cuba possesses its own “boulevard,” a pedestrian zone. It’s something that has come into fashion lately as even the poorest municipalities work miracles in investing part of their meager budgets in the construction of these urban esplanades.

The popularity of Cuban boulevards is due to a host of reasons.

They are one of the few public spaces accessible to the majority of the population regardless of the economic capacity or political power one might possess.

They are spaces for personal encounters and social interaction that the government doesn’t feel pose a threat to the civic order. Therefore, one can see people of all ages and interests socializing in the most diverse ways.

The boulevards are essentially places for consumption, the social function assigned to them by the Cuban government. However to the public, this consumerist reductionism presents no problem – to the contrary, they find it pleasing.

Of course there are occasional exceptions. From time to time, street plays or other types of public performances are presented, but these are cultural experiences of low intensity impact.

Local visitors recognize stereotypically that they’re participating in something important, something that justifies their family stroll, but deep down it is reduced to the enjoyment of a performance.

The true experience exists in these sites for consuming and socializing that people generate for themselves.

On the other hand, it’s “curious” that there still exists a condescending posture on the part of the Cuban government with respect to these spaces of civic gathering, yet there also exists a poor presence of outdoor bars and taverns accessible to the average citizen. This situation alerts us to the existence of a persevering attitude of government vigilance towards such forms of popular ethylic gregariousness.

Despite everything, people have a good time. They feel like they live in society and that they have succeeded in escaping the state institutional or family environments to which they’re confined from Monday to Friday.

Obispo St.

Each provincial city has its boulevard — some more high tech, others more artistic, a few very precarious — all are filled with people and life.

But the boulevards represent something additional. They are also an expression of the centralist structure that characterizes Cuban society. In provinces other than Havana, provincial capitals exercise a tremendous political-administrative influence over the rest of the municipalities in those provinces.

This becomes explicit in the boulevards. In these walkways are concentrated many of the social services programs that the government offers to the people, services that are directed at average citizens.

Let’s think then about those people who live dozens of miles from their provincial capital and the effort they have to make to access the services and consumer goods that are offered there.

That’s why the mass presence of people in non-Havana boulevards can also be interpreted as a Mecca resulting from the monthly pilgrimage of Cuban families delighting their spiritual appetites with the tidbits and goodies subsidized by the state deities.

The provincial boulevard in Havana itself differs a great deal from the rest of the country’s boulevards. Here we experience other paths to consumerism and centralization. Havana’s boulevard — San Rafael — is like any other commercial street in the city; its only distinguishing feature is the excessively obvious fact that it’s free of automobile traffic.

But there’s another boulevard, one that’s not a part of the government policy toward these spaces. It’s the one that serves as the provincial boulevard in Havana. We’re talking about Obispo Street, in the municipality of Old Havana.

Unlike San Rafael, this boulevard is a popularly used space initially designed for international tourism. Its use by local residents has been so successful that the Historian’s Office, the institution that administers more than 50 percent of this boulevard, decided to reorient the majority of its trade toward the domestic market, though that doesn’t mean that the strip’s aesthetics have ceased gravitating around a First World and globalized image.

It could turn out to be that the only “boulevard life” in Havana that makes sense is that directed toward the outside of the country, one aiming to model itself after Europe or North America, with their varying shades of depersonalization and individualism. This could be why when I go into the stores on Obispo I feel as if I were being escorted by sensual North African models while discovering a romantic European avenues.