Cuba’s Pedestrian Boulevards: The Illusion of Prosperity

Yenisel Rodríguez Perez

El bulevar de Bayamo.

HAVANA TIMES – The efficient management of Cuba’s pedestrian boulevards is today an essential component of the government’s assessment of provincial governments, yet another in the long list of bureaucratic fetishes that aim to convey the sense of a thriving civil society in the country.

Though the history of these urban promenades has always gone hand in hand with State politics, the degree of enthusiasm that characterizes the bureaucratic imaginary with respect to these places today stems specifically from a process that unfolded in the country’s eastern region between 2005 and 2007.

At the time, the city of Bayamo surprised everyone with a remarkable boulevard that offered affordable prices, services of acceptable quality and access to half a dozen cultural and commercial institutions: a museum, an aquarium, a chocolate house, an ice-cream parlor, a cultural center and an art gallery.

The envy of other provincial governments was awakened immediately, and an unprecedented enthusiasm led them to try and make it to the hit parade of such boulevards at the national level.

The first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Bayamo gained an almost mythical status among bureaucrats and their subordinates. Over time, the matter would become unexpectedly important, to the point that, today, all Cuban provinces devote entire budgets to this task alone.

Beyond the demagogy and politicking, what this performance conceals is the inequality that exists in provincial populations. It is the other, less visible and publicized face of the Cuban boulevard.

The boulevards that compete over the attention of bureaucrats and receive relatively significant levels of financial support are located in provincial capitals. Many populations, particularly those in mountainous regions, are left out of their circuits.

This situation in part explains the logic that sustains the success of these boulevards: a demand controlled by marginalization, exclusion and poverty, and a centralized offer that is geographically inaccessible for many.

To become intoxicated with these deceitful places, particularly from the perspective of domestic tourism, places us in the band of our corrupt leaders.

It is an illusion we ought to protect ourselves from, particularly those of us who live in Havana. In the country’s capital, with a population density of 2932.3 inhabitant / km² (representing nearly 20 % of the country’s population), government logic takes on other forms.

Here, the mobility of the population produces other forms of exclusion that are not as closely related to territorial issues, and the government’s demagogic strategies follow other paths because of the central nature of this government and its hegemony nationwide.

Ice cream store on the San Rafael pedestrian boulevard in Havana.

Havana’s most important boulevard, known as the San Rafael Boulevard, doesn’t set itself apart from its commercial and urban surroundings much. Beyond its status as a pedestrian street, it doesn’t aim to define itself with a specific commercial or cultural discourse.

Many people don’t know that this pedestrian street they traverse on a daily basis is a boulevard, and there are some who don’t even know what this word means.

It is only in other provinces that many people from Havana, unimpressed by the capital’s San Rafael pedestrian boulevard, end up enthralled by these bright places. The surprise factor comes into play and many of these tourists quickly adopt the fantasy and day-dream of local prosperity.

They speak of the social and urban resources of these provinces, allowing themselves to be deceived by the makeup applied to a pedestrian boulevard in the provincial capitals and forgetting the precarious conditions that all other municipalities endure behind this facade.

Captivated by these showy strategies, they put aside the critical gaze of common citizens and begin to scrutinize their surroundings like good optimists do. They neglect the poverty they are aware of and go away only with those realities that validate their experience as tourists.

This way, people from the capital give in to the age-old vice of weaving yarns and, from nothing, put together another success story for our bureaucracy.

Yenisel Rodriguez

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez: I have lived in Cuba my entire life, except for several months in 2013 when I was in Miami with my father. Despite the 90 miles that separate Havana and Miami, I find profound reasons in both for political and community activism. My encounter with socio-cultural anthropology eight years ago prepared me for a commitment of love for cultural diversity.