The Carlos J. Finlay Café in Havana

Vicente Morin Aguado

The corner of Beascoain and Estrella in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — The intersection of Balascoain and Estrella streets in Havana pays eternal homage to the renowned Cuban physician Carlos Juan Finlay. A statue of the illustrious epidemiologist decorates a nearby park, surrounded by several learning institutions, from secondary to university centers.

As was to be expected in a city like Havana, there is also a neighborhood pub, baptized by its former owners with the surname of the famous scientist.

Every 3rd of December, on Latin American Medicine Day, health workers gather in the park to commemorate Finlay’s birth. Every day, for years, drinkers met at the corner pub to celebrate whatever occasion they thought worthy of celebration in their inebriety.

Then came an initiative aimed at taking advantage of the large numbers of students in the area and the Café Salud (“Health Café”) was born. The beer and rum drinkers were replaced with students in search of cheap snacks, and the establishment began to organize promotional activities related to health issues, particularly for AIDS prevention. It was sponsored by the French chapter of the Médicins du Monde  (“Doctors of the World”) organization.

The initiative was well-received by everyone. Thanks to a hard-currency investment, the old bar was completely transformed: they installed new fridges and toasters and started playing background music. They even set up a karaoke. Young medical experts would interact with patrons in connection with different health issues. The prices on the student menu were relatively low.

The Café Salud seemed like a fitting tribute to the physician whose discoveries led to the eradication of yellow fever and whose legacy was the elimination of dangerous epidemics. Finlay always bet on preventive medicine. The establishment, as is often the case in Cuba’s economic ventures, lacked foresight.

Monument to Carlos J. Finlay

As these things happened in my neighborhood, I was able to follow developments up close. The former bar, transformed into Café Salud, occupied the ground floor of an apartment building at the intersection. The roof of the establishment had been showing serious leaks well before Médicins du Monde made their generous contribution.

The matter had been pointed out by the tenants, including the People’s Power delegate in the area. The State companies involved in the project paid very little attention to these warnings, gawking as they were at the generous hard-currency donation they had received. They opened the café, which bore the logo the prestigious French NGO.

A few months later, the sewage on the floor above the establishment did the roof in and put an end to this commendable project, one of the many ruined plans over the last fifty years in Cuba.

All that remains today is a cheap imitation of the initial establishment, without a bar for drinkers or a cafeteria offering healthy snacks to the hundreds of students who frequent the intersection of Belascoain and Estrella on a daily basis. The leaks seem to be under control now, but the lofty plans they thwarted appear to have been forgotten.

Somewhere between ancient history and the more recent plans, the establishment offers cheap lunches to low-income peoples at noon. The rest of the day, it is the stomping grounds of rum and beer drinkers, without the offers or services that characterized the early days of the Finlay Bar.

Construction problems and other hidden defects did not completely destroy the Café Salud, but they were enough to make the donors take back the equipment they had donated.

In Cuba and other parts of Latin America, particularly the Panama Canal, Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay’s extraordinary contributions to medicine continue to be honored.

Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]