“Things become unequivocally wonderful when they emerge from an unexpected alteration of reality, a miracle (…)” – Alejo Carpentier
Ahmed Correa Alvarez* (Photos: Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES — The new seven wonder cities of the world were announced in Dubai some days ago. To my surprise, Havana was one of the seven urban pearls chosen through what Bernard Weber, president of the foundation that organized the competition, describes as a complex voting system he called “a global exercise of democracy.”
The social networks immediately exploded. A Cuban from Havana, I am able to attest to this only because I now live outside the island, where Internet access allowed me to know about the contest and its results.
On Facebook, I saw how Cuban pride ballooned out of proportion as the event was celebrated and people set out to let those in doubt know that we are so marvelous our beautiful city could not be left out of the list of world wonders.
I am aware of Havana’s beauty and I believe it has more than enough charm to make people fall in love with it. But I honestly regret this decision.
The reason is not that there are dozens of cities that are equally beautiful, nor the fact that what the voters see in Havana is much of what pains those Cubans who experience it on a daily basis. The image for Havana published in the New 7 Wonders website is a 1956 Chevrolet and the Capitolio building, built in 1929.
Ultimately, it is a question of people’s taste. My regret has to do with the effect these kinds of awards have.
If we point out that Havana is a city with a lousy public transportation system and a non-existent communications network, or that its most important buildings haven’t seen maintenance in several decades or that its avenues are plagued by decade-old pot-holes, someone will likely invoke the US blockade – and they will be partially right. However, these are not the things that make a city attractive. Whoever has lived in a large city knows that large apartment buildings, financed by big real estate capital, tend to reduce links among neighbors, and that the magic of neighborhood life is displaced by shopping malls.
Una ciudad, como diría el eminente urbanista y marxista francés Henri Lefebvre, es sobre todo un espacio que se produce cotidianamente, que se escucha, que tiene carne en sus gentes, que se vive. Y de esto La Habana, como otras ciudades del país, tienen por suerte mucho.
A city, as the eminent French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre would say, is, above all else, a space produced on a day-to-day basis, a space one hears, that is embodied by its inhabitants, that one experiences. Fortunately, Havana, like other cities around the country, has plenty of this.
I don’t believe, however, that a city that celebrates itself, an attractive city, can also be city that deports immigrants from other provinces wishing to live in it, a city devoid of public spaces where same-sex couples can meet, a city where violence against women is commonplace, a city that is unfriendly to elderly people, a city that neglects the condition of the animals that live in it, a city without green areas, a city with many of the problems that aren’t part of the Havana of postcards but characterize the day-to-day, living Havana.
Even if we were to acknowledge and put aside these problems, we could say this award is a kind of timely balm – and I believe its effects are counterproductive.
Justifiably or not, we are convinced that we are a chosen people, extraordinary by nature, that the world revolves around us (and the diamond of Nicolas II in the Capitolio building), and that the city we live in has to be one of the seven wonders of the world, just as we believe we have the best mangos and the most exquisite coffee and our Capitolio is the largest. Such beliefs are very dangerous. We think so highly of ourselves that we can’t see the beam in our eyes.
Optimism and courage can help us open difficult doors, endure threats from world powers, make us smile in difficult times and make us fearless before our challenges. But an exaggerated spirit of self-celebration based on a feeling of national predestination isn’t going to bring us the happy and pleasant life we aspire to, neither in Havana nor Santiago de Cuba.
I am aware of Havana’s beauty. I know of the children that play in the same street and with the same toys every day, of the people who play dominos at street corners, about how life seems to smile at you and greet you without knowing you. I know the wall that runs across the ocean drive, the light-house that no longer casts its beam towards the sea but blesses the men and women who set out to invent a future for themselves in this old city. Perhaps because I defend its beauty, because I am convinced of its ability to make the wonderful real, that I do not find the strength to applaud and rejoice.
*HT reader and guest author
 A day after writing this post, I came across Fernando Ravsberg’s My Havana. I regret that some criticisms to his article invoked the fact he is a foreigner to discredit his opinions. I believe one is entitled to speak about Havana, and the whole of Cuba, no matter where one comes from. One’s confessed love for the city and its people is all the citizenship one needs.