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Issue #1608      August 28, 2013

Book Review

Cuba drawn in a softer light – Old Cuba, World Heritage

When artist, writer and former Australian Labor politician Joan Coxsedge visited Cuba 20 years ago she was fascinated by the Island’s historic architecture and prepared a series of pen and ink sketches as a record of her stay.

The sketches caught the eye of the Eusebic Leal, Chief Historian of the City of Havana, and he invited her to hold an exhibition of her work at the Palace of the Captains General in Old Havana, which houses the Museum of the City.

At that stage she didn’t have enough paintings to mount an exhibition. However, as she observed in her book Old Cuba, World Heritage: “I’d well and truly caught the Cuban bug and decided to return … 12 months later I joined the Southern Cross Work Brigade …”

By then the collapse of the Soviet Union was causing terrible damage to the Cuban economy. Ms Coxsedge noted: “[This next trip] gave me a chance to see Cuba from an entirely different perspective and appreciate what Cubans were up against after they’d lost more than 80 percent of trade in one fell swoop, made infinitely worse when Washington dramatically tightened its economic stranglehold by punishing any individual or business that continued to do business with Cuba, despite being in clear breach of international law”.

A less familiar history

Cuba lies just 170 kilometres off the Florida coast, and has a population of 11 million people. The colourful and often bloody history of this small island nation, in particular its long struggle for national independence, is described vividly in Ms Coxsedge’s “potted history” of Cuba, which is accompanied by a detailed description of the role the building, street or locality played in Cuban history.

The image of Cuba in the eyes of most westerners is dominated by the major episodes in its history since 1959, including the Cuban Revolution, the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, and in recent years the horrific treatment of inmates at the infamous US prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Author Ernest Hemingway’s fondness for Cuba and its people is well known, and in an ironic twist of history, the revolutionary Che Guevara’s handsome, enigmatic features have also become a fashion icon on many a T-shirt around the world.

Some Australians may know that actor Errol Flynn made a documentary in praise of the Cuban Revolution, and that Australian permaculture specialists played an important role in helping Cuba adapt its agricultural practices, after the bringing down of the Soviet Union cut off access to heavy mechanical agricultural machinery and fuel.

Far less well-known, however, is the fact that Cuba is the oldest European landing spot in the Americas, having been “discovered” in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who described it as the most beautiful land he had ever seen.

Cuba was invaded by an army led by Don Diego Velasquez in 1511 and it became a Spanish colony. In subsequent wars its Indigenous inhabitants were almost completely wiped out by Spain’s conquering armies. They were then replaced by Indigenous people captured from other Caribbean islands and forced into slavery, and afterwards by native Africans. As Ms Coxsedge notes, Cuba became the Spanish empire’s biggest slave-importing colony.

The island was soon famous for its sugar, tobacco, rum, and other exports from its hideously oppressive slave plantations. The plantation owners amassed immense wealth, but the Island was frequently threatened with raids by pirates. One of its smaller coastal islands, now known as “the Isle of Youth”, is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island.

Spain did not abolish slavery until 1880. Sixteen years later 60,000 Cubans defeated an invading army of 200,000 soldiers sent to crush a rebellion against Spanish rule. Cuba was then invaded by US forces immediately afterwards, on the pretext of protecting US citizens.

This triggered the Spanish American war over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Under the surrender terms of the Platt Agreement, the victorious United States was entitled to intervene in Cuba’s affairs at will, and to construct a naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

US President Roosevelt later revoked the Platt Agreement, but retained control over the Guantanamo Bay base, which now houses US prisoners of war.

During the Great Depression strikes broke out but were brutally repressed and followed by savage reprisals. Cuba became a haven for organised crime leaders, and a favourite retreat for rich US citizens. The stage was set for the 1953 raid on the Moncada Barracks and the final victory of the communists led by Fidel Castro six years later.

Revolution and architecture

Cuba’s post-revolutionary experience with regard to conservation of culturally significant buildings has been different from that of other nations. The first decree of the Russian revolutionary government, for example, concerned the preservation of historic buildings and monuments.

That was necessary because the initial reaction of some revolutionary soldiers was to attack structures associated with the Czarist regime or with the Russian Orthodox Church, which was seen as having been an ally of the former ruling class.

In contrast, most of Cuba’s historic buildings have survived, particularly in old Havana, Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad, its third-oldest city. Ms Coxsedge notes:

“For many decades (Old Havana) languished, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it was saved from the wanton destruction and brutal redevelopment of many cities around the world, including our own.”

Cuba’s early towns were preserved after the revolution, and their buildings have survived in a remarkably intact state, although many require urgent conservation work.

The Island’s oldest towns date back to 1514, and its earliest remaining buildings include a small church from 1519 and a house built in 1523. About 150 of its buildings date from the 16th and 17th centuries, and 200 from the 18th. Cuba was accorded World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1982.

The buildings depicted in Ms Coxsedge’s book range from the grandest major public buildings, which proudly display the ornate Spanish variations of 17th century baroque and 19th century neoclassical design, to humble shelters, some of which are historically significant for their former use by guerrilla leaders prior to the revolution.

Other architectural influences are evident, including the Moorish designs of southern Spain, and the architectural characteristics of its other colonies, including the Canary Islands. Cuba has its own vernacular style, and all of its national groups have left their mark on the nation’s art and buildings.

Ms Coxsedge’s sketches also illustrate the historical elements of Cuban town planning, including the early town squares (one of which dates back to 1514), and the narrow mediaeval lanes which branch off from its grand avenues, curve away and disappear, tempting the visitor to follow their circuitous routes.

A good read

Ms Coxsedge’s book is not heavy reading, but is nevertheless enlightening because it brings together the Cuban architecture represented in her art, the history of the island and its buildings, and her account of experiences in travelling to the island and getting to know its inhabitants.

She found the Cubans very friendly, but united in their opposition to the hostile demands of successive US leaders. That hostility has been echoed in other nations, including Australia.

Ms Coxsedge notes with regard to preparations for her exhibition: “Invitations were sent out, including one to our embassy in Mexico City, although no one bothered to respond or send a message of support. No surprise there!”

Ms Coxsedge’s gently rendered sketches lack the strong light, shade and vivid colours usually associated with the Caribbean, but they are quirky, idiosyncratic and charming, and provide a valuable insight into the rich architectural history of this extraordinary island nation.

Eusebic Leal commented: “The images created by Joan Coxsedge in a most effective way will contribute to the growing interest in the way that ancient travellers and artists of renown did with their books of illuminated manuscripts and engravings.”

With accompanying text written in the author’s feisty style, the book is a welcome variation from the mass media’s usually hostile description of Cuban history since the revolution.

Old Cuba, World Heritage, published by the Vulcan Press with the participation of the Australia-Cuba Friendship society, is well worth reading.

* Peter Mac is a former heritage architect.

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