Havana Libre: Smartphones, Socialism, Futurism.

The reason 50’s futurism fizzled out, the story goes, is because we chose to pursue communicative technology instead of transportation tech. We have IPhones instead of teleporters, exploding Samsungs instead of Fords falling out of the sky. It’s true—though when visiting Cuba, with its somewhat maintained 50’s architecture, one realizes this is not the entire story. There is an aspect of utopia in all mid-century futurism. But this hopeful element is a disavowal of itself. The architecture promises a post-scarcity world, yet it is inseparable from the system that built it, a capitalism that demands artificial shortages and discrimination. The style provokes—overwhelming nostalgia, indescribable anger, uncontrollable laughter. In this emotion, there is a danger to the dominant economic order, however miniscule. Better to abandon the whole charade, replace it with something more manageable—technologies whose utopian promise comes not from its form but from the insistence of its corporate creators. This isn’t to suggest some grand conspiracy, that a cabal consciously switched our path—just that capital mutates itself and society to insure its survival. Modern technology refuses to express the alienation it has accelerated.

Flying Saucer or Water Tower?

The Habana Libre Hotel, formerly the Havana Hilton, is a particularly enjoyable piece of 50’s futurism, with a grand foyer that includes a Flintstones-looking interior pond surrounded by plastic plants lit via strategically placed light orbs. Though seemingly ceiling-less like a post-modernist Portman monstrosity, it has none of the invocations of late capital, none of the overwhelming feeling that money is moving somewhere above, though god knows where or how. The attached restaurant looks like something you’d see out on Route 66—the lack of turquoise mini-skirts is the only thing saving it from kitsch. The Cuban government has restored but not renovated the interior, freezing the building in its non-existent future. The reason for this stay of construction is not the U.S. embargo, as most Americans believe, but a Castro-era law that bans eviction and demolitions within cities. What are melancholic remnants in the United States still dominate the Havana landscape, ghostly utopian figures built by exploitative mobsters. A mile west from the Habana Libre and a couple blocks closer to the coast sits the Riviera. Meyer Lansky built it in 1957, right around the time Bautista sold the country to the mob. Indeed, it was part and parcel of that fire sale. The mobsters are gone and the fountains in front no longer work, but the building’s revolutionary power is stronger than ever. Though not in the condition of the Habana Libre, it’s been mostly maintained, simultaneously a reminder of colonial exploitation and a stepping-stone on the revolutionary path to utopia. The buildings are the aesthetic promise of free education, an admonishment to prioritize universal healthcare over nationwide 4G. Back in the lobby of the Habana Libre, twenty-three floors below Fidel’s first office, locals and tourists alike stare at Samsungs, whispering prayers that they connect to the spotty wi-fi.



The similarity between the Cuban countryside, with its warm greens and soft browns, and its North Carolina counterpart is startling. Sure, there are differences—sand is more prevalent in the land of the pines, diversifying the hues of brown and darkening the overall landscape; Cubans prefer corrugated tin shanties to the trailers of the same material and cost found in Oriental. But the prevalence of the tobacco fields dotted with out of place deciduous firs, the three house towns, the obsidian-colored remnants of controlled fires, the unshakeable feeling, no matter how inland you go, that you’re on the coast—all of these things outweigh the aesthetic difference between cotton and sugar-cane.[1]

There is one overwhelming difference, however: mountains. The portion of the Appalachians running through inland North Carolina is wide and broad and filled with valleys, fully dominating the landscape. When nearby, one recognizes that they’re in the highlands. Contrast this with the Sierra Maestra, a range rising out of the plains, thin enough at points as to appear a single row deep, the spine of a sleeping giant ready to awaken at any moment. It lends the landscape a sci-fi air; the traveler feels like an explorer, their chartered bus a landing shuttle, driving through a virgin world where Marxism has remained dominant. Teenagers on horses leave their pink stucco homes, riding past propagandistic graffiti—“if we arrive, we win”—and spray-painted portraits of Ché. Not even the tour guide’s IPhone had reception in the area.


The classic cars that dot Havana are protected—the government views them as vital to the city’s fabric. The ban is a result of the boom in European tourism in the early 2000’s; visiting Germans would fall in love with 1950’s Firebirds held together with duck tape and ingenuity and end up trading their lightly used BMW’s for them. Around the same time, a taxi industry using the doddering Dodges became popular among tourists, turning the owners of the cars into members of an upper class—itself newly formed because of a quirk of the two-currency system. The currency for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Peso (or CUC), is twenty-five times stronger than the local peso. A tip from a traveler, given in USD or CUC’s, is much greater than even what a surgeon earns in a day. Further, in an effort to maintain separation between tourists and locals, places like museums, orchestras, theatres, even ice creams shops across the nation have two lines—a longer one for local currencies, and an express line for people paying in CUC’s. Cubans with access to CUC’s can choose either line, paying more for shorter waits and better seats, an explicit signifier of class difference where none previously existed. As the cabbies ferry tourists around Havana, they remain glued to their IPhones, drifting between lanes and ignoring the architecture around them.

The last night in Havana, our group took some of these classic taxis to the restaurant where we were celebrating my grandmother’s 80th birthday, hoping to simultaneously transport us across space and her back in time. As the driver shut the passenger side door, we began to roll backwards, slipping toward the Riviera, sliding down the hill we were halfway up. The driver, playing on his Samsung, didn’t notice the movement.


[1] This, of course, neglecting the similarities of the two with regard to their historical position as cash crops with all that entails, i.e. that for centuries the economies of the two places were tied to Europeans’ desire for sweetener and/or lightweight, breathable fabrics in a way that actively harmed the lives of those producing the products.