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Cuba: Decline and Decay

Cuba: Decline and Decay

Cuba Will Break your Heart

I don’t typically  write about decline and decay.  I’m interested in new, cutting edge, historic, artistic, interesting, creative, stimulating and yadayada.  If you follow my weekly blog you know.  Sure some times guest bloggers jump in there to write about fording rivers in Africa, pretending to be elephants to scare off the alligators.  I like these contributions because the stories are interesting and it is fun to keep blog readers wondering what they will see next on DesignDestinations.

This post is about the state of architectural affairs in Havana, Cuba and it is not good. Actually the situation is dire.  Wretched.   We visited Cuba in January 2014 on a Backroads “People-to-People” trip.  About 100,000 Americans experienced trips like ours in 2013.

What we saw was really sad.  Tragic.  Deplorable.  Awful.  It wasn’t  without its bright spots, but a lot of awful.

This was once a beautiful and glamorous and gorgeous destination in the Caribbean that attracted pleasure seeking visitors from all over the world. Loaded with colonial style buildings with arcades, columns and colorful windows, art deco  and modernist treasures, the city was a huge attraction for people from the United States and around the world. They loved the parties, the entertainment, the rum, the beaches.  Sadly….no tragically,  the architectural gems have been allowed to slide into a terrible state of disrepair. The photo below shows what Cuba once was.



Crumbling, Colorful and Controversial

Let me share the experience.  First, I’d like you to look at this photo because it is a symbol of my impression of the city.   Yes, you see a building badly in need of renovation.  But the spark of creativity and spirit of the people shines through with the mural.  I saw glimmers of hopefulness and creativity along with the gritty grimness.

Havana, Cuba

We drove by or walked by buildings like this…… the photos say it all.  It isn’t an isolated corner or ghetto.  It is the city. Ever since the Revolution and certainly even more so since the Russian aid disappeared in the late 1980s and Cuba suffered an economic crisis, the buildings of the city have been allowed to decay.

Sunday morning walk in Havana

Havana Cuba



 We saw it all first hand with Eleen, an architect, who works for the Cuban government who owns all these buildings.  Taking a Sunday morning to give us a tour, she showed us the kinds of buildings in which people live.  These are buildings that would be deemed uninhabitable in the US. They are bursting at decaying seams with people.  No plumbing.  Horrible.

Havana, Cuba



And then she took us to an example of a renovated one.  Lovely and comfortable.  Clearly Eleen was proud of this effort.  Unfortunately there aren’t many of these…a drop in the bucket if you’ll pardon my cliche.  Under the leadership of Raul Castro, some foreign investment and join ventures are being allowed.

restored building in Cuba

 Havana Restorations

Here are a couple of renovated spaces we saw. They were rare and special.

 Day Care Center in Havana


Havana, Cuba


Restored building in Cuba

We gawked at the huge structure that looked like it would be perfect for a St. Regis, Four Seasons or Hilton.  And yes, it is being renovated, But Eleen said this project has been going on for ten years.  Yep, you read that right.  Ten years!  When she told us about it, she shook her head and muttered something about “inefficiencies.”  It was clear she was frustrated.

Havana Cuba



 We learned that on average a building a day falls down…..yes, these are buildings with people living in them and they collapse.  The exception is after rain when it is worse.  We had a heavy rain day while we were there and learned that four buildings collapsed.  One of them could have been this one.  It’s being held up with external supports.

Havana, Cuba

 Not to be totally gloomy I did see some bright spots of hope.  The Paladars (more on them in future blog post).  Some bits of color and fresh paint.  A great sculpture.  A perplexing sculpture.  A church where the nave was recreated with faux painting……no money to redo it as it was originally.




 And in the neighborhood where our hotel was located, some homes like this one.  Of course, we wonder if these are for the government officials.

Havana, Cuba

I’m going to end with some shots from our walking tour.  I couldn’t help but admire the colors, the faded textures, the juxtaposition of architectural elements.  Viewed out of context one would say they are quite beautiful in a vintage sort of way.  But when you think these are homes for families and elderly and folks trying to get through the day and scrounge enough to eat, it’s heartbreaking.







While we saw extensive decay and decline, we also experienced the wonderful, resourceful, creative spirit of the Cuban people.  More on that in future

Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Linda Laughter
    Mar 25, 2014 Reply

    Powerful images. Strong but true words.

  2. posted by
    Mar 26, 2014 Reply

    A wonderful depiction of what is happening in Cuba. I found the people joyful, and very honest about what they face on a daily basis.

    The point that a professor on my tour made is that when the doors blow open between the U.S. and Cuba, they hope for cultural tourists rather than tourism that brings golfers, gamblers, and, he said, sexual predators.

    Thanks, Susan, for taking me back to a country that I’d revisit in a minute (hopefully visas will again be available soon).

  3. posted by
    peggy depersia
    Mar 26, 2014 Reply

    Shocking. I had no idea that it was this bad; what a loss. In such a grim environment one wonders what can turn the decline around or is it a phenomenon that irreversible? In a global environment such as we live in today, one hopes that such a culture can be resurrected in some form and not be represented by vestiges of former glory.

    • posted by
      Feb 19, 2015 Reply

      Have you taken a tour through Detroit Michigan?

  4. posted by
    Georgia Gietzen
    Mar 26, 2014 Reply

    Wow. Fascinating. I had no idea. Good chance Cuba will never be what it once was as things get so run down, hard to put it “back together” . . . especially with no funding. Sometimes better off bulldozing and starting anew which is certainly a shame considering the history.

  5. posted by
    Liz Smith
    Mar 26, 2014 Reply

    Susan, what a wonderful job you have done. Your words and photos say it so well! Thanks. I’m often directing my friends to your blog.

  6. posted by
    Mar 26, 2014 Reply

    Susan, when reading this blog, I totally felt the emotion you were expressing with both your words and your photos. It made me think about all the many countries whose governments are headed by other similar corrupt individuals…and made me also wonder if these power hungry monsters have any heart or soul, or even an ounce of pride in their countries. Think not.

  7. posted by
    Ann Cabezas Creed
    Mar 26, 2014 Reply

    Was in Cuba 12 years ago and dont think much progress in last 12 years for repairs the old beautiful structures. What a waste….of beautiful architecture. Thanks for the photos.

    ann cabezas creed

  8. posted by
    Mar 26, 2014 Reply

    Your photography is amazing! The pictures of the “homes” the people live in were gut-wrenching.

  9. posted by
    Joe Schmieder
    Mar 27, 2014 Reply

    Powerful story — pretty much in our backyard — only 90 miles from Florida. It conjures up many questions: What does it say about governance systems and economic systems? What has Cuba and the world learned from this 50-plus year experiment? When will Cuba and the U.S. move towards more normalized relations?
    As I prepare for my first visit to Cuba in a few weeks, I am grateful to have these real-life recent photos in which to reflect. Thanks for sharing.

  10. posted by
    Mar 27, 2014 Reply

    Susan – Much of this architecture looks like it was really beautiful at one time and I can imagine that if Cuba were to open up to the US, urban artists from here would be ALL OVER IT looking to revive it or create something nice from the rubble (like the professor that was mentioned above said…there’s not much architecture that is left in the US that is anything like this, so the idea of Cuba becoming a place for cultural tourism is a good insight). It will be interesting to watch and see what happens. Thanks Susan – your amazing photos and commentary have made me care about what happens to Cuba!

  11. posted by
    Cuban Creativity | DesignDestinations
    Mar 30, 2014 Reply

    […] a visit on the famous beach resort lined peninsula.  In the middle of so much decay and decline (see last week’s blog), this plot of land and the wonderful warm creative people lifted my […]

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