by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe

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End of the Cold War and Collapse of the Soviet Bloc

Over the course of the 1990s, the Cuban countryside was transformed. 

The end of the Cold War meant the total collapse of Cuba’s principal trade agreements with the Soviet Bloc.

At roughly the same time that Cuba was coping with this crisis, the United States tightened its economic blockade against the island.

  • In 1992, the Torricelli bill was approved, barring shipments of food and medical supplies by overseas subsidiaries of US companies.
  • In 1996, the Helms-Burton Act restricted foreign investment in Cuba.

The Soviets Opt Out

As early as the late 1980s, the introduction of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union – along with the democratization of Eastern Europe – led to Soviet unwillingness and (eventually) inability to fulfill trade obligations.

Because Cuba’s economy was so intertwined with that of the Soviet Union, the impact of change could not be gradual. Rather, it was a shock that permeated every household in Cuba.

The absence of oil imports, especially, threatened the viability of the country’s industrial, transportation, and agricultural infrastructures.

Cuba: An Oil Driven Country

Under agreements with the former Soviet Union, Cuba had been an oil driven country, insensitive to energy conservation or efficiency. In fact, 98 percent of all Cuba’s petroleum had come from the Soviet bloc.

In 1988, for example, 12-13 million tons of Soviet oil were imported and, of this total, the Cubans were able to re-export two million tons onto the world market.

In 1989, Cuba was forced to cut the re-exports in half and, by 1990, oil exports were cut entirely since only 10 of the 13 million tons promised by the Soviets had been received.

By the end of 1991, oil imports had fallen still more. Cuba received only 6 million of a promised 13 million tons and, by this time, the shortfall in oil and associated factors began to severely impact the nation’s economy.

The Soviet Union: Cuba’s Export and Import Partner

While oil was critical, other losses were also important since 85 percent of all exchanges (including agriculture) were with the Soviets.

In terms of exports, 66 percent of all sugar and 98 percent of the country’s citrus fruits had been exported to the Soviet Bloc.

As for imports, aside from oil, 66 percent of the country’s food, 86 percent of all raw material, and 80 percent of machinery and spare parts came from Soviet dominated trading partners.

Consequently, when Soviet support was withdrawn, factory closures became common, food scarcity was widespread, and an already inadequate technology base began eroding.

A Survival Economy

In early 1990, a survival economy was put in place.

Food became increasingly scarce. This was not surprising since, as mentioned, 66 percent of all the island’s food had been brought in from the Soviet bloc.

In 1989 alone, 51 percent of all calories and 57 percent of all proteins had been imported.

In early 1990, 100,000 tons of wheat normally obtained through barter arrangements failed to arrive and the government was required to use scarce hard currency to import grain from Canada.

Bread rations were cut from 200 grams to 180 grams per person per day, and the price of a 400 gram loaf of bread in Havana jumped from 30 to 35 cents.

At the same time, the price of eggs nearly doubled, increasing from 8 to 15 cents.

Tens of thousands of tons of citrus fruits that were to be exported were diverted to domestic shelves at the expense of hard currency earnings.

By early 1992, the price of many foods – potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, beets, and bananas – had doubled as pressure mounted for the state to reduce its subsidies.

Overall, food consumption was said to show a decrease of 20 percent in calories and 27 percent in protein between 1989 and 1992.

Clearly the Cuban population could not sustain life at such a minimal level indefinitely.

Three Priorities

Cuba’s leadership was determined not to sacrifice the social and redistributional gains of the Cuban revolution. They, therefore, decided to go beyond the survival economy to a second stage which would, if successful, allow the government to better living and working conditions.

The strategy was to concentrate on the three priorities which the government felt could sustain the country and, at the same time, continue the advances of the past thirty years. These priorities were:

  • agriculture
  • the acquisition of hard currency through tourism and biotechnology
  • continued Defense of the Revolution.

New Methodologies for Agriculture

So far as agriculture was concerned, two methodologies, in tandem, worked to stabilize both urban and rural areas.

Rural-urban migration and food security in both rural and urban environments were positively affected.

The innovations were:

  • an organically based urban agriculture
  • the introduction of agroecological techniques in the countryside.

What Happened?

Here are some findings from the first years of the twenty-first century. The findings will be discussed in detail in the future posts that will make up this series.

FINDING #1: Cuba’s countryside has been stabilized – despite insufficient rainfall and recurring drought in eastern areas – through the introduction of agroecological techniques.

FINDING #2: Because of the introduction of urban agriculture nationwide, urban residents no longer are forced to rely primarily on rural areas for fresh produce.

FINDING #3: Small farmers working on privately owned farms and in cooperatives have made major contributions to the successful implementation of agroecology in the countryside.

FINDING #4: The introduction of a diversified market-based system for food distribution has spurred increased productivity among agricultural workers.

FINDING #5: While agroecological techniques may hold great promise for rural areas in countries other than Cuba, their successful implementation in other locales is not assured.

Many Cubans now view farming quite differently than they did before the food crisis of the early 1990s. But we’ll need to further update the findings to see if they’ve had staying power as the century has progressed.

Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe



by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe

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Old Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. Since then, urban renewal has converted the outer ring of the former city center into a tourist sector.

The ambitious plans that accompanied Old Havana’s World Heritage designation came with an ambitious price tag. Consequently, restoration efforts were initially confined to a few streets, plazas, and buildings.

In the 1980s, the emphasis was on historic areas, and a series of ‘development axes’ guided restoration efforts. The focus during this timeframe centered on the streets of Oficios, Mercaderes, Obispo, and O’Reilly. Four main plazas also were in the spotlight:

  • Plaza de Armas, the site of the oldest Spanish fortress in the Americas and the seat of authority and power in Cuba for 400 years; a square has existed on this site since 1582

  • Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, home of the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco Asis, which has the tallest church tower in Havana

  • Plaza Vieja, dating from the 16th century, served as an open-air marketplace until 1835

  •  Plaza de la Cathedral with its beautiful baroque cathedral, the Catedral de San Cristobal de La Habana, begun in 1748 and finished in 1787, the year the diocese of Havana was created

Debate was lively in the 1980s. State agencies represented the “traditional essentials approach,” arguing for a strict and faithful compliance with the formal and decorative features of the past. Agencies and individuals representing this approach included the Cultural Heritage Office, the City Historian (Eusebio Leal), and CENCREM, the Center for Conservation, Restoration, and Museum Studies led by Isabel Rigol and Luis Lapidus. (See more about CENCREM below.) Their strict adherence to past design required the reproduction of complex details which was often done with shabby ‘modern materials.’

In contrast, the young design professionals of  the ‘Generation of the 1980s’ promoted innovation and novel applications of formal codes of interior design as well as the filling of empty lots with structures that blended harmoniously with their settings.

According to Segre, Coyula, and Scarpaci in their book Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, Havana’s problems shifted radically from the bureaucratic paradigm of the Revolution to myths about colonial architecture.

Several factors accounted for this paradigmatic shift. One was the collapse of the socialist world which, in turn, created greater political isolation for Cuba. Another was the dire economic rut in which Cuba finds itself in the 1990s. And yet another stems from an insecurity about the future. Taken in their entirety, these factors help explain why officials have looked back in time for planning and design solutions. The heritage-site syndrome and narcissism of historic preservation move in tandem with the ‘mummification and fetishization of architecture.’

In other words, the acritical reproduction of historic landscapes meant reviving some buildings which . . . really should have been ‘helped to die.’ Brilliant forms and spaces derive from these restoration efforts, with their modern pastel colors that lack historic meanings.  Images from the mass media zoomed in immediately on the new ‘colonial’ restoration, especially the film industry. Nevertheless, the problem was not one of color, but concerned issues of historic veracity given that such banal and picturesque perfection never registered in the collective memory of habaneros.

At any rate, as restoration continues, more and more tourists staying in luxury hotels in the core area of Old Havana open their guidebooks and strike out on independent walking tours. Look for “formal” Havana Project walking tours in coming weeks. But, for now, here are a couple of places you might come across if you decide to wander around on your own.

Passers-by often express curiosity regarding the Afro Cuban connections associated with the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced.

The Church of Nuestra Senora de Merced is at the corner of Calles Cuba and Merced. It’s sometimes compared with St. Peter’s in Rome because of its elaborate decoration, including trompe l’oeil frescoes. The sacred space contains an alcove lined with fake stalactites in honor of Nuestra Señora de Lourdes.

The church was completed by the monks of the San Vicente de Paul Mission in 1867, although work began much earlier in 1775. The interior nave and the altar are quite beautiful, and are unique among Cuba’s colonial churches.

La Merced was the colonial aristocracy’s favorite church for sumptuous weddings. Young people continue to choose its altar for their (albeit more modest) ceremonies today.

Thousands gather at the church on September 24 for the feast day of the Virgen of Merced. On this day, pilgrims are allowed to go to the altar to pay tribute to the virgin, who is dressed in a rich white robe, an odd syncretization of Catholic religious culture with African beliefs. (You might remember this blending of Catholicism with African religions from our post on the Virgin of Cobre). Some worship Mary in the Virgen de la Merced while others pay homage to Obatala, the Orisha goddess of the earth and purity in the Yoruba religion.

Tourists walking by are almost always seduced by a desire to peek into Havana’s oldest surviving church, the Iglesia Parroquial del Espiritu Santo (the Church of Spiritu Santo). The Church of Spiritu Santo (1638) lies at the corner of Calles Cuba and Acosta. It began as a chapel built by slaves and freed blacks. Declared a parish church in 1674, the hermitage granted asylum to those hunted by authorities during colonial times.

The sacristy boasts a wooden lattice work gate and a large painting by the artist Aristides Fernandez. In the baptistry, there is a font by sculptor Alfredo Lozano, and a gilded, carved pelican. There is elaborate carpentry on the ceilings of the main nave, and catacombs to each side of the nave are held up by subterranean tree trunks. Other items of interest include the funerary crypt, the sepulcher, and the great altar with its recumbent statue of bishop Fray Geronimo Valdes, also by Alonso. The spaces between the niches in the vault running beneath the chapel house a series of paintings of skeletons crowned with tiaras and holding miters. They represent the dance of death, but they’ve been almost erased by time and damp.

There is also a  large warehouse full of alcohol and other hospitality needs close to the Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara. The church, founded in 1644, was the first nunnery in Havana, run by a group of nuns from Cartagena de Indias (Columbia). The building is extremely large, a huge rectangle covering four blocks. It was once a slaughterhouse and later housed hundreds of nuns and slaves. It also served as a refuge for girls who didn’t have a large enough dowry to attract suitors.

The beamed ceilings in the church as well as the nuns’ cells are worthy of note. The large patio of the Main Cloister, with abundant greenery and surrounded by wide galleries with arches and columns, is an invitation to meditate and rest. There is a good view of the belltower from here.

Located in the second cloister is a structure known as The Sailor’s House (Casa del Marino). Constructed by a rich shipowner and pirate captain whose only daughter refused to forsake the religious life, it’s a typical Moorish house with wooden balconies. The ‘House” is now known as the “Academic Residence.” It’s a moderately priced hostel for history and culture aficionados.

This location now houses the National Center for Preservation, Restoration, and Museology — CENCREM — the technical team in charge of the restoration of colonial Havana. I can’t think of a better place for them to be situated.

As walkers move closer to the waterfront, the truly observant will peer behind a facade hiding the old neighborhood boxing ring; sports minded or resourceful travelers will go inside to view a match. Most, however, will miss two new gymnasiums — one where school children practice tai chi and a second where women take aerobics.

If you’d like to learn more about architecture and neighborhood restoration in Cuba, I have two recommendations. If you’re an arm chair traveler, The Havana Project’s e-mail series on urbanization in Old Havana will start shortly. Access will be by e-mail sign-up only. I also highly recommend a licensed people-to-people tour. Take a look at this itinerary and e-mail for more information.

Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.




March 8, 2013

Cuartilla Informativa: January – March 2013 Havana Project is happy to announce that the most recent issue of Cuartilla Informativa is now online. As many of you know, Cuartilla is edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores, and produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba. The newsletter is all about architectural and planning issues in Havana […]

Read the full article →


January 10, 2013

Cuartilla Informativa: July-December 2012 Havana Project is happy to announce that the most recent issue of Cuartilla Informativa is now online. As many of you know, Cuartilla is edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores, and produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba. The newsletter is all about architectural and planning […]

Read the full article →


September 28, 2012

Cuartilla Informativa: April – June 2012 A new issue of Cuartilla Informativa is now online  for your reading convenience. Edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores, and produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba, the newsletter is all about restoration efforts in Old Havana and Cuba. You can download it here. […]

Read the full article →


April 9, 2012

Havana Project is proud to post the latest issue of CUARTILLA INFORMATIVA, edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores. The newsletter is produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba, and is all about restoration efforts in Old Havana and Cuba. The newsletter is divided into two sections. You can download Part […]

Read the full article →


February 7, 2012

This is a guest post by Brian Gordon Sinclair. Many thanks to Brian and “Hemingway on Stage” for sharing the following with Havana Project. Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize Medal was stolen from the El Cobre Sanctuary, located just outside Santiago de Cuba, in the 1980’s. One version of the theft suggests that the thieves were not […]

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September 28, 2011

This is the last post in our series on Religion in Cuba Today.  For most of Cuba’s history, Roman Catholicism was the country’s only legal religion. Consequently, the Catholic Church had a great deal of power. The Cuban Church was a historic product of Spain, and it remained closely tied to the mother country until […]

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September 23, 2011

This is the fifth post in a week long series on Religion in Cuba Today. Our last post in this series will provide information on current events relating to Cuba’s religious life. You won’t want to miss it. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically. After Protestantism was […]

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September 22, 2011

This is the fourth post in a week long series on Religion in Cuba Today. Our next post in this series will provide information on the multiple belief systems at play in Cuba’s religious life. You won’t want to miss it. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically. […]

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