Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro stunned the world on December 17, 2014, when they announced that the United States and Cuba would restore diplomatic relations after 55 years of estrangement. The news incited jubilation on the streets of Havana and condemnation in Miami from the dwindling cadre of hard-liners who oppose interaction with the island’s Communist regime. Among a growing majority of Americans, the reaction was “It’s about time,” though I, for one, did not expect such sweeping changes while anyone named Castro still held power. Besides plans to open an embassy in Havana, the White House laid out a menu of changes to be made by executive action, including relaxing travel restrictions, broadening categories of approved export and import products, and permitting U.S. financial institutions to operate in Cuba (with the use of credit cards, for example).
As the implications of détente sink in, I pause to consider what it might mean for architecture—its practice, appreciation, and preservation—in Cuba. The island nation is rightly proud of its architectural legacy, older by a century than anything in North America and unrivaled in quality right through Midcentury Modernism, including radical experimentation during the first decade after the 1959 revolution. But the economic embargo imposed by the United States in 1960 and failures of the socialist economy slowed architectural production in Cuba in the 1970s and ’80s; since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of East Bloc subsidies, the island’s rich built heritage has been on an inexorable slide toward demolition by neglect.