Later this fall , Cubans will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of their capital city—consecrated as San Cristóbal de la Habana on November 16, 1519—with two weeks of parades, performances, exhibitions, and other festivities. The city has been dressing up for the party for the past three years. Renovation activity in the historic core has been in overdrive, with the facades of colonial mansions and former religious buildings handsomely restored, and plazas activated with new cafés, shops, and galleries. Major civic monuments, such as the 18th-century Palacio del Segundo Cabo and the ornate 1914 Gran Teatro de La Habana, have undergone total rehabilitation. Most prominently, El Capitolio, built in the 1920s and modeled on the U.S. Capitol—but bigger—has just reopened after a multiyear restoration that repaired the limestone exterior, installed new building systems, and burnished the vast polychrome marble interiors. When I was there in June, workers were busy regilding the 49-foot-tall, Athena-like Statue of the Republic, under the dome. Even more significantly—after decades of avoiding the seat of the corrupt pre-Revolutionary government and convening three miles away in the Palacio de la Revolución—Cuba's National Assembly will now move into the historic chambers of the Capitolio. The symbolism of this, along with the recent installation of a president, Miguel Díaz Canel, who, for the first time since the Revolution 60 years ago, is not named Castro, suggests that political and social change may be under way.
The recent frenzy of building is fueled not just by national pride, but by economic necessity. The post-Revolutionary fortunes of Cuba have always been buoyed or buffeted by the actions of foreign sponsors and enemies, beginning with the support of the Soviet Union and, after the U.S.S.R.’s collapse in 1991, by Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, saw Fidel Castro as his ideological father. Now, following the deaths of both Chavez and Fidel, and the meltdown of Venezuela under the current corrupt regime, the flow of subsidized Venezuelan oil and other forms of aid have been throttled. Meanwhile, the long U.S. boycott of Cuba was relieved only briefly by President Obama’s lifting of sanctions and travel restrictions, which now have been reimposed by the Trump administration.