Havana’s oldest confessor
BY MARELYS VALENCIA (Granma International staff writer)
HAVANA’S confessor was waiting
on the other side of the wide
avenue next to the sea. He knew
how to listen to those who sought
him, never asking for anything in
return. Tales of the city, the
largest in the Caribbean, of its
inhabitants, belonged to him. That
night Mariana had decided to share
her troubles. Even her family was unaware of her failure in
love, but her silence was to be broken like the waves that
ended their cycle on the rocks.
Mariana looked at her confessor, sat down, and her gaze was
lost in the distance. In seconds she had begun a large
monologue, passionate like the love that she would keep in a
part of her soul until it dried up.
Her confessor, the Malecón (seafront drive), a wall of sadness
for some and of joy for others, a witness to Havana’s most
beautiful sunsets and transcendental moments of national
history, is currently celebrating its 100th birthday.
It was the city’s dream back in the 1860s when its inhabitants
totaled around 200,000. It is said that since the 1830s, one
of the country’s most illustrious engineers, Francisco de
Albear, drew up a plan to build a seafront promenade, but at
the time he was involved in another, more important project:
the city’s aqueduct, considered one of the main engineering
works in Cuba.
Albear was not able to see the aqueduct completed, or the
beginning of another of his projects, the promenade, which
started to be built in 1900. Havana had attractive tree-lined
avenues, like the Alameda de Paula, where aristocratic
families paraded in their carriages to take the sea breeze. Or
the new Prado, which became the most fashionable
promenade in the 19th century.
At the end of the century, before the Malecón appeared on
Havana’s coastline, various bathing establishments were
created. The most famous were San Rafael, the Campos
Elíseos and Ramón Miguel in Vedado, an elegant summer
resort for the rich, who traveled there in horse-drawn
The new century arrived with the promise of modernity and
the city’s inhabitants awaited the new avenue. So it was
during the U.S. military occupation that the work to move the
earth and build the first part of the wall, from La Punta
Fortress to Crespo Street, was undertaken. The objective was
to improve the living conditions and aesthetics of the coastal
In some parts of San Lázaro Street the sea reached the yards
behind people’s houses, which were constructed on stilts. In
some areas the rocks behind them were covered with waste.
This obviously did not offer very inspiring view.
In 1904 the construction of houses, hotels, societies and
public areas was authorized, and before the eyes of the city
modern splendor began to line the avenue, growing year by
year. With the opening of the Malecón, Havana’s inhabitants
at the dawn of the 20th century tended to gather at the
bandstand in that first stretch. The Municipal Music Band,
created in 1899, played both there and in Central Park. During
the day, new-fangled cars used to park around the avenue
and it is said that there was only space for the police horses.
The bath houses disappeared meanwhile the new Malecón
expanded towards the west. It reached Belascoaín Street in
1919; by 1927 it extended towards the east (from La Punta to
the docks) and the Avenida del Puerto was built. In 1921 it
expanded again towards the west, this time to Vedado, the
new residential district, then in 1930 it stretched from G to
12th, and in 1958 the work was finished with its connection to
Miramar’s 5th Avenue.
Since then the Malecón has been an enchantment for Cubans.
Although today it is a high-speed road, in times past –
according to the newspaper Diario de la Marina in 1937 – the
usual activity at the Malecón was to "slip softy into the desire
to take possession of the invigorating breeze."
Some publications from those years talked of the attraction
that the sea and the long wall had on women. Fishermen
spent days and nights with their lines waiting for a bite,
watched by a transitory public consisting of hundreds
passersby. It was a meeting place for furtive lovers and
daring romances; strict morals, an efficient restraint on daring
actions, exacerbated verbal passions.
The pounding of the sea and hurricanes wore away at the
original buildings. As early as 1937, a journalist describing
the situation wrote: "To a spectator’s eye, the number of
fading buildings, lacking paint or totally neglected, was not
Nevertheless, the journalist recognized that "the Malecón is a
magnet that always possessed an attraction that was hard to
equal." Anyone visiting the capital from abroad or another
part of the country has succumbed to the enchantment in the
air and the magical horizon.
With the triumph in 1959, millions of people filled the avenue
and neighboring streets with a storm of voices. Similar scenes
have been frequently repeated, particularly over the last
decade, as part of different battles for justice, as the Malecón
is also like a kind of coat of arms, it is the heart of the
capital, and all the more forceful when filled with the support
of its people.
Its seven kilometers in length seem to protect the city from
any injustice – from time and from humankind. But
indubitably its greatest attribute is its beauty and the feeling
of tranquility that is present at the limits of things, always
drawing attention to where they end.
Perhaps it is precisely that calmness that encourages folks to
tell it their troubles.
Mariana stood up again, her sadness left behind, part of it
swept off by the sea and another part bequeathed to this
unique confessor of sand and stone.