Digital Granma Internacional
October 24, 2001

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.