Señor Capitol

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

The Capitol building in Havana is beginning to emerge from its long punishment. Like a penitent child, it has waited 54 years to return to its status as the site of the Cuban parliament. Visited by everyone, it was a natural sciences museum with stuffed animals — plagued with moths — and in one of its hallways the first public internet site in the Cuban capital opened. While the tourists photographed the enormous statue of the Republic, thousands of bats hung from its highest decorated ceilings. They slept upside down during the day, but at night they swooped around leaving their feces on the walls and cornices. It accumulated there for decades, amid the indifference of the employees and the giggles of teenagers who pointed at the waste saying, “Look, shit, shit.” This is the building I have known since my childhood, fallen into disgrace but still impressive.

Visitors are always captivated by the history of the diamond that marks the starting point of the Central Highway, with its share of cursing and greed. And on observing this neoclassical colossus, these same travelers confirm — what we all know but no one says out loud — “It looks a lot like the Capitol in Washington.”  In this similarity lies part of the reason of the political exile suffered by our flagship building. It is too reminiscent of that other one; an obvious first cousin of what has come to pass for the image of the enemy. But since, by decree, no architectural symbols are erected in any city, its dome continues to define the face of Havana, along with the Malecón and el Morro which stand at the entrance to the Bay. For those arriving from the provinces, the photo in front of the wide staircase of this grand palace is obligatory. Its dome is also the most common reference point in paintings, photos, crafts, and whatever trinket someone wants to take back home to say: I was in Havana. While they insisted on downplaying its importance, it only became more prominent. The greater the stigma attached to it, the more enthralling its mixture of beauty and decay. Among other reasons because in the decades after its construction — right up to today — no other construction on the Island has managed to surpass it in splendor.

Now, the National Assembly of People’s Power will begin to sit exactly where the Congress of the Republic of Cuba once met, a congress the official history books speak so badly of. I imagine our parliamentarians meeting in the chamber of upholstered seats, surrounded by the large windows with their regal bearing, under the finely decorated ceilings. I see them, as well, raising every hand to unanimously — or by huge majorities — approve every law. Silent, tame, uniform in their political ideas, eager not to offend the real power. And I don’t know what to think; whether, in reality, this is a new humiliation — a more elaborate punishment — in store for the Havana Capitol; or if, on the contrary, it is a victory, the triumphant caress it has been waiting for for more than half a century.


12 thoughts on “Señor Capitol


    REUTERS:Cuban blogger says underground networks changing society – by Stephanie Nebehay

    GENEVA – A thriving underground social media network is challenging the Communist government’s grip on power and information in Cuba and beginning to bring change, a leading dissident said on Thursday.

    But blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been able to travel abroad due to an easing of exit restrictions, said authorities were still trying to silence critics through detentions.

    “There is a network of clandestine information, the volume, speed and efficiency of which you cannot imagine. It is not in megabytes or gigabytes but in terrabytes,” Sanchez told a news conference in Geneva.

    “One family has an illegal parabolic antenna hidden in a pseudo watertank and can transmit to 200 to 300 families who pay a monthly fee,” said Sanchez, who has pioneered the use of social media to challenge Cuba’s one-party system.

    Those discovered with illegal antennas face confiscation of their equipment and television and a hefty $1,500 fine in a country where the average monthly wage is about $20, she said.

    President Raul Castro, who has introduced some economic and other reforms since taking over from his brother Fidel Castro in 2008, is ageing and a transition is evitable, Sanchez said.

    “There has been a growth of critical civil society, a new phenomenon, through audiovisuals, culture, journalists, bloggers and Twitter. It is no secret that the subsidies from Venezuela that have prolonged the Cuban system will also be phased out.

    “All this will accelerate change,” she said.


  2. Maribu,

    The Capitolio was built by Cubans, not by the US. It served as the parliament of Cuba’s pluralist democracy for many years. Castro shuttered it because he had no interest in pluralist democracy. It was never a Disneyland for US tourists.

    Ironically however, the government of Raul Castro is now angling to get US tourists to visit the Castroland amusement park.

  3. @Nick

    I’d rather says:
    The USA making a list of countries which sponsor terrorism is like a shark preparing a list of dangerous fish species.

  4. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, Nick, this is a blog about Cuba.

    Of course, wink wink, the UK has never committed any atrocities around the globe.

  5. The USA having a list of countries which sponsor terrorism is like the USA having a list of countries which eat lots of hamburgers.

  6. The National Capitol Building in Havana, the Palace of the Laws, has an externally superficially resemblance to the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Its Cupola resembles the one at the Pantheon in Paris. At the time of its construction the cupola at 92 m high was the third highest in the world. The Statue of the Republic located in the main hall of the long steps under the cupola is the third larger statue indoors in the world. This hall leads to the two chambers that used to house the Senate and Chamber of Representatives. The 1940 constitution was discussed and approved on those chambers. It will be reestablished in the same chambers, in a near future, by a Congress chosen in free election by the Cuban people.

    The area of the Capitol is of 43,600 m2. Of those the building has a footprint of 13,500 m2, the walkways 3,500 m2 and the gardens have a surface area of 26,600 m2. The building measures are 100 m long by 70 m wide. The Capitol building is a great architectural and structural engineering achievement.

  7. CANADA FREE PRESS: Fraud – Cuba Uses 454 Front Groups to Subvert Today’s UN Review of its Human Rights Record – by UN Watch

    GENEVA: Today’s UN review of Cuba’s rights record was tainted by “massive fraud” committed by the regime’s use of an unprecedented 454 front groups to officially register 93 statements praising Havana’s policies and practices, as revealed exclusively in a new report today by UN Watch entitled “How Cuba Hijacked its UPR.”
    According to Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, a non-governmental human rights monitoring group, “Cuba used hundreds of front groups to hijack the United Nations compilation of NGO submissions and turn it into a propaganda sheet for the Castro Communist regime. While critiques of genuine NGOs do appear, they are overwhelmed by an unprecedented amount of submissions by fraudulent ‘NGOs’ that, if they do exist, are mere puppets of Cuba and its allies abroad.”
    Recent UPR country reviews saw 23 NGO submissions on Germany, 32 on Russia, and, the highest, 48 on Canada. “For Cuba, however,” said Neuer, “the number soars to an incredible 454. This is fraud committed on a massive scale. Cuba is abusing the United Nations human rights system. As a result of its barrage of filings by hundreds of state-controlled organizations, numerous statements of praise taint the UN’s official summary, which now form a basis for Cuba’s review.”
    In addition, the UN Watch report raised serious questions regarding the credibility of the submissions by the UN Country Team for Cuba, which is full of praise, and the UNESCO submission which, aside from a handful of exceptions, also gives “a free pass” to Cuba’s human rights record. Only three paragraphs in these two UN submissions offered any critique of Cuba’s human rights record.

    Neuer added: “We also condemn Cuba’s resort to friendly tyrannies and non-democracies who took the floor today to deliver false praise of Havana’s abysmal record. The UN should not be a mutual praise society for the world’s worst regimes.”



    ABC NEWS: US Keeps Cuba on State Sponsors of Terrorism List – by Paul Haven
    A State Department spokesman said Wednesday that Washington has no plans to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism that also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan.

    That is sure to ruffle feathers in Havana, which vehemently denies any links to terrorism. Cuba’s government contends its inclusion on the list is a political vendetta by a U.S. government that has kept an economic embargo on the Communist-run island for 51 years.

    State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Washington “has no current plans to remove Cuba” from the list, which is included in the department’s annual report on terrorism.

    The report was supposed to have been released Tuesday, but has been delayed. Officials say it is likely to come out later in May.

    Wednesday was a holiday in Cuba and there was no immediate comment from the government.

    Peters said removing Cuba from the list would have a profound impact on relations between the two countries, but keeping it on meant that a half century of mistrust would continue. He added, however, that the wording used by the State Department left open the possibility that Cuba could be taken off in the future.

    Cuba is ostensibly included on the list because it has harbored Colombian rebels and Basque militants as well as some aging members of American militant groups from the 1960s and ’70s.

    One of the requirements for getting off the list is that countries publicly renounce terrorism. Cuba did that in April when it sent its condolences both to the American people and the U.S. government over the bombings at the Boston marathon.

    Cuba said in its message that it “rejects and condemns unequivocally all acts of terrorism, in any place, under any circumstance, and with whatever motivation.”


  9. Pretty brave reporting by Rainsford, that’s the limit a reporter can say without being expelled from Cuba.

    I noticed the freshly painted cells and new toilet and the model prisoners, who were either prisoners or members of Cuba’s police.

    Both this video and the other that was supposedly smuggled out of a Cuban prison a while back show wonderful conditions compared to the descriptions I’ve heard from Cubans themselves.

    The singing prisoners remind me of the musical patients in a model wing of Mazorra.

    At the same time foreigners were being entertained by model patients in a tiny section reserved for visitors, others were being tortured and starved to death in the main wards.

  10. BBC NEWS VIDEO REPORT: A glimpse inside Cuba’s high security prisons – Cuba has allowed foreign journalists to visit several of its prisons, for the first time in almost a decade, It is part of an effort to show improvements ahead of a review of the government’s human rights record at the UN. But access for expert monitors like the Red Cross, remains barred. Although fewer Cubans are being imprisoned for their political views, activists say hundreds of dissidents still suffer short-term detention by police, every month. Sarah Rainsford reports from the capital, Havana.

  11. MIAMI HERALD: Dissident Antonio Rodiles says network with exiles can facilitate Cuba’s transition to democracy – by Juan Tamayo

    Cuban dissident Antonio G. Rodiles said Tuesday his Estado de SATS movement is trying to knit together a network of domestic and exile opposition forces that will facilitate the nation’s transition to democracy.

    Washington should maintain the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, he said during an interview with journalists from The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, and Raúl Castro’s economic reforms are “minuscule maneuvers.”

    Rodiles, who left Cuba in 1998 but returned in 2007 after living in Mexico and starting a doctorate in mathematics at Florida State University, is the fifth blogger or leading dissident to visit Miami since the Cuban government eased its migration controls in January.

    The 40-year-old, who was detained for 19 days last year on charges of resisting arrest, said he plans to return to Havana in early May, then leave the island again for a trip to Spain, Sweden and perhaps some former Soviet Bloc nations.

    Rodiles said Estado de SATS, founded in 2010, is an attempt to create a public space where Cubans can talk about different key issues and create a network of connections among civil society groups and activists across the island.

    It has videotaped about 70 panel discussions on different topics and passed them around in DVDs, each containing three or four programs. Movies and musical performances also have been used to publicize Estado de SATS’ message, he added.

    One of the group’s main campaigns, Por Otra Cuba — For Another Cuba — has gathered more than 4,000 digital signatures demanding that the island’s government ratify two U.N. agreements on civil and political rights that it signed in 2008.

    Cubans abroad must be part of the network and can help by sending as much information into the island as possible — in DVDs, USB flash drives or any other memory device as well as other types of aid, he noted.

    Rodiles said that now “is the worst time to lift the embargo” because the island’s disastrous economy is already forcing Raúl Castro to make “minuscule” reforms. “The table is set,” he said, for opposition groups to “try to find the cracks in the system” and eventually ease Cuba toward democracy.

  12. How would you feel if the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC was a copy, or very similiar to Russian Kremlin or German Reichstag? I would feel terribly.

    I can therefore understand why Cuban revolutionaries has denies any politcial significance to this building for over half of thr century. The message was clear: we are not a kind of Disneyland for US tourists.

    The pragamtic reforms of the recent years allow to modify this message: it is not about the architecture, stupid. Whether Cuba is a US-Disneyland or not depends solely on the content of laws which will be passed in this building, not on the shape of its roof.

Comments are closed.