Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vintage Views: Havana in the 1930s

From Hollywood, California, in the 1920s, we now move southeast into the Caribbean Sea and make landfall at Havana, Cuba--“the Paris of the Caribbean”--a decade later.

By this point, Cuba had recovered from the Spanish-American War and its subsequent occupation by U.S. troops, which ended in 1902 (although the United States maintained the right to intervene militarily in the future). It had been declared an independent nation in 1902, and for the next couple of decades enjoyed relative peace. But in the early ’30s, revolution broke out in Cuba to topple industrialist-turned-president Gerardo Machado, who critics said had become despotic in his governance, and who--in the wake of terrorist attacks reportedly committed by Communists--had declared martial law in hopes of restoring peace. With the intervention of Sumner Welles, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of state for Latin American Affairs (and later under secretary of state), Machado was deposed in 1933.

Havana’s construction industry boomed in the ’30s as the country’s middle class burgeoned in size and new apartment buildings had to be raised all over the city. Tourism was also on the rise during that decade, with hotels, casinos, and nightclubs opening to welcome visitors from the States and elsewhere. It was in the ’30s too, though, that gangsters from the States began infiltrating this “largest island of the West Indies.”

Someday, after U.S. lawmakers finally concede that the Cuban embargo--in place now for the last 51 years, and still vigorously supported by American right-wingers--is doing neither country a lick of good, perhaps I can visit Havana. The many photographs I’ve seen of it make the city look both fascinating for its history and intriguing for its street scene. In the meantime, though, I shall have to be happy with those photos and with old films like this one.

Next time, we’ll go sightseeing in Depression-era Chicago.

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