The capital's unique harbor has driven Cuba's economy for centuries. But with Brazil's help, the building of a new commerical port of Mariel marks a turning point in the island's history.
HAVANA — Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the unique qualities of Havana Bay half-a-millennium ago, it has been considered the singular geographical fortune of the island of Cuba.
Both the bay’s natural structure and its location, at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, prompted the Spanish Empire to make Havana the place where it would regroup its fleet before sending it back to Spain, loaded up with the gold and silver and other goods pulled out of the New World.
With its purse shape, the bay was the best possible refuge against hurricanes, but also pirates and buccaneers who, upon reaching its entry would be faced with a current that squeezes closed the narrow access to the placid interior on both sides. It didn’t take long for the harbor to become a shipyard where some of the biggest vessels of the era were built. Inevitably some of the most pretentious colonial fortresses would sprout up on the coast around it.
It has already been said that the city of Havana is the daughter of its bay, and that the historical importance, along with the cultural particularity and economic prosperity that the island once enjoyed, were directly linked to this harbor.
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The unique shape of Havana harbor (NASA)
As this new year begins, however, it seems that a new story is beginning for the old cove of the Cuban capital. The opening of a modern container terminal in the bay of Mariel (25 miles west of Havana) will eventually transfer to that harbor most of the Cuban maritime commercial activity.
At the same time, Havana’s port will focus ever more on tourism, to be converted over the next few years into a marina that will be able to welcome far more visitors than today.
This transfer of responsibilities from Havana to Mariel could mark a turning point in the history of Cuba.
A big bet
The aim of the new harbor is to become the epicenter of the Cuban economy, not only by virtue of its capacity (at 18 meters deep, it can host the world’s biggest ships), but also because in its immediate vicinity there will be a special development zone, governed by the rules of a free-trade zone, with looser regulations than those in force in the rest of the country for foreign merchants and investors.
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Raul Castro and Dilma Rousseff (Planalto)
Mariel is the Cuban government’s biggest economic bet, which is hoping to transform it into a modern commercial player in a country that has become prisoner of its own policies and infrastructures (which still exist).
The participation of the Brazilian government and of Brazilian companies makes it possible to make a reality of what is perhaps the biggest project in Cuba in the last 50 years.
The initial loan of $802 million, together with the upcoming extra $290 million from Brasilia were decisive for the project to move forward. In return for this gesture, everything seems to indicate that Brazil will have a major footprint in the new Cuban economy, thanks to the expected simultaneous arrival of Brazilian companies that can also take advantage of prolonging the maritime route that leads to the renovated Panama Canal.
When they cut the ribbon to inaugurate the harbor, Raúl Castro and Dilma Rousseff signaled a watershed in Cuba’s history. Mariel is opening itself to the world while the historical Havana bay, for centuries the heart of the island, is relegated to a secondary role.
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Havana harbor by night (Gabriel Rodriguez)
From now on, though we Habaneros will have a cleaner bay with more tourists, we will also lose the central position that made our city an indispensable reference point in both Cuban history and the history of a good part of the American continent.
Yes, Havana bay today must pay the price of years of economic degradation. But may this historical transfer lead us Cubans to the better life that we desire as much, I believe, as we deserve.
*Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a writer and journalist from Havana, winner of the 2012 National Literature Prize in Cuba.