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The Havana Habit

by Gustavo Perez Firmat

Hardcover, 245 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $28 |


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'Rum, Rumba, And Romance': A Book On Cuba's Enduring Mystique

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Excerpt: The Havana Habit

The Havana Habit


Copyright © 2010 Gustavo Prez Firmat
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-14132-0


INTRODUCTION So Near and Yet So Foreign...................................1
ONE America's Smartest City...............................................23
TWO A Little Rumba Numba..................................................53
THREE Music for the Eyes..................................................73
FOUR Mad for Mambo........................................................102
FIVE Cuba in Apt. 3–B.....................................................120
SIX Dirges in Bolero Time.................................................139
SEVEN Comic Comandantes, Exotic Exiles....................................158
EIGHT A Taste of Cuba.....................................................182
EPILOGUE Adams's Apple....................................................203



America's Smartest City

Sooner or later, almost no one can escape going to Havana.—The New Yorker, 1940

Although it may not be so any longer, for most of the last twocenturies the Morro Castle was the most recognizable item ofLatinamericana in the United States. Never mind that it wassometimes mistakenly called the Morrow Castle, perhaps becauseof the island's reputation for dolce far niente, or the MoroCastle, probably because of the Moorish influence on Havana'sarchitecture. Cuba was Havana and Havana was El Morro. Itsvisage on countless postcards, the castle's beacon, toweringabove the narrow entrance to the harbor, instantly identified thelocation as Havana, the gayest city in the world. That the symbolof gaiety should have been a fortress built at the end of the sixteenthcentury to defend the city from British buccaneers exemplifiesthe transformation of Havana from "Key to the NewWorld and Bulwark of the West Indies," the inscription on thecity's coat of arms, to Paris of the New World, Monte Carlo ofthe Caribbean, Las Vegas of Latin America, and Pleasure Capitalof the Western Hemisphere—as well as "America's Favorite ForeignCity" and "the Smartest City in America" (the last epithetanother creation of the Cuban Tourist Commission, which evidentlydid not mind annexing Havana to the United States).

The proliferation of nicknames highlights the city's appeal toAmericans, for whom the Cuban capital was so familiar that attimes it did seem like an American city, not "La Habana" but"Havana." In the course of a hundred years—roughly betweenthe 1850s and 1950s—Americans developed what Frederic Remington,a correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish-AmericanWar, called the "Havana habit," a custom that drew increasinglylarge numbers of Americans of all stripes—adventurers, tourists,businesspeople, movie stars, mobsters—to Cuba's capital. Someof them wintered there, while others came for a weekend or foronly the day. As the habit spread, La Habana became two cities:the real-world settlement founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllarat the beginning of the sixteenth century, and a fantasy city, apleasure dome with a life of its own that shared its location withthe city of brick and stone. This was the Havana of travel booksand tourist guides, of Tin Pan Alley songs and Hollywood musicals.Because this Havana was timeless, it had only an intermittentconnection to the often truculent events that took place inthe Cuban city. In the 1920s, one visitor called it "the first stationthis side of Utopia." Utopia, literally, is no place.

But let's begin with the city of brick and stone. Originallyfounded on the southern coast of the island, La Habana wasmoved to its present location in 1519. Its full name is SanCristóbal de La Habana: the first part an homage to Cuba's discoverer,Cristóbal Colón; the second inspired by the name of thedaughter of an Indian chief. At first, and for several decades, LaHabana was a modest village with only a few hundred inhabitants.Essentially defenseless, it was the target of frequent raidsby pirates who, however, did not find much of anything to seize.As the sixteenth century wore on, Spain recognized Havana'sstrategic position as the "key" to its New World possessions. Itsspacious, narrow-necked harbor on the edge of the Gulf Streammade it an ideal meeting point for the gold-laden galleonsreturning from Mexico and South America. Twice a year, theSpanish fleet would gather in Havana to pick up supplies andprepare for the risky transatlantic journey. To make the city safefrom the likes of Francis Drake (whose ferocity was signified byhis Spanish nickname, El Draque, The Dragon), large, sturdyfortresses were built, the Morro Castle most prominent amongthem.

Although the Spanish crown believed Havana to be impregnable,a century later the British demonstrated otherwise. At warwith Spain and France, England dispatched a force of severalthousand, which included hundreds of American colonists, ledby the earl of Albemarle. After a three-month siege, Havana fellinto British hands. (Bloody as the siege was, Albemarle recalledlooking at Havana through his spyglass and seeing the nativesdancing in the streets.) The British stayed for less than a year,until Spain agreed to cede Florida to England in exchange forHavana.

Though short-lived, the British occupation was instrumentalin shaping the city's future. Before the British took over, Havana,like other Spanish ports in the New World, had been permittedto trade only with Spain, a restrictive policy that benefited Spainbut did little for its colonies. With the redcoats came free trade(and also, unfortunately, unfree trade: a bump in the importationof slaves). As an English possession, Havana gained access toNorth American markets and North American imports. Oncethe genie was out of the bottle, it could not be put back in. AfterSpain regained possession of the island, it had no choice but toslacken the prohibitions on foreign trade. In 1776 Spain openedtrade from Cuban ports with the new American republic; in 1818restrictions on foreign trade were lifted altogether. Yearly portentries went from a handful to several hundred. The expansionof trade brought to Havana, for the first time, immigrants andmerchants from the United States and Europe, an influx ofpeople and goods that made Havana the cosmopolitan city it hasremained to this day.

After trade restrictions were eased, the United States quicklybecame Cuba's principal trading partner. Cuba offered sugar,coffee, and tobacco (a sweetener, a tonic, and a narcotic), as wellas less common imports such as lottery tickets and cocuyos, Cubanfireflies, renowned for the brightness and duration of theirbeam. The fledgling American republic offered manufacturedgoods, foodstuffs, and technology—from gas lights for the streetsto machinery for the ingenios or sugar plantations. Travelingthrough the Cuban countryside in the 1840s, William CullenBryant rode in a rail car made in Newark drawn by an enginemade in New York worked by an American engineer. By themiddle of the nineteenth century, fully two-thirds of the hundredsof ships anchored in the Havana harbor at any one timeflew the Stars and Stripes. As visitors liked to mention, all thosemasts made the harbor look like an American forest.

With trade and accessibility came the first stirrings of theHavana habit. In the 1840s and 1850s, several thousand Americansvisited Havana every year, including such notables as futurepresidents Grover Cleveland and Ulysses S. Grant. In 1853William Rufus King, Franklin Pierce's running mate, becamethe first vice president of the United States sworn in on foreignsoil (tubercular, he had gone to Cuba for his health). Two yearslater, a hospital for Americans opened in Havana. Dozens ofthese visitors to Cuba recorded their impressions of the island. Inaddition to countless magazine and newspaper articles, between1850 and 1899 more than seventy travel books about Cuba werepublished in the United States. These accounts reflect the fullspectrum of opinions. Many travelers, charmed by the quaint,colonial city and the easygoing ways of its inhabitants, resortedto the paradisal metaphor, as did William Henry Hurlbert inGan-Eden: Pictures of Cuba (1854), whose title is Hebrew forGarden of Delights. To a "New Yorker in Havana," the cityseemed "some fairy land, most jealously guarded by the mightygenii of the place from invasion by mortals of the outer world."The mighty genii are the Morro Castle, La Cabaña fortress, andother embattlements. Strolling through the city, with the scentof oranges and limes wafting in the air, this New Yorker thoughtthat he was strolling through the groves of paradise. Anothertraveler, a Philadelphian, approached the city in a small boat:"And now, beneath the awning, sheltered from the sun's scorchingrays, we enjoy the luscious sun-ripened orange, while oureyes feast upon the strangely beautiful scene before us: a scenemore lovely than ever our imagination had pictured; a reality exceedingour brightest dream."

Of course, ever since Columbus remarked that Cuba was themost beautiful land that human eyes had ever seen, the paradisaltrope has shaped external (and to a large extent, internal) perceptionsof the island. Furthermore, this comparison has been usedapropos of all of the Americas, North as well as South. Columbushimself famously claimed, during his third voyage, to havereached the biblical Garden of Eden, which he placed near themouth of the Orinoco River and described as having the shape ofa woman's breast. In Cuba's case, however, the paradisal tropesurvived as metaphor long past the time when anyone took it literally,and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,Cuba was insistently likened to the biblical Eden, sometimes seriouslyand sometimes in jest.

But not everyone who sailed or steamed past El Morro was impressedby Cuba's beauty. Because all of the city's refuse drainedinto the bay, its waters were usually filthy. As one traveler put it,Havana harbor was "a foul and seething cauldron" that was"smelt before it was seen." The city itself did not fare much better:"Havana is a great sewer, from which pestilential exhalationsconstantly arise. As soon as you enter this city, an insufferablesmell assails you, and never quits as long as you remain in it"(what happened to the aroma of orange and lime?). The beliefamong Americans was that the stench emanated from the mixtureof cigar smoke, garlic, and offal—a deadly combination.After some of the streets were paved in the 1830s, sanitary conditionsimproved somewhat, but the increasing population andpoor drainage continued to make it an unsalutary place, thebreeding ground of yellow fever, dengue, and other tropical diseases.In addition, insects were everywhere, especially the fearsomeCuban ants, "so large that they kill chickens by biting themin the throat." This plague produced one more nickname forHavana: "Queen of the Ant-hilles."

For the Havana naysayers, the city's inhabitants were "deterioratedSpaniards," "strange-looking people" with an inflatedsense of their own importance. As a rule, the men were noisy, insolent,and, most of all, lazy: "The Habaneros do nothing thatthey can do without doing." Their love for gambling, as well asthe scarcity of good beef and the custom of having white rice(most of it imported from the United States) with every meal,also came in for frequent criticism. Even Cuban women, whohad a reputation for beauty, did not escape unscathed. The sameNew Yorker who was enchanted by Havana observed that Cubanwomen not only dressed badly but were dull-witted, with "notone half that vivacity and esprit so characteristic of the Frenchgrisette." A fellow traveler was no more impressed by their appearancethan by their wit: "The ugliness of the women amountsto a vice, and is unredeemed by any quality as sometimes palliatesplainness of features. I have cried aloud for the beautifulCuba, but in vain." A row of Cuban women sitting together, headded, is "an awful array of hideousness." Richard Henry Dana,the author of To Cuba and Back (1859), the most popular nineteenth-centurybook about Cuba, explained that mature Cubanwomen fell into "two classes, distinctly marked and with few intermediates:the obese and the shrivelled."

For American travelers, the island was a contradiction, at oncealluring and repulsive, pestilential as well as paradisal. In this respect,they reproduced the general conviction held by Europeansand Americans alike about the tropics: a place of bounteousbeauty yet unfit for human habitation—or at least, for habitationby those hailing from northern climes. (According to JamesSteele, who wrote what may be the most vitriolic book ever publishedabout Cuba, "Where the banana grows, men do not grow,unless they are black.") Americans admired the island's scenery—itsshimmering seas, its majestic palms, its luxuriant vegetation—yetcringed at the islanders and their customs (bullfights! serenades!).They were drawn to the capital, yet complained aboutthe deplorable conditions they found there. Especially after slaverywas abolished in the United States, its perpetuation in Cubastained the island. Cuba was paradise, and Cuba was hell.

We should not forget that these appraisals of Cuba, whetherglowing or damning, were refracted through the lens of prospectivepossession. Like John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jeffersonbefore him, throughout the nineteenth century many Americansbelieved that the acquisition of Cuba was the natural consequenceof the manifest destiny of the United States. As the NewYork Sun put it, "Give us Cuba and our possessions are complete."During the heyday of expansionist fever in the 1840s,even freedom-loving Walt Whitman endorsed Cuba's "speedyannexation," stressing the economic benefits it would bring tothe Union. These sentiments eventuated in several offers ofpurchase. In 1848, the year that Mexico lost a large chunk of itsterritory to the United States, James Polk offered Spain a hundredmillion dollars for Cuba. He was turned down. In 1854,Franklin Pierce upped the offer to one hundred and thirty million,an initiative endorsed by his successor, James Buchanan,but they too were turned down. Although the Civil War endedthe talk of annexation for a while, Ulysses Grant renewed efforts tobuy the island, and once again Spain wasn't interested, partly out ofnational pride and partly because the price wasn't high enough.Finally, in the months leading up to the Spanish-American War,William McKinley tried to stave off the conflict by offering threehundred million dollars for Cuba. Not long after he was turneddown, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were charging upSan Juan Hill.

In addition to American efforts to acquire the island, Cubanannexationists, among them slave-owning planters who envisionedCuba as part of the Confederacy, attempted to topple thecolonial regime. The most serious plots were hatched by NarcisoLópez (1797–1851), a Venezuelan-born general who had foughtfor the Spanish crown against the forces of Simón Bolívar. Whenhe arrived in Cuba, López quickly fell out with Spanish authoritiesand began conspiring against them. After a botched attemptat internal revolt, López went into exile in the United States,where he joined ranks with the filibusteros, the name given bySpaniards to those who sought to overthrow the colonial regimeby mounting raids on the island. In 1859, with soldiers recruitedfrom Louisiana and other southern states, López organized a filibusteringexpedition, which was soon defeated. Again he escapedto the United States and assembled another expedition of fivehundred men, a majority of them Americans (including the sonof the U.S. attorney general), which landed a few miles west ofHavana, but once again the filibusters were routed by the Spanish.This time López was captured and executed in Havana beforea large crowd. One of the ironies of Cuban history is that theman who died fighting for the annexation of the island helped todesign the Cuban flag. Known as la bandera de la estrella solitaria,the lone star flag, it bears a not accidental resemblance to the flagof Texas, the lone star state.

Because of the debate about annexation, the American travelerswent to the island not just to enjoy themselves or convalesce in thewarm climate but to inspect a potential addition to the Union. Forthis reason, praise of the majestic beauty of El Morro is often accompaniedby an assessment of the fortress's defenses (the consensus:they would crumble before a cannonade from Americanbattleships); and descriptions of Cuba's rich soil mention howmuch more these lands would yield if tended by American hands.So it is, for example, that the novelist Maturin Ballou, the authorof another widely read travel book, Due South (1885), after extollingthe "Eden of the Gulf," concludes: "Cuba is indeed a landof enchantment, where nature is beautiful and bountiful, andwhere mere existence is a luxury, but it requires the infusion of asterner, a more self-reliant, self-denying and enterprising race totest its capabilities and to astonish the world with its productiveness."In contrast, William Henry Hurlbert, who shared Ballou'sview of Cuba as an Eden, nevertheless worried that a barefooted,barefaced Cuban peasant "might perhaps, at no distant day, beinflicted upon our own unfortunate Congress, as a representativefrom the sovereign State of Cuba!"

Whatever their outlook, the travelers who recorded their impressionsmade Havana familiar, a back-of-the-mind presencethat no longer needed to be described in detail. As someonepointed out, "The city of Havana has been so often describedthat its streets, its shops, its customs, its houses, its family andsocial life, are as familiar to most American readers as those ofone of our own cities." Or consider this conversation betweentwo friends:

"Let us get away from this inhospitable climate, and takerefuge in some suburb."

"In what suburb can we find a more decent temperature?"

"In Havana."

"What Havana?"

"Havana in Cuba."

"Do you call that a suburb of New York?"

"Well, it's nothing else. It is right at our doors—only fourdays distant, and that's nearer than Albany was to New York ahundred years ago."

This was in 1883. In fifteen years, Americans would not only bevisiting this suburb of New York, they would be living there.

* * *

Although Havana was blockaded by the American navy during theSpanish-American War (in truth the Spanish-Cuban-AmericanWar), no battles were fought in it or for it. Still, the war and itsaftermath diminished the number of visitors to the city, whichwas still beset by poor drainage, inadequate communications andtransportation, and an insufficient supply of fresh water. Duringthe American occupation between 1898 and 1902, these problemsbegan to be remedied, and one of the city's landmarks, theseaside avenue called El Malecón, was constructed. Nonetheless,for years after the war, when Americans thought of Cuba, theydid not visualize "gay and splendid" Havana but scenes from theconflict: the sinking of the Maine (remember?); the daring rescueof Evangelina Cisneros, the most beautiful girl in Cuba; theannihilation of the Spanish fleet in Santiago de Cuba; the chargeup San Juan Hill; the famous "message to García" delivered byan intrepid American soldier. After the war, Parker Brothers releasedseveral board games commemorating the victory overSpain, among them "War in Cuba" and "The Siege of Havana,"while John Philip Sousa toured the country with a musical extravaganza,"The Trooping of the Colors," that exalted Americanpatriotism.