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A Look Back at Pre-Castro Cuba – Part 2 of 4

The second installment in a four part series written by Cuban American engineer, Humberto (Bert) Corzo:

A Look Back at Pre-Castro Cuba - Part 2 of 4

HABANA PROVINCE: The Zoo; street vendors; Almendares River Bridge; Miramar neighborhood; Tallapiedra and Regla electric plants; Habana at night, neon signs; Tropicana nightclub.

PINAR DEL RIO PROVINCE: Tobacco plantation; Soroa Hills, orchid ranch, and Viñales Valley.


Rita Longa Deer Family Group bronze sculpture erected in 1947 at the entrance of the National Zoo Park in Avenue 26.

Rita Longa Deer Family Group bronze sculpture erected in 1947 at the entrance of the National Zoo Park in Avenue 26.

The Zoo was inaugurated in 1939 during the government of Federico Laredo Brú, and was expanded in the 1940’s during the government of Dr. Grau San Martin.

Nowadays many cages are empty and out of use. The animals are kept in poorly maintained pits, the facilities are unkept, food supply is scarce, and there are no zookeepers around.

Empty and unkept pit at the Zoo

Empty and unkept pit at the Zoo


Miramar is an upscale residential district developed during the 1920’s, lay out in a grid of tree-shaded streets with fine mansions, running along the coast. Most of the foreign embassies, including the monstrosity of the Russian Embassy Building, are located along the main thoroughfare, the four lanes Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue). The most recent build hotels and upscale stores, banks, investment and joint ventures company offices, are also located in Miramar. Most of the luxurious residences were built before the 1950's, and they display an impressive architectonic diversity, with many of them in a dilapidated state. The old balnearios (seaside resorts) like the Club Náutico, Casino Español and Habana Yacht Club, are located along the waterfront.

Fifth Avenue

Fifth Avenue

La Copa, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street

La Copa, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street


In 1958 the 7 electric power plants had an installed generated capacity of 464 MW (Compañia Cubana de Electricidad, 1959), two others local companies 10 MW, the large sugar mill industry generated  275 MW mostly from bagasse used as fuel, and the Hanabanilla hydroelectric plus a few small plants generated 33 MW, for a total of  782 MW.

Electrical energy is the most accurate indicator of the general development of an economy. In 1958 according to the records of the Cuban Electric Company, there were 732.000 subscribers.  According to Norton Ginsburg in his Atlas of Economic Development the consumption of 11.8 MW / h per year per capita ranked Cuba in 25 placed among 124 countries in the world, and first in Latin America in electricity consumption per capita.

The blackouts and rationing of electricity are still in place in the island, despite the micro generators incorporated into the national grid in 2006, a short-term solution since they are usually used in emergencies cases and are expensive. Power outages continue to occur almost in a daily basis due to the deterioration of existing power plants, losses in transmission and distribution lines, and the decrease of the energy produced by the micro generators.


The legendary Tropicana Nightclub, “a paradise under the starts”, opened its doors on December 1939 at Villa Mina mansion whose gardens offered a natural setting for an outdoor stage. In 1950 Martin Fox bought Villa Mina and was ready to build an indoor cabaret. He hired the architect Max Borges Jr. to do the design with the instruction of “not to cut down any trees unless absolutely necessary”, according to Borges.

Arcos de Cristal

Arcos de Cristal

The building was design to incorporate the trees inside the cabaret, composed of six parabolic concrete arches 2.75 inches thick, set off center from each other and decreasing in height toward the stage with glass covering the space among the arches. The Spanish-Mexican engineer Félix Candela provided the calculations for the parabolic arches. The indoor cabaret Arcos de Cristal opened on March 1952. Borges design has won many international prices.


On September 15, 1960 the Castro regime took over 16 cigar factories, 14 cigarette plants and 20 tobacco warehouses, bringing to an end 300 years of tobacco development that made Cuban cigars the best in the world. The brothers’ destructive capacity has no limits.

Tobacco Plantation, San Luis, Pinar del Río

Tobacco Plantation, San Luis, Pinar del Río

The cigar manufacturers and tobacco plantation owners had no choice but to  leave the island with next to nothing, after their properties were seized and bank accounts frozen by the regime.

They started anew and due to their efforts the tobacco plantation and non Cuban cigar industry was born, spreading the tobacco seeds they took with them from Cuba around the world. Most of the premium tobacco grows in Dominican, Honduran and Nicaragua have their origin in the tobacco seeds smuggled out of Cuba by these men. The Dominican Republic has become the world's largest producer of premium cigars, surpassing by far Cuba´s production under the Castros regime.


Soroa, located in the Sierra del Rosario, Pinar del Río, is a site of striking natural beauty. In 1940 the landowner Antonio Arturo Sánchez Bustamante built the enchanting medieval “Castillo de las Nubes” (castle of the clouds) over El Fuerte hill at this site. Nowadays it is used as a restaurant. From its terrace visitors can enjoy a magnificent view of the Sierra del Rosario.

The Mirador (lookout) of Venus from the top of a mogote (rounded top hill) at an elevation around 375 meters offers a breathtaking view all around. The famous Waterfall 22 meters high in the Manantiales River, is accessible going down more than 400 meters through a steep paved path with steps.  At the bottom you can swim in the crystalline waters of the waterfall and enjoy the scenery.

The world famous Soroa Orchid Garden, a great tourist attraction, is one of the largest collection of orchid in the world with 250 native species and over 700 different species from around the world of this sought after flower. The origin of the gardens go back to 1943 when Tomás Felipe Camacho, a Cuban lawyer who at 13 years of age arrived from the Canary Islands, started it on his property in remembrance of his wife and one of the daughters who both died during child labor. It took Camacho nine years and $1.5 million to build this magnificent garden. He put together a library dealing mainly with orchids and ornamental plants. Eventually he became a member of the Cuban Orchid Society, affiliated to American Orchid Society.

To take care of the vast garden Camacho employed 16 workers and a Japanese technician. But he didn’t profit from it, since all who visited it and the others Soroa attractions, Cubans and international tourist, weren’t charge for the access.

The road from the Central Highway to Soroa was a country road. From 1952-53 during the government of Fulgencio Batista a first class road 8 km long was built. The project included the construction of a hotel and cabanas with the intention of promoting it as a tourist center.

Camacho died in 1960, and in 1961the regime took control of the property. During the years several departments were in charge of its administration, causing the decay of the garden.  By 1978 the Centro Universitario de Pinar del Río took control of the facility, reversing the damage and improving it. Nowadays, under the management of the Castroit regime, all visitors, Cubans and international tourist alike, have to pay to have access to the Orchid Garden, and pay again to visit the Waterfall.

 Castillo de las Nubes, Soroa

Castillo de las Nubes, Soroa



Humberto (Bert) Corzo was born in Cuba. In 1962 he graduated from University of Havana with a degree in Civil Engineering. Since coming to the United States in 1969, he established his residence in Los Angeles, California, where in 1972 he obtained the registration as a Professional Engineer. He has over forty five years of experience in the field of Structural Engineering. He is a Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Cuban-American Association of Civil Engineers.corzo3

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