Casablanca, Havana: Where Christ, ‘Che’ Guevara, Tourists and Beggar Children Gather
For Havana residents, Casablanca does not refer to the pristine residence of the President of the United States or to the film from the 1940s, but to the weak coastal neighborhood on the other side of the bay. Neither Che Guevara’s nicely-painted house – an attraction for tourists – nor the colonial fortress of La Cabaña have managed to give life to the place, where the poverty of Havana assertively shows itself, without make-up, to visitors.
On the hill where the town is built – belonging to the municipality of Regla – the Spanish once fought against the English. The slope became famous centuries later, in 1959, due to the “butcher” Guevara’s mass executions. The silhouette of Havana from Casablanca, the sea air and the tortuous path to the castle were, many times, the last sensations of those condemned to death.
Against all odds, the hamlet remains standing, but it is one of the harshest places in the capital. The saltpeter and the passage of time have been relentless to the constructions of Casablanca. The best preserved are the Catholic church and the small Antonio Govín lodge, dedicated to the Creole Freemason who defended liberalism on the Island during the 19th century.
Among the propped-up, half-finished walls and fallen posts, the rest of the houses do not resist the onslaught of time. To get to the most recent buildings – makeshift dwellings on the hill – you have to avoid the ruins of the oldest ones, immersed in vegetation and garbage.
There is no one on the streets and the vehicles heading to the tourist area circle the town. An old man is the only one digging through the garbage, but that scene is not unique to Casablanca: any pile of garbage in Havana has its “divers.” There is also no one waiting for the train at the station, which is completely closed. The abandonment is such that the railway line is barely visible above the pavement.
Nor do dogs and cats walk among the portals of Casablanca. The only ones who question the visitors are the children. Weathered by misery and hardly shy, they repeat a formula when they see a tourist: “Give me a candy, come on. Give me a dollar.” If someone takes a bill out of their pocket, more children will appear, just as poor and ungainly, demanding theirs.
The only really resplendent thing in the town is Jilma Madera’s Christ, which stands out from behind the roofs. “On the horizon of Havana, Christ protects us,” says the official Ecured encyclopedia in a pious tone. The phrase sounds like sarcasm to those who travel the rugged path that leads to the top of the hill.
Inaugurated on Christmas 1958, the Christ brought bad luck – legend says – to Fulgencio Batista, and was never liked by Fidel Castro, who is speculated to have tried to remove it on more than one occasion. Beggar children also gather at the foot of the sculpture, and they are not the only ones who pay attention to any carelessness of visitors, no matter if they are national or foreign.
La Loma del Cristo, Christ’s Hill, is famous for assaults. There have been many who, in the blink of an eye, have seen themselves stripped of cameras, wallets and any other object at hand by a very fast Havana thief. The escape route – protected by the undergrowth on both sides of the road – is more than calculated: a little-known entrance to La Cabaña is the perfect hiding place for criminals on the run, after prior agreement with the Military Service recruits who guard the fortress.
Even so, tourists prefer to take their selfies near Christ’s sandals and not in the sinister residence of the “heroic guerrilla,” the statue’s neighbor. As a threat, which is not difficult to consider fulfilled in front of the dilapidated mansions of Casablanca, a phrase from Fidel Castro adorns a wall: “A revolution is more powerful than nature.”