Albarrojo sits in the scant shadow cast by the Castillo de la Punta, watching the labourers under the watchful eye of North American engineers and overseers slowly turning the rocky coast leading from the narrow mouth of Havana’s bay into a wide promenade, seawalled against the waves thrown up by the northern winds. Before the US troops took possession, and their government dictated the terms of Cuba’s nominal independence, the castle had presided over the entrance to the harbour and the city, at the starting point of the westwards running coast that offered a wild aspect to which the streets beyond the city walls ran. Opposite towers from its sentinel cliff the more imposing Castillo del Morro, its lighthouse warning ships of the narrowness of the approach to the port.
Albarrojo watches as they turn the incongruous wildness into the start of what he knows, because he has walked it on numerous occasions over the years, will become by night and day where Habaneros sit and strut and sing and swim. But for now it is still just the start of a project that, over the coming decades, will gradually become what it continues to be today. Some things will never change. It will still play host to the improvised bathers and fishers who have, since Havana was founded, escaped the heat, dust and noise of the city streets, or brought down their offerings to Yemayá, discarding them to the mercy of the waves.
It was forty years before that Francisco de Albear, noteworthy civil engineer behind so much of Havana’s late-nineteenth century expansion and modernisation, had conceived of a plan to turn the city’s coastline into a usable, sea-defended avenue from east to west, down which transport could travel and people enjoy the sea air. But independence wars and the Spanish colonial authorities’ lack of interest in funding the island’s development meant that nothing came of it. It took the devastation of the 1895-98 war, in which Cuba finally shrugged off the Spanish empire only to find itself slipping into that of the northern neighbour, for the dream to begin to become reality, benefiting from the post-war reconstructive energy.
As Albarrojo watches, they complete the very first section. Short, but promising start that points the century’s direction. From where he sits, sheltering from the afternoon sun against the wall of the Castillo de la Punta, here at the top of the Paseo del Prado the first stretch reaches barely five-hundred metres to Calle Crespo. But already it has begun to bring new life to the city, excited with the promise of this new century, and of its already compromised independence. In celebration the Sunday bands play Cuban melodies in the park of the newly constructed roundabout, overseen by the affluent and fasionable eyes of the Hotel Miramar, and the indigent and unseen eyes of Albarrojo as he jumps onto the wall of the Malecón, following its way west.