To call the Malecón a seawall is to call Havana a city in the Caribbean. The descriptions don’t begin to do justice to either. While it’s true that the five-mile long Malecón protects the heart of the city from rough seas stirred up by strong north winds, the Malecón’s significance goes far beyond structural fortification.
For the 2 million residents of Havana and the many visitors who come to the Cuban capital each year, the Malecón is the spine of the city, a promenade that draws fishermen, musicians, young lovers and tourists, alike.
It’s a place to see and be seen. It’s a place you can smoke a cigar and drink a beer while losing yourself in the rhythm of the waves.
These photos were taken during our June 2016 photography workshop in Havana, Cuba.
Children play along the wall and families swim in the cool waters of the Caribbean during the brutal summer months. Young lovers daydream about better days to come and old men tell stories about hard times they’ve seen.
It’s also a place with a seedy side, where condoms are strewn along the rocks. Some, undoubtedly, discarded by the prostitutes that find customers among the ever-growing number of tourists who come to Cuba with more than sun and sand on their minds. But most of the “used” condoms are left by fishermen who inflate them to float their lines.
The Malecón is all these things, and you can be sure that if you visit Havana, you’ll find yourself walking along it at some point.
The temporary U.S. government built the first section of the Malecón in 1901 to protect the city from frequent storms. The hotels and buildings that sprung up along the wall were beautiful, shiny examples of art deco architecture that rivaled anything 90 miles away on Miami Beach.
Even after 60 years of neglect, you can still imagine how grand the waterfront was back in 1946 when American mobsters came for a winter summit or in 1959 when Fidel Castro led his victorious guerillas into the city from the coast.
Havana’s waterfront, and the Malecón with it, may rise again one day. Those are the Havana dreams. With Fidel’s recent death, there’s a sense that one of the biggest obstacles to change is now gone.
The Cubans you talk to are praying that a tsunami of American cash will sweep across the island, bringing opportunity and washing away more than a half century of decay.
The funny thing is that a lot of Americans are rushing to visit the island before it is “ruined” by the arrival of Starbucks, McDonalds and 7-Eleven on every corner. They want to see Cuba the way they idealize it — a tropical paradise trapped in a 1950s time warp.
One of my Cuban friends scoffs and says “Ruin us? We are already in ruins. Please send McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken as soon as you can.”
I’ve visited Cuba four times in the past 18 months. My belief in the resiliency of the Cuban people grows with each trip. They’ve survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reign of an iron-fisted tyrant and a U.S. embargo that makes everyday life a constant struggle. Yet, I’ve never encountered much in the way of animosity toward the United States or even self-pity.
Instead, everywhere you go, you meet people trying to make the best of their circumstances. In most cases, the only way to do that is to get a piece of the tourist dollars, which have flown more freely with the easing of U.S. travel restrictions.
Most of the images on this page were taken during a people-to-people excursion I organized in June. Some of the images appeared in a collaborative book that we published after the trip. However, it wasn’t until later that we realized how the Malecón played such a central part in our shared experience.
For me, the images from the Malecón are a microcosm of the Cuban experience — cruise its breadth and you will find no shortage of rundown buildings but there are also sections that have been refurbished, now home to popular paladars that often have long waits for tables. Walk along the wall, meeting and talking to locals, and you’ll get a sense of pride, determination and resourcefulness, wrapped in the hope that better days are ahead.
Title image © 2016 Joe Newman. Special thanks to Charles Butler, Nana Gyesie, Dwight Jefferson, Geoff Livingston, Jon Sperling and Pablo Benavente, aka Pablo Raw, for contributing photos to this post.