Matanzas: The Rebirth of Cuba’s Abandoned Cultural Center

“It used to be a garage,” Adrián Socorro told me as he opened the large doors of El Garabato, his art studio on Narváez Street, by the San Juan River. “Then, around the time Matanzas was preparing for its 325th anniversary in 2018, the city historian finally approved my plan and I moved in.”

Inside was a warehouse-like room littered with all the paraphernalia of a working workshop: plastic bottles and bunches of brushes, a multicolored palette, a half-finished sculpture of an animal resembling a cow, upside down, hanging from the ceiling. The paintings were everywhere: hung on the walls; leaning on trestles; stacked on tables. I spotted dogs, chickens, flowers, and nudes, all creatively drawn in a style that seemed to blend impressionism with the avant-garde.

“I paint from my own life and experience,” Socorro explained. “I don’t paint those pictures of old ladies smoking cigars that tourists want to see.”

Socorro hails from Matanzas, a port city wrapped around a deep, sheltered bay 90 km east of Havana, Cuba. When I revisited in December 2021 after a three-year hiatus, small but innovative restaurants were offering homemade pastas and snack-sized tacos. The riverside promenade of Calle Narváez was a glorious artistic esplanade adorned with stunning sculptures: an emaciated pig standing atop a red balloon; a representation of the Cuban national hero, José Martí, with a sword in his mouth; pink stepladders and life-size giraffes. In the space of 300m, I wandered from Socorro’s studio-gallery past a music school, an art school and half a dozen imaginative bars and cafes.

It felt like a completely different city to the one I first visited in the late 1990s – then a scarred, dilapidated, semi-abandoned place left to rot during the country’s economically difficult “special period”, a decade of austerity after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, whose subsidies represented around 30% of Cuban GNP. At the time, foreign visitors were ferried from the airport to swanky new resorts in nearby Varadero, where Cuban guests were barred from entering the resorts. Calle Narváez was a neglected warehouse district. The beautifully botoxed Parque Libertad in 2021 was seedy and unloved. Restaurants were virtually non-existent. To me, the city looked like a sunken ship, a stricken Titanic whose damaged riches were hidden by decades of neglect.

About Christopher Easley

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