Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kodachrome and Silver
First of a Series

Photo: Ramon Villalobos (L), founder of the Villalobos Shipyards, the largest industrial shipyard in Cuba at the time of the revolution, standing beside a wooden vessel undergoing repairs, circa 1957. Villalobos would succumb to a stroke less than two years after this photograph was taken, overcome by the stress incurred as a result of the victory of Castro's forces on January 1, 1959. He had harbored fears of the rebel leader's communist bent and watched one-by-one as longtime friends - who up until that point had remained apolitical in their lives - were rounded up, imprisoned or summarily executed. Until recently, the Cuban government ran the shipyard in a joint venture with the Curacao Drydock Company.

The visual disparities between Cuba in the days before Fidel Castro and today are usually quite striking. In speaking with curious minds who possess no connections with the island or perhaps haven’t studied her history, I’m always surprised at the common perception of Cuba having always been a backwater third-world country.

Looking back on the years before 1959, Cuba was one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America. An island composed of a vast middle class and a rather substantial upper class, Cuba’s progressive labor, education and health laws rivaled those of any of the world’s nations at that time. The Cuban peso was often on par with the U.S. dollar and at some points, was actually valued higher. Look at it this way, imagine a comfortable middle class existence in the United States. You’re essentially looking at Cuba in 1959.

Photo: A Villalobos Line freighter in Havana Harbor, circa 1955. The line, one of the largest in the Carribbean, was once a frequent carrier of cargo between the ports of Havana and Pensecola, Florida.

Of course one can’t bring all this to light without mentioning the fact that President Fulgencio Batista – himself a dictator – had opened the door to Castro’s revolutionaries with his undemocratic rule. Suspending the 1940 constitution, a progressive document well respected in the region, was the death knell for his administration and the beginning of the end for any sort of real positive change on the island. This was one of many breezes that fanned the flames of a revolution which later helped install a dictatorship that continues to this day.

With that I offer you an image of the “days before Fidel.” I’ll be revisiting this topic once a week, each time with a different photograph culled from my archives. Enjoy.


Anonymous said...

Interesting photos. Was this the yard where Hemingway's boat, the Pilar was built?

Dos said...

Hi there,

The Pilar was built in the United States. If my memory serves me - Philadelphia specifically. However, Hemingway did handle all his boat repairs through the Villalobos yards. In fact, I'll have something regarding this to post in the coming weeks.

Take care,


Justice said...

This is what went on at the shipyard:

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