Juan and Odalys' House

    It amuses me that one of the principal streets in Havana takes its name from a Spanish military officer of Irish descent named O´Reilly. Where it intersects with the equally busy but more appropriately named Calle San Ignacio is a perfect place to capitalize on the tourist trade in Habana Vieja.

    Ancient cannons no longer needed to defend the city from pirates have been sunk muzzle-first into the street as traffic bollards to protect pedestrians on this block of San Ignacio from marauding drivers. On one corner is El Bosqecito (the little forest) cafe, an oasis of tropical vines and plants that shade tourists from the tropical sun. Across the street Odalys operates a gift shop and her husband Juan rents rooms on the upper floors. The story of how they came to own this prime piece of real estate goes back many years to the time when the island was a colony of Spain.

    The original part of the building was constructed in 1890, and by the 1930´s it had been expanded to its current footprint and was the location of the Belgian embassy. The main floor was used for the offices of Belgian diplomats. But Juan tells me that in those days it was common for embassies to also house manufacturing facilities, so some of the space was used as laboratories to make medicines. The recipients of these drugs is a mystery, but he thinks there may have been underground connections.

    After Cuba´s 1959 revolution, many embassies such as Belgium´s that had been located in Habana Vieja moved to the newer, less congested and swankier community of Miramar. Odalys´ father, Julio Gonzales, who had lived and worked in the consulate for many years as an accountant and custodian, was allowed to stay in the building. Perhaps taking a cue from the revolution´s penchant for redistributing the properties of those with means to those without, the property was given to Jose, and passed to Odalys in 2004. Little remains to connect the building with its history: a flagpole over the ornate front entrance, a metal plaque inside the door, and a collection of antique labware.

    When Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed to begin normalizing relations between our countries in 2014, Juan and Odalys anticipated a touristic tsunami and began increasing the number of rooms for rent on the upper floors of their building to the present total of eight. In the Cuban tradition of using available resources to their fullest, Juan has made the most of the space. Some of the rooms are part of the original footprint of the building, while others have been added in innovative ways. A recently built mezzanine holds two rooms, a new doorway allows use of a previously inaccessible area, and narrow outdoor stairs lead to two more rooms constructed on the roof. A US building inspector might look askance at some details, but the rooms are clean and comfortable.

    But recent events may portend an end to this capitalist wave. After investing heavily in his property, Juan has learned that the popularity of casas particulares such as his have cut into the profits of state-owned hotels, causing the Cuban government to consider a law that would restrict them to a total of only three rooms. And the Trump administration says it will reverse the eased travel restrictions enacted by Obama to once again make it more difficult for US citizens to come here; apparently their idea is to starve democracy into existence. Ironically, it seems that the US government is pursuing a parallel strategy with that of its communist nemesis to suppress the entrepreneurship that could bring real and lasting change to Cuba.