Travel Notes: Cuba Prepares for Perestroika

By Douglas Clayton | March 2011

Dividing Old Havana from Chinatown is Cuba's Capitolio Nacional, a monumental edifice with a fateful past. El Capitolio was conceived during the "Roaring Twenties", when the island led the world in sugar exports and the future seemed blue-sky. President Gerardo Machado, who dreamed of turning Cuba into the Switzerland of the Americas, decided that his four million countrymen needed a domed Capitol building even taller and more ornate than the one he toured in Washington. Cuba's Congress dutifully poured 3% of the country's GDP into their new home (akin to the US Congress spending $42 billion for a new office today, but let's not give them any ideas...) It took 5,000 skilled Cuban laborers just three years to complete El Capitolio, which featured gilt ceilings, a giant diamond embedded into the pristine marble floor, and the world's third-largest indoor statue. However, the showy project couldn't have been more poorly timed: while the building rose, America's stock market crashed, the Great Depression unfolded, and the Hawley-Smoot tariffs crushed Cuban sugar prices by 74%. As El Capitolio's ribbon was cut in 1932 Cuba's economy lay in tatters, with two-thirds of its citizens thrown into destitution. Machado was forced out of office, and his dream building would perform Congressional service for only 27 years before Fidel Castro's revolutionaries swept into Havana and opted for more austere premises.