A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
9 June 2018
The market, though small, was as lively as any I saw in Cuba. We walked from stall to stall, past vendors selling tropical fruit and sacks of rice. Behind one table a woman sat on the curb, a sack between her thighs, tapping a sieve like an old-timey pan-handler as she separated insects from grains of rice. I bought a portion of fresh, sticky mango slices… realising too late that there was nowhere to wash my hands clean after.
The sun was beating down hard so the four of us ducked into the welcome shelter of a bar. We were the only customers; it was dark inside, cool, with flies buzzing lazily around the slow-moving ceiling fan. We ordered a round of beers – Cuban Bucaneros – and I held the cold can up to my baked skull, my temples, then rolled it between my hands allowing the frosty condensation to de-gunk my fruit-sticky fingers. I looked out at the market: an island of humanity, while all around it rose the empty shells of unfinished residential blocks. This handful of stalls was now the social heart of a city once built for thousands, and these people the last stubborn lives to remain amongst the ruins of Ciudad Nuclear.
Back in 2014 I shared an article about my visit to an unfinished nuclear power plant in Cuba. It was no more than a concrete shell by the time I saw it, with a dome that made it look almost like a temple, left abandoned on the Caribbean coast.
The site had been built with Soviet money and know-how, and was to be accompanied by a brand new city for power plant workers. The Chernobyl reactors in Ukraine had the workers’ city at Pripyat; the Lithuanian reactor at Visaginas, likewise, had a model socialist city raised up almost overnight in its shadow; and here at Juragua in Cuba, the Soviets helped build ‘Ciudad Nuclear’: in English, simply, ‘Nuclear City.’
The USSR began working on the Cuban nuclear power plant in 1976, and Ciudad Nuclear was opened on 13th October 1982, to house the influx of Soviet scientists and engineers. Located six miles from the plant it was to feature 4,200 homes… but the Cuban plant was never finished. Construction ground to a halt in 1989, as the funding dried up and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse. The intended workers’ city was left in limbo as a result: half finished, only part inhabited, an unsustainable cluster of concrete dwellings on a remote stretch of the Cuban shoreline.
I made the journey down to Juragua with friends. We hired a car in Havana, and drove for several hours to reach the site on the south side of the island. We slept in a casa nearby, a sweet little place down by the water’s edge, but on the day of our intended visit to the plant we found the place crawling with security guards. Later we’d come back, and we’d find another way inside the unfinished Juragua NPP – but first we spent an afternoon in Ciudad Nuclear.
Ciudad Nuclear is a peculiar place. I want to call it a ‘ghost town,’ but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. The handful of citizens who remain here are, for the most part, commuters. Some drive 20 miles to work in Cienfuegos, a larger town with a busy port and industrial sector. Not a lot of Cubans have their own transport though, which means that Ciudad Nuclear – an unfinished, out-of-the-way conurbation with little going on in terms of entertainment or employment – is doomed to a slow depopulation.
Leaving the market, we turned a corner and quickly found ourselves alone. Down the length of Ciudad Nuclear’s main street, only two parked cars and a couple of distant pedestrians were visible. Rounding a corner to the next street we met a small family and a donkey, but the rows of apartment blocks behind them looked desolate and bare.
Save for the occasional sheet flapping in the wind on some third-floor washing line, most of the buildings here seemed to be uninhabited; many looked like they had never been finished, their faded pastel exteriors wrapped around empty cement boxes. Inside one large ground floor space (a shop? a café?) I found a wall decorated with a verse by José Martí, Cuba’s most beloved revolutionary poet:
Cuba no anda de pedigueña
Por el mundo, anda de hermana
Al salvarse, salva América
No le fallará, porque ella
No le falla a América.
Poetry always loses a little in translation, but in English it means something like this:
Cuba does not go around the world as a beggar but as a sister
By saving herself, she saves the Americas
She will not fail, because she will not fail the Americas.
[Muchas gracias to Sebastián for the translation.]
Some of the buildings around Ciudad Nuclear stood near to collapse. I looked inside a few, though there wasn’t much to see. The risk-reward ratio didn’t seem weighted in my favour, so for the most part when I saw ‘Derrumbe’ – ‘Collapse’ – written across a building, I kept away.
Heading back towards the centre we passed a naked tower block, the tallest we’d seen so far. Across its side were painted the words, ‘¡¡Socialismo o Muerte!!’ though it felt like an oddly subversive slogan, given the context. Socialism or Death. This place seemed to have a little bit of both.
Gazing up at that graffitied ruin, I decided I wanted to climb it – to see how Ciudad Nuclear looked from the top.
The stairs inside were intact, but there was little else to see inside the 14-floor skeleton; nothing but concrete all the way up. Reaching the top, I walked out of the stairwell onto an open-plan level that fell abruptly away at the edge; no windows, no handrail, just a sudden drop to the street.
Something flapped noisily nearby and I turned, in time to see a large dark bird take flight from its concrete perch on the fourteenth floor balcony. Later I’d be told it was a vulture.
Above the top end of the stairwell, a square hole opened to the rooftop and the sky. It took a bit of a scramble to get up there – balancing on a concrete bannister, catching hold of the ledge above and pulling myself up to the building’s summit – but it was worth the work.
Stood up there in the sweltering sun, I traced the shoreline curving into the distance: the beach a ribbon of gold between the water and the forest. Below me the empty streets and unfinished buildings of Ciudad Nuclear fanned out in grid formation, a model city that never quite made it off the drafting table. Meanwhile along the coast, an abandoned 16-floor reactor building rose from the forest like some ancient temple ruin: a concrete mausoleum for the Cuban-Soviet nuclear programme.