A Brief History of Cienfuegos, Cuba: Background information when reading The Black Cathedral

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The Black Cathedral

by Marcial Gala

The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala X
The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2020, 224 pages
    Jan 2021, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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A Brief History of Cienfuegos, Cuba

This article relates to The Black Cathedral

Print Review

Cienfuegos, Cuba architectureThe Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala is set in a run-down neighborhood known as Punta Gotica in the real Cuban city of Cienfuegos, where an architecturally unique cathedral is planned for the Church of the Holy Sacrament. This may be all the more significant considering that Cienfuegos is known for its own particular brand of architecture and city planning, drawing notice for its neoclassical buildings and adherence to a rectangular grid structure. According to UNESCO, which considers the city's "urban historic centre" a World Heritage Site, Cienfuegos is "the first, and an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble representing the new ideas of modernity, hygiene and order in urban planning as developed in Latin America from the 19th century."

The area occupied by Cienfuegos on Cuba's southern coast was originally inhabited by the Taino indigenous people. The city itself was founded in 1819 by settlers of French heritage in what was at the time a Spanish territory. Due to its location on the sea in a rich agricultural area producing sugar cane, coffee and tobacco, Cienfuegos was able to grow into a flourishing port city. The expansion of the Cuban sugar industry in the 19th century was especially important in establishing its prominence and aiding its development.

After the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, in which the Batista regime was overthrown and Fidel Castro came to power, Cienfuegos was included in government efforts to urbanize and industrialize the country outside of the central city of Havana. It became an important area for trade with the Soviet Union in the 1960s, when Cuba began exchanging sugar with the U.S.S.R. for oil and other goods.

Cienfuegos was also a major area of focus in Cuba's efforts to become energy-independent. The 1980s brought the construction of a Soviet-designed nuclear power plant intended to expand electrification and reduce Cuban dependence on oil. The U.S. government regarded this new project with suspicion, not only because of the American history of nuclear conflict with Cuba and the U.S.S.R., but because of concerns about the safety of the plant in light of its proximity to the United States, especially after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Alongside its forays into nuclear energy, Cienfuegos began building a new housing area consisting of concrete buildings known as Ciudad Nuclear, intended to offer living spaces for the workers at the nuclear plant. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, which represented a significant loss of commerce and support for Cuba, the nuclear project was suspended, along with the construction of the "nuclear city."

This period of change as it occurred in Cienfuegos and other parts of Cuba is significant to the events of The Black Cathedral, many of which seem to take place during or soon after what is called the "Special Period," the era following the end of the U.S.S.R. This was a time when the political landscape in Cuba became a mixture of socialism and capitalism, and a strong, vibrant arts scene was developing alongside economic depression. In Gala's novel, several Cienfuegos inhabitants aspire to make a living through visual art or writing, even when their circumstances make this an unlikely prospect.

Cienfuegos, Cuba, courtesy of Cuba Family Houses

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Elisabeth Cook

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Black Cathedral. It originally ran in February 2020 and has been updated for the January 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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