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Brave Old World: Havana's Old City

An Ambitious Renovation of Havana's Old City Tries to Reconcile Grit and Glory, Squalor and Splendor
Thomas Matthews
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

(continued from page 1)

Then came Castro's revolution. The socialist government placed its highest priority on improving living conditions in rural parts of the country, largely ignoring the cities. In Habana Vieja, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mansions were carved up into ciudadelas, rabbit warrens of small apartments that crammed scores of poor, extended families into the once-magnificent structures. New building simply stopped; old buildings fell down; Habana Vieja was reduced to a ragged shadow of its former glory.

But there were benefits to this policy of benign neglect. All over the world, the 1960s and '70s saw the historic centers of old cities razed in the name of progress. Because Havana lacked the financial resources to rebuild, Habana Vieja was left largely intact, and the consequent deterioration was less destructive than massive urban renewal would have been. When the Western world finally awoke to a greater appreciation of its architectural heritage, the Old City was revealed as a jewel of history, chipped but still shining with the authenticity of the past. In 1982, the United Nations named Old Havana a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When the economic exigencies of the so-called Special Period (which followed the collapse of the communist governments in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the subsequent disappearance of Soviet subsidies to Cuba) drove the government to revive the island's moribund tourist industry, the Old City became its natural focus. Eusebio Leal, the official historian of the city of Havana, has been given enormous power to lead the restoration and revival of Habana Vieja.

"We have four main goals," Leal tells me. "First, protect our architectural patrimony, balancing our own cultural values with the requirements of socio-economic development. Second, maintain the residential character of Habana Vieja. Third, create a new technical infrastructure to satisfy contemporary urban needs. Finally, accomplish these objectives through projects that rely on and will help stimulate the life and the economy of the neighborhood."

Through a government-run company called Habaguanex, Leal selects sites for renovation, supervises the architects and construction companies that carry out the work, and chooses hotels and restaurants to occupy the refurbished buildings. The profits these projects generate through the tourist trade then finance improvements throughout the Old City and Havana as a whole.

It's slow work, since restoring a major building generally involves rebuilding it from the ground up, modernizing the infrastructure while maintaining historical integrity. Recent projects include transforming an eighteenth-century mansion into a hotel catering to cigar smokers, a public library in the Plaza de Armas, and new housing in the poorer southern section of Habana Vieja.

"In the last five years, our projects in the Old City have generated $70 million," Leal says. "During this period we have invested as much as in the twelve years prior. Last year, we reinvested 45 percent of our revenue in new profit-making enterprises, while 33 percent was devoted to social projects."

Today, a visitor can follow a route through Habana Vieja that takes in the major historical monuments, stops for souvenirs and refreshments at new stores and restaurants, and finishes in a refurbished hotel. Some critics have described this as "apartheid tourism," a rigid separation of opposing cultures marked by dollars and pesos. But Leal argues that the social integration of his approach will prevent the old city from becoming simply a quaint stage set for tourists, and he insists that tourism's revenues will be used to benefit and strengthen the community as a whole.

Besides, as even the most timid tourist quickly discovers, the Old City pulses with a vitality that is not so easily ignored.

"Leal is great, man," enthuses Leonides, still following me down the street. "Look at these old buildings shine! The restoration is beautiful. And it's not only for rich tourists. He's given work to lots of people; he's building new places for them to live. And there's a place not far from here where you can get a coffee for 10 Cuban centavos [10 cents]. Come on over and I'll buy you a cup, compliments of Leal."

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