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A Mission to Havana 

12-09-2015 17:35

For many of us Cuba evokes mainly images of Elian Gonzales, Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet those of us involved in preservation should also hold another image, for Havana, the capital of this 41,000-square-mile island, is a miraculous historic city worthy of international attention and support.

Havana, founded in 1519, was for centuries the hub of Spanish commerce with its territories throughout Latin America. This commerce made Havana one of the richest cities in the world from the 16th into the 20th century, and the city`s splendid architectural heritage reflects this.

Today Cuba is beset by widespread poverty, an inefficient Communist government, and a U.S. trade embargo. While Havana stands largely intact, many of its historic buildings are on the verge of collapse. To understand the city and build relationships with Cuban preservationists, representatives from the National Trust spent four days of exploration there last November.

Old Havana includes some 260 blocks, largely intact, crammed with three- to five-story stucco structures representing a great range of architectural styles, all adapted to the Spanish taste and Caribbean location. Major squares are connected by narrow streets, all lined with the rhythmic progression of tall doorways and window openings, delicate balconies, and intricate stucco and stonework. Interiors use soaring courtyards and 12-foot ceilings for light and air.

But today grand old buildings are often cut up into improvised living spaces, with impoverished families living cheek-by-jowl. There is no private property, little or no rent paid, and few repairs made.

In response to the 1990 - 1992 currency crisis, caused by the loss of the Soviet Union as a major partner, the government dramatically intensified its efforts to restore Old Havana in order to attract tourists with dollars to spend. To do this, it re-invented the Office of the Historian of the City and chose the charismatic and effective Eusebio Leal to be its director. His office, which receives 5 percent of all currency transactions in Old Havana, has the authority to develop and operate hotels, restaurants, and shops. He reports directly to Fidel Castro.

With revenues totaling some $40 million, including financing from the central bank, magnificent buildings are being returned to full beauty and productive lives. Forty-five percent of the revenues are used for preservation work and 35 percent for social services, including affordable housing and clinics.

Questions for the future abound. How much can the volume of tourists be increased without totally undermining the vision of Old Havana as a successful "living city"? Would a loosening of the U.S. embargo result in a wave of U.S. investment? Would this mean widespread demolition and suburban boxes springing up in Old Havana, or could this investment be channeled into rehabilitation and adaptive uses, along with benefits for poorer residents? And finally, can increased exchanges, joint consultation, and alliances with Cuban preservationists help influence the outcome of these larger issues? Clearly the importance of this historic city to the heritage of all the nations in the Americas compels us to do everything we legally can.

Publication Date: March/April 2002

Author(s):Peter Brink

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