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Reviving Havana

A striking city crumbling from postrevolutionary neglect is being restored to attract tourists, whose dollars then finance social services, all under the watchful eye of the man some call the ''snake charmer.''


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 10, 2001

[Times photos: David Adams]
On San Ignacio Street in the Plaza Vieja, a construction brigade places braces under the balcony of a building in need of restoration. The building next door was recently renovated.
HAVANA -- Dachel Martinez, 13, may not live to see his city rise completely from its ruins.

But at least he will have witnessed firsthand one of the great modern works of socialist restoration.

The rebuilding of Old Havana won't cure what he suffers from -- a degenerative disease of the central nervous system -- but it has made a big difference to his life nevertheless.

Eighteen months ago Dachel, confined to his home since birth, began attending a new pediatric rehabilitation center in a lovingly restored 18th century mansion in Havana's historic Old City.

The center has become a shining example of the latest utopian undertaking of the Cuban Revolution: restoring -- and in many cases entirely reconstructing -- the crumbling colonial heart of the city, known as La Habana Vieja, or Old Havana.

Critics say the ambitious project is Fidel Castro's latest Machiavellian scheme to prop up his revolution with tourist dollars.

Cuban officials don't deny they want much-needed foreign revenue, but something more noble than cash is also driving the restoration effort.

In keeping with Cuba's socialist system, the goal is to harmonize tourist development with the social needs of the old city's residents.

"This is a unique effort," said Eusebio Leal, the project's mastermind. "We are creating a system that deals not only with bricks and mortar, but also with social and educational programs."

Initial skepticism has given way to mounting praise for Leal's dedication to the city's cultural heritage, as well as his entrepreneurial prowess.

Dachel Martinez, 13, who has a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, is fed by his mother, Vivian Mesa, at the new pediatric rehabilitation center created in an old Havana mansion. Mesa used to stay at home to care for her son, but now she can keep an eye on him while she works at the center as its cook.
As more and more buildings have been returned to their past splendor, the project has won converts worldwide, generating interest and offers of support from Europe and the United States.

Leal's work has also won admirers among Miami's Cuban exiles, who retain a deep emotional attachment to the city.

"Politics aside, this is something every Cuban should feel good about," said Nicolas Quintana, 76, a Cuban-American architecture professor at Florida International University in Miami, who left the island after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.

"The quality of the detail and the breadth of what they have been able to accomplish is remarkable," agrees Raul Rodriguez, one of Miami's top architects, who is also Cuban-born.

* * *

On the western side of the Plaza Vieja, the building with the blue shutters has been restored and is now Eusebio Leal’s project office. The remaining buildings, awaiting restoration, will have shops and bars on ground level and apartments above them.

Before the revolution, Havana was the urban jewel of the Caribbean. For all its notoriety as a den of political corruption and organized crime, the city was blessed with a stunning carnival of architectural styles.

Today, the evidence of neglect is so shocking that Cubans forlornly compare parts of the city with bombed-out streets in Bosnia.

Still, enough has survived for viewers to imagine how the city once was.

In the streets of the Old City, Spanish colonial palaces and fortresses -- built of thick coral mined from Cuba's shoreline -- blend in alongside pastel European art nouveau homes. Elsewhere, American-inspired art deco movie theatres, office blocks and apartment buildings stare across at ornate baroque church facades.

Now, thanks to restoration, the buildings are being restored to their near-original state.

Leal is credited with doing the impossible -- charting a previously unnavigated course through Cuba's often rigid socialist bureaucracy to achieve a degree of autonomy normally reserved for top military and economic officials.

Foreign capital is financing the restoration of the Saratoga Hotel on Central Park. It will be a five-star hotel catering to tourists.

With his rich command of the Spanish language, his soft voice and simple matching gray shirt and pants, Leal has an almost a priestly air.

Colleagues in the Office of the Historian of the City, where Leal supervises his operations, call him "the snake charmer" for his ability to negotiate difficult deals.

Leal, 60, is a member of Cuba's National Assembly and the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee. He also sits on the even more elevated Council of State, Castro's inner circle. But for the past 34 years, his chief job has been directing the city historian's office.

He grew up in the Old City and is credited with a deep sensitivity to its heritage. A former Catholic turned revolutionary youth activist, he made rescuing the city a personal crusade. But it took him more than three decades to win over party authorities.

Eusebio Leal heads the project to combine architectural rehabilitation and social services. He regrets the neglect of the city’s buildings since the revolution, saying, “It was an error. Now we are paying the price.”
The early years of the revolution focused on raising living standards in Cuba's impoverished countryside. The city could wait, Cuba's leaders decided.

But from the beginning, Leal warned against postponing maintainance work too long. After most of the city's wealthiest people fled to Miami, the city's historic buildings were occupied by poorer residents with no way of keeping up their new homes.

Meanwhile, Cuba's new leaders were bent on building new mass housing based on cheap, functional concrete-block models imported from eastern Europe.

Leal said he warned officials that Cuba would pay a high price. "I believed we would end up having to invest infinitely more, and all the money in the world wouldn't be enough."

Leal's work began in earnest in the 1960s when he was named director of the Office of the Historian of the City. But lacking funds and political backing, his work was limited to a few projects.

In 1979 he recruited a team of four architects and drew up the city's first restoration plan. He was assigned a five-year budget of $11-million, nowhere near enough to make any major inroads.

The restoration plan identified a 1.3-square-mile area consisting of 242 city blocks, with some 4,000 buildings -- almost all in need of repair -- inhabited by 74,000 residents. More than 90 percent of the structures were deemed to have historical or architectural value.

His efforts got a boost in 1982 when the United Nations declared the Old City a World Heritage site. But it wasn't until 1993 that Leal's work won full political recognition in Cuba.

At the time, the island was mired in economic depression following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the loss of subsidies from Moscow.

Leal helped guide the Cuban leaders who were debating the potential for tourism to provide a new base for the island's economy. He argued that state investment in restoration would more than pay for itself in revenue from tourism.

The snake charmer got his way. In a dramatic move, Leal was handed extraordinary land-use powers to rescue the Old City through creating hotel and real estate joint ventures with foreign investors.

Today, Leal's once-humble office effectively controls the Old City.

"His office is the zoning authority, planning board, housing authority, parks commissioner, tax collector, comptroller and final arbiter of nearly every public investment decision," said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute who has studied the restoration.

In only a few years the historian's office has built a complex web of companies that run a network of hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and museums. His staff now consists of nearly 4,000 architects, construction workers and hotel and restaurant employees. Salaries are about $10 a month, the average wage in Cuba's state-subsidized economy. Top architects in Leal's office make 400 pesos, or $20 a month.

The project also runs its own school to train the carpenters, masons, painters and metalworkers needed to carry out the work.

Profits are poured back directly into local projects, with only a small percentage going to the state. The businesses have generated 10,000 jobs and earned $60-million last year, more than 12 times the amount made during the first year.

Despite running what might appear to be a fully capitalistic venture, Leal has remained steadfast in his social goals. About a third of the profits are directed to social education projects and restorations designed to help local residents. These include renovation of public schools, a new public library with 100,000 books, an infant-maternity clinic and a children's park.

The latest project involves turning the abandoned Convent of Belen, built in 1718, into a day care center for the elderly financed by an adjoining hotel and museum. A Spanish order of nuns devoted to elder care has agreed to take up residence once the convent is restored.

"Leal is doing a wonderful job," said 91-year-old Manuel Aniceto, as he sipped a glass of milk at another recently restored elder day care center. "Leal really cares about long life, both in buildings and humans."

But the restoration represents a social cost for some Old City inhabitants. Because of overcrowding, some 30,000 long-time residents are being told they will have to move out -- for good.

While some are reluctant to leave homes to which they have grown attached, despite leaking roofs, collapsed stairwells and perilously perched balconies, all are being offered new apartments in other parts of the city.

Several buildings have already been restored in one of the city's oldest squares, the Plaza Vieja, now back on the tourist map. The Santo Angel bar opened recently, as did the colonial building next door, now an elementary school. Near completion is a tall apartment building soon to house foreign tenants paying $1,200 a month, equivalent to the annual salary of 10 Cuban construction workers.

Nelson Manito
In one three-story building awaiting restoration, residents complained they have yet to be told whether they will be staying or leaving. "I think Leal is trying to do his best, but by the time he's finished there won't be many of us left," said Nelson Manito, 34, pointing at another building where more than half the residents were moved out.

"Some people are happy to leave to new houses. But I'd rather my house was repaired, and they let us stay. This is where I was born."

The roof of the structure, built in 1912, collapsed several years ago, allowing rain to pour down a central staircase of now grimy marble. "It used to belong to a count or something," said Manito.

Using the original high ceilings, residents have fashioned their own split-level partitions to create an extra "upstairs" room, known in Cuban slang as "barbecues."

Manito and his wife share their apartment with his brother, the brother's ex-wife and the couple's child. Manito's brother lives upstairs, while his wife sleeps behind a wooden partition in the main living room.

Odalay Hernandez
Among those who have already been resettled outside Havana, feelings are mixed.

"I hate it here," said Odalay Hernandez, 24, referring to her family's new concrete home in Alamar, a sprawling housing project on the eastern outskirts of the city.

She misses the street life of her old neighborhood near the Malecon, Havana's famous seafront. State trucks came last October to move out the residents, making way for a Chinese government-funded hotel complex.

"We have better quality housing here, but there's nothing to do. There's no discos. The street is dead after six o'clock," she said.

The eight members of her family, including her grandmother, an uncle and aunt and their children, all lived in a cramped apartment with no running water. Leal's office provided the family with three new two-bedroom homes in a new housing project that the residents have dubbed "Colonia Leal."

"I know we got a good deal, but I miss my friends," Hernandez said.

Leal admits it's not always possible to satisfy everyone's needs.

"We have to be realistic," he said. "You have seen how people are living in the Old City. We can't resolve everyone's problems immediately."

But little by little, Leal says, living conditions are improving.

At the pediatric center, Dachel's mother, Vivian Mesa, agrees. For 11 years she was a stay-at-home mother, caring for her invalid son. Cuba's cash-strapped public health system had little to offer in cases like Dachel's other than regular hospital checkups.

Now Mesa takes him to the center every day. The center also provides jobs for parents of children in therapy, and Mesa is employed as the center's cook.

Leal continues to branch out into other parts of the city, including Central Havana and the badly eroded Malecon seafront, which he hopes to restore over the next four years.

He is frustrated by his lack of access to some international financing, for which he blames the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. However, with more money pouring in from tourism, he recently obtained a $20-million loan from Cuba's own foreign exchange bank.

Last year Cuba was visited by a record 1.8-million tourists. The island hopes to double that number by 2005, with a target of 6-million by 2010, but only if U.S. travel restrictions are lifted.

Leal is working around the clock to offer tourists somewhere to stay and something to see. If tourism really takes off, his restoration work could end up swimming in cash.

Observers continue to be amazed.

"We Americans may disagree fundamentally with socialism," said Peters. "But you have to admit that within the constraints of that system there's no way to have done it better."

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