History in its streets
Yaima Puig Meneses
THE ancient city was falling to
pieces. Patios, ironwork, galleries, porches,
streets, plazas… seemed then to be condemned to
oblivion, as old and worn, not in consonance with
new concepts which emerged with a focus on growth
beyond the original city limits.
Saving the city, at that time, was
an enormous challenge, as it continues to be, almost
half a century after the initial and definitive
steps taken in 1967 to restore the former Captain
General’s Palace on the Plaza de Armas.
In 1937, Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring
founded the Havana City Historian’s Office, and was
able to implement limited measures to save the city
from ruin. His enthusiasm, knowledge and
revolutionary ideas came up against scant interest
in the preservation of the city’s architectural
heritage on the part of local and national
The route, however, was established
and with the triumph of the Revolution, projects
began to emerge. Then in 1981, with national
government support, the Havana City Historian's
Office initiated a broader effort to undertake the
first plan of major restorations.
According to City Historian Dr.
Eusebio Leal Spengler in his book Para no olvidar, (To
Not Forget), support provided by the historic leader
of the Revolution in 1993 was decisive, "... amidst
so many preoccupations and exhausting tasks, (Fidel)
showed an avid interest in developing a formula that
would allow for the preservation of Havana's Central
Historic District." With his signing of a Decree-Law,
the institution took on new, broader functions.
From that moment to date, much work
has been done, but far more lies ahead as Leal told
Granma, "I am never satisfied, I'm always concerned
about what remains to be done; that's why the day we
don't do something is a day lost."
If today Cubans can be proud of a
truly living historic city, it is - to a great
degree - the result of constant efforts made by the
City Historian to save it. "Large works, however,
must always be protected by a forward-thinking state,
which puts culture in its rightful place and, to our
good fortune, we have had this support," he said.
Thus the Central Historic District
has not only improved its facade and renovated some
of its crumbling buildings. Cultural goals are
harmoniously linked to economic objectives directed
toward the country's development, to the restoration
itself and work to support the social recovery of
the area and residents' sense of ownership.
Libraries, historical archives,
schools, archaeological and musical heritage centers,
laboratories, restoration workshops and a trade
school, in addition to hotels, restaurants, cafes
and shops, a senior citizens home and community day
centers for the elderly with medical and pharmacy
attention, a magazine, a radio station have all
emerged as a result of the many efforts undertaken
by the City Historian's Office to better the
Given the times the country is
experiencing and the agreements made at the 6th
Communist Party of Cuba Congress, the City
Historian’s Office is also looking to improve its
functioning and update its work methods. Dr. Leal
explained, "This is part of the institutionalization
of the Cuban state, a government project directed
toward the strengthening of institutions with
precise objectives, intended, first of all, to
separate state functions from those of enterprises,
without ignoring the complexity of the work
undertaken by the Office."
The Historian's Office will be in a
better position to carry out its historical
preservation and restoration projects, making use of
management structures which are flexible and
functional, optimizing the flow of communication and
supervision of the process.
Preserving the original goals for
which the Office was created is essential, therefore
ideas will continue to be incorporated with the
participation of non-state actors as needed, to
begin freeing the Office from responsibility for
activities beyond its purview.
Moreover, the improvement process
should guarantee that financial resources are
directed toward the goals established in accordance
with the Office's mission which has been clearly
defined as proposing,
directing and supervising state and
government policies for the preservation,
conservation and restoration of historical heritage;
as well as promoting the cultural, social, physical
and economic development of the prioritized area in
a sustainable fashion and one in which the community
benefits and is the prime protagonist.
Thus a Central Enterprise Management
Organization for the Historic District was created,
subordinate to the Council of Ministers and
affiliated with the Historian's Office, to ensure
that its component enterprises meet the productive,
economic and development goals set in their plans
and generate the financial resources the Historian's
Office needs to fulfill its mission.
KEEPING DREAMS ALIVE
"One important project of the
Historian's Office has been the recovery of skilled
trades. In Havana's trade school/workshop alone, 500
students are enrolled and identical schools are
supporting restoration efforts in the cities of
Trinidad, Santiago, Camagüey and Cienfuegos," Dr.
"It is important to keep in mind
that at the cupola of this training process today is
the University College where methods of action,
management and direction of cultural heritage are
studied. The institution today stands where one of
the first universities in the country, founded in
1728, was located and which some time ago was
completely destroyed. On the basis of a decision
made by the Cuban state, the space was designated
for the virtual restitution of the lost building and
the restitution university status.
"Within the framework of the
updating of Cuba's economic model, we already have
two cooperatives of ironworkers who graduated from
the aforementioned workshop/school, and such
cooperatives will gradually emerge in other trades,"
the City Historian stated.
Referring to the work currently
underway on communications, electricity, gas, water
and sewer systems serving the Historic District, he
reported that a number of entities are involved,
including the Ministries of Basic Industry and
Communication, in addition to the National Water
Resources Institute. Leal commented that, with its
own resources, the Historian's Office would never
have been able to ensure that the complex project
met current needs and was sustainable in the full
sense of the word.
In addition to these efforts, the
arduous task of decontaminating Havana Bay is being
undertaken. Gannets and other species not seen in
many years are already returning.
The historian also explained that,
based on experience gained over the years, a
decision was made to constitute a national network
of historic cities including the seven which were
Heritage Sites in 1981: Baracoa,
Bayamo, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Santiago de Cuba,
Puerto Príncipe (now Camagüey) and Havana. "Important
restoration projects have emerged in these areas
which have additionally allowed us [to develop]
greater integration and therefore do better work."
Immersed now in more complex
reconstruction of colonial Havana, Dr. Leal
commented on the monumental work underway on the
Capitolio, "Its conclusion is of great importance:
the buildings are not responsible for what
transpired in their interiors and the Capitolio is a
notable work in the nation's architecture and
"In its interior, the history of the
Cuban nation and its struggle for freedom is written
in bronze, in gold, in marble. We should not forget
that the democratic constitution of 1940 was
discussed there. The voices of some of the people's
most genuine representatives were heard and there
was a great debate, although it was later violated
by the dictatorship which usurped the democratic
power of the people and dissolved the legislature.
Returning the National Assembly to its space within
the Capitol is an important objective, beyond the
prejudices which may still exist about its alleged
imitation of the United States Capitol. Its contents
are completely distinct."
"Havana is a gem," President Raúl
Castro Ruz said during the Council of Ministers'
September 21 meeting. Old Havana is history. Not
only in its architecture is it possible to feel this
history, but within its neighborhoods, its streets
and the uniqueness of its people, as well. Raúl
asserted that despite material difficulties the
country now faces, we must think about saving what
remains: a rich history and a broad cultural
Among the most important restoration
projects the Historian's Office is now directing are
the Martí Theater, the Havana Grand Theater and the
Paseo del Prado, in addition to the construction of
hotel facilities, such as those within the block
known as the Manzana de Gómez, which will continue
to be developed over the next several years, with
the goal of reestablishing prestigious locales which
at one time were the living heart of the city.
Thus the nation continues keeping
dreams alive. Saving, protecting, creating
constitute the fundamental tasks of this grand
project, so that the streets of La Habana Vieja may
provide another way to see and love our history.