Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

/ARTS WEEKLY/CUBA: The Ever New Old Havana

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Nov 29 2004 (IPS) - For anyone, whether they are foreign nationals, people who live on the other side of Cuba, or natives and residents of the capital,taking a walk through Old Havana these days is like discovering a new city.

New museums, concert halls, small shops, cafés, pubs and hostels, bearing the cultural mark of the historic centre of the Cuban capital, come springing up day after day between the renovated walls of buildings that had until recently been lying in ruins.

Cropping up nearby are a centre for women with high-risk pregnancies, housing for the elderly, and a rehabilitation centre for children with degenerative diseases of the central nervous system.

According to Eusebio Leal, the head of Havana’s Office of the City Historian, the programme for renovating the old city is based on the view that “social and community development should go hand in hand with the restoration project.

“There have been previous failures, even in wealthy countries, where restoration has led to the depopulation of the city, transforming an inhabited city into a commercial area,” said Leal.

But the project that has involved years of efforts to salvage and rebuild Old Havana – which was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) list of Heritage of Humanity sites in 1982 – “is well-planned”, said the official in an interview published in the weekly Tribuna de La Habana.

A study conducted this year by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the Cuban National Institute for Economic Research (INIE) described the project for restoring Havana’s historic centre as “a model of social and economic integration”.

The study underlined the political will to carry forward a sustainable project, the existence of a working strategy, and the application of a decentralised model of public and economic administration.

Life changed for the better for local residents in 1993, when the Council of State, the highest governmental organ in Cuba, granted the Office of the City Historian special legal status to run the stores, restaurants and other tourism facilities in Old Havana.

Sources from that Office indicate that between 1994 and 2002, the old city brought in earnings of around 120 million dollars, as well as 12 million dollars in taxes. The main source of income is tourism.

Approximately 45 percent of the funds were reinvested in productive projects in the area, 35 percent went towards social programmes promoted by the Office and the local government, and 20 percent went into the state coffers.

In that period, 76 cultural heritage restoration projects were completed, while 14 hotels offering a total of 413 rooms, another 79 facilities for tourists, including cafés and shops, 11 real estate companies, and 3,092 housing units were built or renovated.

Experts estimate that around 8,300 new jobs have been created in the area for residents of Old Havana and neighbouring municipalities.

A census carried out in Old Havana in 2001 identified housing as one of the most pressing social problems in the area, because more than 45 percent of the houses and apartments did not meet minimal conditions.

Just over half of the almost 67,000 people living in 21,005 housing units in the area are women, and 16.5 percent are 60 or older, in line with national demographics.

To help meet the needs of the elderly, the Office of the City Historian opened a geriatrics centre and is building special housing, with international support.

The idea, according to the ECLAC-INIE study, is to build a number of small individual housing units complemented by others that are used collectively,with the aim of improving the quality of life of senior citizens.

“Several times I have thought of moving to another part of the city but I always stayed,” said Magda Rodríguez, a 27-year-old lawyer who says she is always wary of the possibility of “the corridor crumbling or the kitchen wall collapsing.”

Rodríguez said she dreams of the moment when she can move to transitional housing set up for families whose own homes are being refurbished.

The 2001 census did not find a close correlation between the type of housing and the intention to stay, but reported instead that what prevails is “the sense of belonging to a place.” Rodríguez, like 67.7 percent of the people in the census, said she would not trade her “Old Havana for anything in the world”.

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