Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Combining Skills Training, Heritage Restoration and Jobs

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Feb 10 2006 (IPS) - “Restoring our heritage is like reliving history day by day,” said Alberto Herrera, making himself heard above the banging of hammers and the strident buzz of a motor saw in this vocational training school in Old Havana, where he is learning carpentry.

In adjoining rooms, other young people can be seen learning the different trades that are taught at the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos school, which has been training workers for restoration and conservation work in the historic centre of the capital for over a decade.

A total of 462 young people graduated from the school between 1992 and 2004, one-fifth of whom were women. About 75 percent are working for the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, which according to head teacher Eduardo González shows the strong sense of “belonging” to the project.

The school views the students as apprentices, and when their two years of theoretical and practical training are up they can choose to work in the Office of the Historian, which is connected with the school, or accept job offers elsewhere. “There is no coercion or pressure to stay with the Office, they make their own choices,” said González.

“I have learned things that I knew absolutely nothing about. There is an enormous amount of work to be done, and I’ll certainly be staying on to work here,” said Herrera, who has already completed half his coursework to become a certified restoration carpenter.

The school was founded on Apr. 6, 1992 as the result of an agreement between the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and the Office of the Historian in Havana, which remained in effect until 2003. Since then, it has been funded by the Cuban government alone.

The project has contributed to the rebirth of crafts that were being lost, and provides the skilled workers essential to saving the heritage of Old Havana. It has also become an important source of employment for young people in Old Havana and other parts of the city.

For the first few years, courses were offered in masonry, archaeology, stone cutting, carpentry, electricity, gardening, blacksmithing, painting, plumbing, glasswork and plastering. Later the number of crafts was reduced, according to need.

“We don’t want to put out graduates who then have no jobs. That’s one of the school’s main principles,” González told IPS.

But demand has grown to such an extent that a new group of 120 students will begin classes in February. Many of the teachers will be graduates from the earliest years, added González, who has headed the programme from the outset.

“There is a need for this skilled labour force. Here we teach them about the heritage aspects, and about the construction features that are typical of buildings in Cuba,” he explained. In the old buildings that are being restored, many systems and features are no longer in current use, which means the restoration workers need special training.

“So our young people learn by working directly on restoration sites, under the supervision of professional builders who have been trained here in Old Havana,” González added.

The Cuban capital was founded in 1519. Old Havana, which was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1982, is one of the most dynamic cultural, tourist and financial centres in this Caribbean island nation.

The school that trains restoration specialists is part of the wide-ranging programme undertaken by the Office of the Historian, which goes beyond the renewal and conservation of old buildings to include the 70,000 residents of Old Havana as well.

González noted that another important aim of the school is to offer young people who have “dropped out” of studies and work the opportunity to learn a trade.

“About 60 percent of the young people who have passed through or are attending our school live in Old Havana, and we would like to see that proportion grow even more,” in order to provide possible solutions to social problems and keep people actively involved in their work. “We want these young people to feel they have a job that is, to some extent, stable,” he added.

“This is great, you learn to work and to be responsible, and that’s helpful for the future. I have felt like a better person since I started working here,” said Juan Alberto Rivero, 21, who specialised three years ago in metalworking, and who lives five blocks away from the school. “I feel pleased and proud when I see the finished buildings that we have worked on,” he commented.

When registration began for the first course at the school, Lissete Roura was 21 and was studying German, with the sole aim of “adding to my knowledge,” she confessed. Now she has no regrets about her decision to specialise in archaeological history. “It completely changed my life,” she stressed.

Beside her, Yadira Arteaga, 27, recalls that she was “hanging around doing nothing, because I hadn’t found my vocation,” until she decided to take on the challenge of learning to restore mural paintings. “I do this work first and foremost because I like it, it’s much more than a means of earning a living,” she said.

Arteaga’s monthly salary is 296 Cuban pesos, equivalent to about 12 U.S. dollars in the government exchange bureaus, plus a “stipend” of 10 convertible pesos (CUC), worth something over 10 dollars, which is paid to everybody working for the Office of the Historian in Havana.

Cuban authorities argue that comparisons between the national currency and the U.S. dollar are misleading, pointing out that the exchange rate does not take into account the free health and education, subsidies in other basic services, and food distributed under the ration card system received by all Cubans.

Housing, however, continues to be a major problem in Old Havana. More than 45 percent of the dwellings recorded in the 2001 census lacked basic amenities, and half were multi-occupancy dwellings, that is, old houses where several families live and share common areas, including bathrooms.

“People with housing and social problems have enrolled in the course, and we try to help them find solutions. In fact, the training they receive puts them in a better position to help themselves and to improve the living conditions of their families,” González commented.

He noted that Latin American cities such as Lima, Peru; Quito, Ecuador; and Cartagena in northern Colombia have set up projects similar to the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos school, although not all are established on such solid institutional foundations.

Restoration and conservation work in Old Havana began in the 1980s, and received a boost in 1993 when the government empowered the Office of the Historian, run by Eusebio Leal, to manage the historic centre of the city in a self-financed way.

Sources at the Office reported that between 1994 and 2002, work on 76 cultural heritage buildings was completed, and on 14 hotels with a combined total of 413 rooms, another 79 tourist establishments such as cafés and shops, 11 real estate offices, 171 social projects and 3,092 housing units.

It is also estimated that more than 11,000 jobs have been created for residents of Old Havana or neighbouring districts as part of the project.

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