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

Q&A: ‘It Would Take Several Lifetimes to Save Havana’

Interview with Eusebio Leal

HAVANA, Feb 4 2008 (IPS) - Eusebio Leal has been involved in the restoration of the historic centre of the Cuban capital since 1967, when he began renovating the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, now the City Museum. And while Old Havana is still his priority, he is concerned about the rest of the city, too.



As Havana City Historian, four decades later Leal is still leading the development project, one of the most dynamic on this Caribbean island not only because of its visible impact on the city’s architectural and cultural heritage but also because of its contribution to the steady improvement of the living conditions of the roughly 67,000 people who live in the area.

Just last year, the project in Havana’s historic centre was awarded the Queen Sofía (of Spain) Prize for Conservation and Restoration by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI), and Leal was presented the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) Scroll of Honour for his "painstaking dedication to the restoration and conservation" of Old Havana.

While Old Havana, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site since 1982, remains the priority, the Historian is increasingly turning his gaze towards the other Havana which grew up outside the ancient walls, and which is crying out for urgent intervention.

It would take several lifetimes to save it, Leal acknowledged to IPS correspondents Patricia Grogg and Dalia Acosta in an email interview.

IPS: You have directed restoration work in the historic centre of Havana for a number of decades. How much progress has been made? Is there still much to be done?

EUSEBIO LEAL: A large sector of the historic centre has been restored: four out of the five main squares and the network of streets that connect them have in effect been renovated.

Now one can take a long walk in an area which has been pedestrianised, to enhance people’s appreciation of the sights and facilitate their movement, without the dangers and pollution caused by cars.

But much still remains to be done. I have always said that we would need several more lifetimes to get ahead with the work, and that it would never be finished. Once Old Havana is restored, there is the whole of Havana, the great city, which is already in need of restoration.

IPS: Housing is a serious problem in the capital. What plans are in hand for housing the population of the historic centre?

EL: This is the greatest problem in Old Havana and there isn’t an easy solution. There are several programmes, ranging from emergency action to building new housing, both inside and outside the historic centre.

Old palaces, which decades ago were converted into crowded "ciudadelas" (tenements), are also being restored, and are being reborn as apartment buildings.

But there are many needy families. About half the 22,000 families in Old Havana live in ciudadelas. When a tenement building is reconditioned and converted into a block containing spacious apartments, the number of dwellings is cut by at least half. So we need to build new housing for about 5,000 households.

We&#39re also building housing for the elderly, where specialised care is provided to people in the privacy of their comfortable apartments. Home improvements are also carried out in the vicinity of a strategic building that is being restored, as an offshoot of the main investment.

But the main vision that motivates us is of a vibrant, living historical centre, that is, one where housing has a fundamental role and, of course, all the services associated with a community. That’s why we have restored schools, health centres and specialised clinics, and are working intensively with local families.

IPS: We’re talking about a renovation project with wide social effects. What are the main lines of work in this field?

EL: The restoration of the historic centre is an integrated project which includes the rehabilitation not only of its physical heritage in terms of buildings and public spaces, but also from the social and economic points of view.

Participation by local residents in restoring their cultural heritage, in understanding its value, in enjoying what has been restored and the many social and cultural amenities available, is fundamental. The programme has generated close to 12,000 jobs, nearly half of which have been taken up by residents of Old Havana or of nearby municipalities.

At the former Belén convent an unprecedented social and humanitarian project is being carried out: the needs of thousands of older adults, children from the community, and disabled people are being cared for, and the project reaches out to the homes of those whose limitations prevent them from taking part in the great number of activities that take place there every day.

In 2006 alone we helped over 100,000 older adults.

IPS: Does your office have a diagnosis of the real conditions in Havana? Will there be time to save the city we know today?

EL: It’s true that there are big differences between the restored area of Old Havana and other parts of the city. It’s also true that there are extremely valuable areas in the wider city which need urgent, immediate action to safeguard them.

Havana is a symbol of New Urbanism, which promotes the values of traditional cities as opposed to new developments in isolated suburbs.

It’s a humane, friendly city, the genuine product of several centuries of cultural adaptation, which has survived natural disasters and those brought on by lack of maintenance and overcrowding. The city is still there, deteriorated but in essence preserved as the most complex cultural product bequeathed to us by the generations before us.

At present we’re displaying images of the deterioration and decay in different neighbourhoods, with the goal of raising awareness and getting willing people to join together to recover this beautiful city we have inherited. I’m sure we’ll be capable of restoring it to a great extent, as we commit our efforts and creativity to the task.

IPS: By about 2030, cities in developing countries may house 80 percent of the global urban population. Are Latin American and Caribbean cities ready for so much growth?

EL: Generally, they’re not prepared for it. Many cities in the region are surrounded by huge slums with no infrastructure, no access to drinking water, and serious transport problems.

There is a return to traditional city centres. When cities find themselves unable to spread further, there’s the latent danger of an irresponsible, unplanned return to the historic centre. If there is no control over real estate or land markets, these areas may experience terrible fates.

Already in some Latin American cities the historic centres have been lost forever during development surges in the 1960s and 1970s.

Even when the cultural dimension of historic centres is understood, speculation can displace the resident population, and the problems of marginalisation, to other areas of the city.

You get lovely historic centres, beautifully restored, but empty of content and traditions, because the society living there has changed, or, even worse, the restored luxury houses have become second homes for their buyers.

Restorers have to take on a great challenge: the commitment to maintain buildings, public spaces and the multi-functional, pluri-social essence that should characterise a historic centre that is restored responsibly.

An integrated, multidisciplinary vision is essential, as is the participation of local residents in making major decisions.

IPS: Have you thought what Havana might be like, under a political system similar to that of the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean? Or what it will be like, when your generation has passed and others are in charge of the country?

EL: Laws can be changed, and even the most sacred vows can be forgotten. But when a human community takes upon itself, as part of itself and its own culture, such a formidable task, it’s very difficult to lay aside. Peoples and nations who let such a valuable heritage go to waste do not deserve to exist.

I have confidence and every hope that the social and cultural legacy of our time will prevail.

IPS: What springs to mind whenever you are awarded yet another international prize?

EL: I think it is worth repeating the words of José Martí, which other Cubans, with far more merit, have made their own: "All the glories of the world fit in a grain of maize."

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