By Jeff Franks Jeff Franks – Thu Feb 25, 11:06 pm ET
HAVANA (Reuters) – Every winter, tourists from frozen homelands in the
north fill the sunny streets of Old Havana admiring its picturesque
colonial buildings and centuries-old squares.
They sip mojitos in the Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway
supposedly hung out, eat in atmospheric restaurants along Calle Obispo
and stay in lovely old hotels restored to their former glory as part of
a massive remake of Havana's historic center by the Cuban government.
But if they walk a few blocks on, they leave the manicured surroundings
and emerge into a different Old Havana, where broken, unpainted
buildings line pothole-filled streets and history is not recreated, but
lived in a continuum of decay.
There, people live in rundown apartments, get their monthly food ration
at spartan government stores and buy their drink at state-run shops
where wine and rum are served in old water bottles.
With its two very different faces, Old Havana is both the centerpiece of
Cuban tourism and a symbol of the city's larger problems.
Cuba's capital, founded beside Havana Bay by the Spaniards in 1519, is a
place where the past is remarkably intact, but thousands of its historic
buildings are threatened by neglect and the government's inability to
In a race against time, time is winning, except in part of Old Havana
where more than 350 buildings have been restored in a widely praised
operation led by city historian Eusebio Leal.
He and a group of colleagues began the effort in 1967, but it took wings
in 1994 when then-President Fidel Castro put Leal in charge of a
state-owned firm to restore the old quarter using profits from the money
spent there by tourists.
"We define our battle in Old Havana as a defense of utopia," Leal told
Reuters in an interview.
He said tourist spending allowed him to invest $20 million in the
project last year as half a million visitors traipsed through Old Havana.
PRESERVING THE PAST
The amount of money is small compared to the need, he said. A
pre-restoration study found 4,000 buildings in Old Havana's 1.3 square
mile (3.4 square km) area, virtually all historically valuable and in
Leal would like to expand preservation to historic neighborhoods like
Central Havana and Vedado, and has done a few renovations outside of Old
Havana as "sources of inspiration."
"But economic resources are decisive, and we cannot stray too far from
the source, nor the idea of the core," he said.
Havana is a treasure trove of architectural history with block after
block of historic buildings in styles ranging from colonial to
modernism. Most need repair and many have already fallen.
When Hurricane Ike brushed the city in 2008, 67 buildings collapsed,
raising fears about what will happen when a big storm hits Havana head on.
The most basic problem is a lack of maintenance for many years following
the 1959 revolution that transformed Cuba into a communist state. The
new government focused on building infrastructure in the impoverished
countryside and basically ignored Havana.
Leal said Cuba does not have the money to do more, due in part to the
longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the island. "We have lived for
more than 50 years in an economic and commercial war," he said.
Government opponents blame the communist system Fidel Castro put in
place and the economic woes that followed.
Leal argues that the revolution saved historic Havana from Cuban
capitalists, who he said had plans to replace old buildings with new,
even in Old Havana.
"Without socialism, Old Havana would not be preserved," he said.
About 6 percent of Old Havana restoration funds come from organizations
such as the United Nations, but more could be done if the government
allowed greater private investment from abroad, said Bernd Herrmann,
head of the Havana-based Swiss travel agency Cuba Real Tours.
Cuba has a problem in that many visitors come - 2.42 million in 2009 --
but, due to insufficient tourist infrastructure and poor service, do not
return, Herrmann said.
"If they would let in investors, the satisfaction of the clients would
be greater. We'd have more repeaters," he said.
Other ideas have been floated about how best to save Havana's history,
including at least two proposed city plans, one by the architecture
school at Florida International University in Miami, the other by Cuban
architect Julio Cesar Perez Hernandez.
Perez Hernandez said he drew up a plan because the government does not
have one and the city desperately needs it. "It's overwhelming. When I
see how much should and could be done to give Havana back its glorious
image, I suffer."
It is likely a moot point for now because Cuba has been hit hard by the
global recession, so the government is more concerned with putting food
on Cuban tables than preserving the past.
There is a social side to the project in Old Havana, where Leal said
schools and health clinics have been restored or constructed, and the
program's 16 hotels create employment.
But many locals say they have to illegally sell cigars to tourists or
serve them meals in their homes or just try to befriend them in hopes of
getting money because while Old Havana flourishes, they do not.
"The people in Old Havana benefit from tourism from the things they do
on the side," said Diogenes, who is trying to make his rustic home
presentable so he can rent rooms to tourists. "I only want what I need
to live. I don't want to be rich."
(Editing by Kieran Murray)
Cuba struggles to preserve past in hard times - Yahoo! News (25 February