More bad news for new ideas in Cuba
BY PAUL HARE
Very few without Castro in their name have survived in the leadership of
the Cuban Revolution as long as Eusebio Leal. And he didn't do it by the
conventional means of silence and obedience. He brought loyalty but also
ideas to the Castros. Now the military-run business empire has asserted
itself in Old Havana as elsewhere and Leal appears to have been
Uniquely among Cuban leaders Leal has cared about other things beyond
preserving the Castro Revolution. He has been as fascinated by Cuba's
past as its future. He has received numerous overseas cultural awards
but his stature in Cuba has been that he thought differently.
In 2002 the British embassy in Havana staged a two-month-long series of
events to commemorate 100 years of diplomatic relations between Cuba and
the United Kingdom. We were told it was the largest such festival by an
overseas country ever held in Cuba. Leal was our indispensable ally for
venues, organization, contacts and vision. At times the Revolution's
agenda surfaced and he negotiated hard. But his heart was in the history
of both our countries. Leal even created a garden in Old Havana in
memory of Princess Diana. And as a historian he loved the story of the
British invasion of Havana in 1762.
The military conglomerate GAESA will now assume business control over
Leal's beloved Old Havana project. This has been a labor of love and
ingenuity. But it has also depended on his versatile role at the heart
of revolutionary politics. He proved a man of taste, of determination
but also shone as a contemporary entrepreneur in a Cuba which despises
His versatility served him well. A teenager at the time of the
Revolution, he chose to prove that innovation and a love of past
cultures and elegance could coexist with the new era. He admired Fidel,
a fellow intellectual, and — not accidentally — he was chosen by the
official Cuban media to eulogize his old friend again on his 90th
birthday. Typically, the Revolution was extracting a declaration of
loyalty from a man who was feeling pretty disgruntled.
Times are changing in Cuba and the undermining of Leal's control has
wider implications. He may not be a household name outside Cuba and he
may be in failing health. But his project showed he knew the Castros
would never allow private sector growth to restore the largest area of
Spanish colonial architecture in the Western Hemisphere.
His only chance was to harness funds from tourist visitors and foreign
investors. There is still much to do but the current rush of tourists to
Cuba owes much to achievement.
Leal's fate is nothing new. Set in the 57-year context of the Cuban
Revolution, many able and loyal leaders have been discarded. Felipe
Pérez Roque, Carlos Lage and Roberto Robaina are recent examples. But
Leal had survived and appeared to be growing in stature with Raúl. His
walking tour of Old Havana with Obama received worldwide publicity.
Leal's bonding with the U.S. president may have irked the Castros. The
disintegration of Venezuela and loss of subsidies under Nicolás Maduro
gave the military companies the opening they needed to swoop for Old
Havana. Now, effectively Raúl Castro's son-in-law will rule the roost
and U.S.-operated cruise ships will soon be occupying many berths in the
Old Havana harbor.
But perhaps the saddest lesson from Leal's marginalization is the signal
it sends to Cuban innovators and foreign investors. The restoration of
the Revolution is still more important than the architectural jewels of
past eras. Almost at the same time as Leal's demise, a far less
visionary but unquestioning loyalist, Ricardo Cabrisas, was promoted.
These are indeed depressing times for Cubans hoping for some new ideas
and less of the same.
PAUL W. HARE IS A FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO CUBA AND CURRENTLY SENIOR
LECTURER AT THE FREDERICK S. PARDEE SCHOOL OF GLOBAL STUDIES AT BOSTON
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