Eusebio Leal: Everything can be rectified
By Arianna Barredo Ramos*
An old city which is being revived little by little, where a cultural space lost in rubble and abandonment is emerging into the light. This has been the objective over the years for Havana’s historic district.
Diverse tourism and social projects, under construction and already restored, are making Havana a required destination, for both national and foreign travelers.
“Perhaps this is the moment when we have more and more complex works,” affirmed City Historian Eusebio Leal, leader of the rehabilitation of Old Havana, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
In the Avenida del Puerto area, highly prioritized because, to a large extent, it determines the fate of the old city, the major undertaking is making the Bay of Havana ecologically healthy once again, and it has been possible to eliminate a whole series of facilities and functions, which at one time opened up the port to the world.
This is a state project, closely related to the investment in the Port of Mariel and thus the first step is planning the entire perimeter of the bay; second, making this compatible with the needs of workers, entities and agencies in the area, which has already been organized.
Third is the monumental restoration work of the City Historian’s Office, which currently covers the shoreline running from the La Punta Castle to Atarés Castle.
This area takes in works like the Cubo de Cristal virtually at the entrance to the Plaza de Armas; the Cámara de Rejas of the tunnel which provides hygiene for the old part of the city; meanwhile, another project consists of introducing new networks, the most important of which are precisely water and drainage networks.
Work is also ongoing to recover the port’s historical piers: San Francisco, Santa Clara and La Machina, in the new Regla terminal, which should be completed by the end of next year and, as a result, the clearing of the entire port shore in the Alameda de Paula area.
Other piers in reparation include El Tobaco and la Madera, known for their exports of tobacco and timber. The new project for these is a large beer factory, already concluded, with a large dining room and a lookout over the bay, located on the top floor of the plant.
The San José warehouse has been completed, as has Paula Church, now a musical center, and the Jesús Montané community sports school, and work is now beginning on the Atarés Castle and the railroads to the Railroad Museum in Calle Cristina, whose 40 engines are now being placed on the tracks.
On the other hand, a major restoration project in process is the national Capitolio, a colossal under-taking, divided into segments of diverse arts: its bronze, plaster and gold statues, carpentry and work on the cupola.
On a secondary level is the completion of the Martí Theater, highly significant for Havana and the city’s traditions; work on the Manzana de Gómez block; and the City Historian’ Office is cooperating with a Ministry of Culture project on the Gran Teatro.
Another series of works within the Historic District include a new hotel for students, scheduled for completion at the end of this year; a major housing complex, large public monuments such as those to the Calixto García and Antonio Maceo; the monuments and gardens dedicated to the victims of the Maine battleship; and that dedicated to General Henry Reeve.
Following the line of the Malecón and within the Historic District thousands of people are to benefit this year, both in individual and social terms.
Service facilities include schools, orphanages, gender attention centers, and centers for at-risk sectors of the population, such as the elderly and those with disabilities.
Two large hotels are to go up on the Malecón, one being the former Packard, of which only the façade integrating the structure remains. On the other side, on the corner of the fork formed by the Malecón and San Lázaro, a second hotel is to be built, presiding over both streets like Hercules Columns, the beginning of a Prado Boulevard which is rapidly being restored.
On the margins of these major works, dozens and dozens of homes have been restored, given that it is expressly forbidden by the City Historian’s Office to undertake any work related to image which is not primarily committed to interiors.
The benefits have three dimensions: habitat; image, because it is also important for people to live in a dignified manner; and the need to recompose ways of life within this area. This is why homes have been mixed with building and cultural projects, in an attempt to respect what Cubans have as the “Havana smile” which is the Malecón.
The works are basically focused on Havana’s Historic District. Why is this?
In personal terms, it was like planting a seed, the starting point. Sometimes, and I think too often, I took the example of the wise Ancient Greek, “Give me a lever and I will move the world.” It was necessary to first show a clear example of what was possible and what was unjust, damaging to the image of Cuba and disproportionate damage to future generations, the loss of Havana.
For that reason, the work of the Office is named after the Historic District, it doesn’t say either Old Havana, or the Casco Viejo, because both forms are a bit minimizing; but afterward I realized that Havana had many central districts at distinct points, and all of them had to be subjected to restoration, and which form eclosions within which the possibility emerges.
Thus, we have repaired buildings which are emblematic of its culture or have contributed to it, such as the University of Havana – I call it the city of knowledge – where we have restored the rector’s office, the Aula Magna, the library, including the restoration of murals by Domingo Ravenet, which a whole generation never knew; the Faculty of Law; and we’re now working on the Chemistry Faculty.
The other is the grand cemetery [Colón] which has suffered a lot from neglect, the assumption that it is artistic but not historic. Without what is there, the history of a nation cannot be written.
So we are working on restoring these values, seeking out the disappeared, restoring what has been stolen – let’s talk frankly –and finally place there a legion of young people from the workshop school who, with some professionals, have dedicated themselves to all the large pantheons, the entrance arch to the cemetery and the great figures of history.
What projects does the City Historian’s Office have for the future?
There is a master plan which, in the medium and long terms, is studying the use of the ground and development. Now something new is happening, it is the emergence of new actions, in this case positive ones, and in many cases directed by us, or at least accompanied, looked after by people who have acquired houses, or who have asked for bank loans, or received family support and are founding businesses in the Historic District compatible with this.
The discourse that that the Historic District Center is going to enjoy this has been understood and that destroying it would be a banality and a serious error.
In various places, such as the stretch of Aguilar which runs from the Avenida del Puerto to Cuarteles Street, a transformation has come about with the leadership of community actors and this is inimitable, a kind of positive leaning toward collecting, restoring and putting a final point to that sad and difficult period and, as we know, inevitable, in which things were going; now things are coming back, or at least remaining.
Recently, you were appointed coordinator of the network of offices of Historians and Creators of Cuba. Can you tell us about this new responsibility which extends to other cities in the country?
Legitimate movements are emerging and have emerged, some with a great tradition, like Trinidad, which has had its historians for many, many years.
There is an extremely interesting project in Camagüey; the City Historian’s Office is very like ours and has promoted a process, which as I say, is throwing a stone on a mirror of water, and a very significant restoration movement is emerging from Plaza Agramonte to Plaza del Carmen.
Now what is needed is for everyone to capture this signal and realize that the city is valuable insofar as and as much as it preserves its elements of identity, which is also valid for Havana.
There are two currents, one which restores, which we must immediately prize and recognize, and one which deforms and changes everything in accordance with a kind of nouveau riche fashion. Suddenly, facades are filled with glazed tiles; if only it looked something like what Gaudi did, but it’s like a caricature of his work; plaster lions begin to appear, the weirdest gargoyles, bottles repeated everywhere, colors which do not correspond with Havana, and I believe that all of this must be directed.
In the same way, there is a very interesting and new movement in Sancti Spíritus; another after the hurricane – they were doing it before, but with more strength now – in Santiago de Cuba, an excellent job in Baracoa.
The responsibility lies in organizing the seven cities which are part of the national heritage, to exchange experiences, lend each other mutual aid, create colloquiums for training personnel and capable people and inspire new generations in this kind of pedestrian city.
There is a political will on the part of the nation, the country wants everything, rather than to lose its cultural heritage, but there is always someone who serves as a procuress and is lost and there is always someone who serves as a guide so that she is saved.
President Raúl Castro dedicated his speech in the 1st Ordinary Session of the 8th National Assembly Legislature to order, discipline and rigor in Cuban society. “The most sensitive aspect is the deterioration – real and in image – of Cubans’ rectitude and good manners. It is unacceptable to identify vulgarity with modernity, or vulgar talk and impudence with progress; in the first place, living in society involves assuming norms which preserve respect for others’ rights and decency.” You have worked precisely for this for years. How much remains to be done?
His speech was very brave and takes into account what deterioration is, this loss of the concept of beauty and ways of conducting oneself which are incompatible with the real spirit of a Revolution.
There are certain kinds of behavior which have become legitimized and are unacceptable. There is a confusion between the vanguard and the elite; I do not work for elites, but I do work for the vanguard.
I believe, as a recently deceased great friend of mine, Alfredo Guevara, said, that beauty is the most important thing for humanity, like bread, beauty is its relation with the ideal, with what one wants and feels as an aspiration to live better, in a life which, by its nature, is always brief.
So this disparagement of social works, this wasting of time and energy on restoring a sculpture and the next morning, an unknown appears and writes something barbaric on it, in the name of his incompatibility with whatever, let him do it in his house, but not on public assets.
There is a moment in life for everything, there are moments for laughter, for silence and those for weeping, and this is legitimate, you cannot have partying when you have to weep, there cannot be vulgarity when what is required is to be an example of the finest ways of acting.
We have a rich, beautiful language, and in moments of desperation it is legitimate and almost a consubstantial aspect of language and its history, to use a strong word. But not even on television should we accept as established custom that, in the name of talking like ‘the people,’ that there is a profound confusion.
I fight because everything can be rectified, if I believe in architecture, I believe in human order. I believe that we must educate, there is the way toward the restitution of the founding role of schools, there is a way – and this is in Raúl’s speech – of the value of the family as the appropriate counterpart to schools.
His words must be very much taken into account and we must be really concerned about their being converted into slogans. We must try to make it a daily practice, the daily decalogue of Cubans living positively. (PL)
*Prensa Latina national office journalist.