HAVANA TIMES — Eusebio Leal is officially the Havana City historian, but, in fact, he is much more than that – a kind of magician that turns ruins into palaces and abandoned tenements into housing.
Cubans know him simply as “Eusebio,” a man they see in Old Havana every day, walking about in his work clothes. Through his efforts, Old Havana is slowly transformed into a “beautiful city,” a process that benefits the locals most of all. He received us Monday morning, the only time he puts aside for interviews.
The work of Eusebio and his team is in plain sight. He reminds us that “on the 1st, we reopened Havana’s Gran Teatro. The Gomez commercial center is being restored. The Capitolio building is being restored. We are working on a beautiful building that will be the venue of the Alliance Francaise, their largest such venue in the world, with 10,000 students. The Marti Theater was restored. In 2015, we managed to build a number of houses. We’ve kept pedestrian streets open. We’re working to protect the environment in the port area.”
Despite the US blockade, “which places restrictions on what we can purchase and triples the price of things because of transportation distances, Old Havana is self-financed. The State has protected it as much as it can because it considers it a great, inhabited heritage site. It is also the place that visitors from around the world prefer.”
Part of any self-financing process consists in cutting down costs as much as possible. “I visited the US Capitol Hill, because I was interested to see the restoration work they are doing there. I was at a meeting with the architects, project managers and financial team and asked them: ‘how much is the repair of the copula costing you?’ They said that US $ 100,000,000. When they asked me how much ours costed, I said US $ 1 million and they replied in unison: ‘that’s impossible.’ So, the impossible is possible, we’re making it so through huge effort. It’s almost like a construction process in ancient Rome, I don’t even have a crane to get up there. We have to go back to the ingenuity with which great works were built.”
The Social Aspects of Havana’s Restoration Process
In 1967, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales was restored. In 1969, they reopened the Templete site and thus began the physical transformation of Old Havana. During this process, they found that “the entire area was full of shanties. That’s where certain concerns that would steer future plans first emerged, based on the notion that one cannot undertake material restorations of form without addressing the content, the social question, that is.”
The issue of housing is one of the most delicate in Cuba, owing to severe shortages. Old Havana reports the largest population density of the entire island. Leal explains that, “if a palace in Plaza Vieja is inhabited by 64 families, those 64 families cannot continue to live there. One has to create a housing complex and base efforts on the data provided by the census we conduct every 5 years, asking what people want. These people aspire to have a decorous home and every person that leaves Old Havana because of a project undertaken by the Office of the Historian is given a home.”
Apartments were built in different neighborhoods around the capital to relocate families that cannot be accommodated by the restored building. “If you go to Cojimar, for instance, you’ll see a series of decorous homes, with water and other services included. With a few, painful exceptions, we stuck to the following principle: if it’ll kill you to move, you stay, if it’ll kill you to stay, you move.”
At the beginning, Fidel Castro gave the restoration office US $1 million, “which was the only thing the country could give us at the time. An equitable and proportionate part of the resources at our disposal had to be devoted to housing and to creating a community network to support locals. Thus, when we built 19 small hotels that would operate in Old Havana, we also built workshops to teach young people forgotten trades, set up a maternity home, a center for disabled children and homes for the elderly.”
“A total of 1,426 young people have obtained diplomas in all the different trades. They are all the freer for it today because they can put their hands to good use, to build beautiful things like those we saw in the Gran Teatro. We trained a team of professionals who, to my regret, have been hired by the UN as project managers for the UNDP and other organizations. We gave jobs to more than 14,000 people. We created our own communications network and gave homes to more than 11,000 families.”
They also set up classrooms in museums where children receive classes for 2 months, surrounded by the nation’s history. “We based our efforts on the notion that any development initiative that didn’t include the cultural dimension would be decadent. Our work in Old Havana is but an example of a much larger project, a development proposal.”
Havana, Reforms and the United States
Eusebio states that the economic liberalization process “has benefited us. I believe people should do in Old Havana what they are doing, within the law. Today, you walk down O’Reilly street, you head down to the neighborhood of Angel, and you see legitimate initiatives by Cubans flourishing, and families setting up businesses. I think this is ideal, people with their own, restored homes.”
“I want for this to be done properly. I don’t want a mundane and ridiculous concept of prosperity to prevail. I also don’t want us to be crushed by the need to open up spaces for those who visit us from around the world. That’s why the Office of the Historian should always be consulted and why its opinion is essential. It’s not a question of preventing but of steering development.”
Eusebio also believes the rapprochement with the United States will prove beneficial and claims he is not worried about the cultural repercussions of this.
“If we were an island of maracas and frivolity, I would be a bit concerned, but we’re a cultured and educated people. There would be cause for concern if Alicia Alonzo hadn’t been Prima Ballerina at the New York Ballet Company, if Chano Pozo hadn’t been a sensation in the Bronx, if Chucho Valdes hadn’t won so many awards, if our baseball players hadn’t been champions, if Teofilo Stevenson hadn’t brought down some of the best boxing champions, if the island weren’t a hornet’s nest where everyone was willing to put up a fight, if our medical doctors hadn’t combatted Ebola, if Cuban teachers hadn’t taught so many to read and write.”
“I had the honor of being in Washington when the Cuban flag was slowly raised before the new embassy and had the honor seeing the American flag raised here. When Rome defeated a people, the vanquished king was brought to Rome in an iron cage. Cuba wasn’t placed in an iron cage, Cuba arrived on its feet and continues to be on its feet.”
“Havana will be the most beautiful city of all. When you place your hand over a building, no matter where you do this, this building comes alive. Decay vanishes, the veil is lifted and the beauty of the city is revealed. I cry when something collapses, it pains me to see something lost, I am hurt by carelessness, I will always fight for beauty. Justice and beauty are essential.”