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Cuban Restoration Project Pins New Hopes on Old Havana

By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, Monday 25 December 2000;
Page A30

HAVANA - "In each neighborhood, revolution," reads the sign on a sooty Communist Party building in Old Havana. Just next door, there are signs of a different sort of revolution sweeping through the graceful stone buildings and broad plazas.

Workers are salvaging Havana's romantic old quarter from the ravages wrought by centuries on the Atlantic seafront, meticulously restoring block by block what was not destroyed by pirates or the privations of the U.S. trade embargo.

"There is so much work," said Roberto Perez, a former veterinarian who has taken a more lucrative job on an Old Havana construction crew, "so much, that I expect to be working here for at least another eight years.

A New World outpost of wooden huts and fortune hunters almost 500 years ago, Old Havana is now a cornerstone of Cuba's financial future. The restoration is motivated both by a desire to preserve the area's history and the more modern considerations of luring tourists and their foreign currency to the Communist island.

The number of tourists visiting Cuba is increasing by 12 percent a year, according to government estimates that forecast 2 million visitors in 2000. Eight in 10 of them pass along Old Havana's narrow streets where Cubans lean over wrought-iron railings and sway to music from corner cafes.

The neighborhood runs along Havana's famed sea-splashed avenue, the Malecon, before running up the narrow deep-blue channel that opens onto Havana harbor. Freighters dock where Spanish galleons and invading English frigates once did. Streets too small for most trucks open onto wide plazas, carved up by triangles of gardens or marked by a central fountain.

With its antique American cars, shrines to Ernest Hemingway and ubiquitous revolutionary symbols, Cuba at times seems close to becoming a tourist theme park. But the history here is real, especially in Old Havana, which UNESCO named a World Heritage site in 1982. And so is the money emerging seven years after President Fidel Castro, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage, in the depths of Cuba's post-Soviet financial crisis, decided to jump start Old Havana's revival with a $1 million investment.

The restoration project has been in full swing for two years, financed now by annual revenues of about $40 million generated by the government-owned refurbished hotels, galleries and restaurants. At the helm is Eusebio Leal, the city historian who has virtually unchecked power to carry out the work in a country of blanketing bureaucracy. He lectures around the world, reportedly breaks building codes with impunity and reports only to Perez Roque and Castro. More than 150 projects, most in partnership with foreign investors, are in the works under his bustling authority.

"It is the reason for my life," said Leal, 56, while conducting a recent tour of the old city.

At Plaza Vieja, old and new sit side by side. On one corner is a meticulously restored apartment building with iron-filigree balconies and high ceilings now set aside for foreign residents. Across the plaza, laundry hangs from balconies and old men gather daily to play dominoes under the exposed wooden eaves.

"And of course running it all is Eusebio Leal," said Ricardo Becerra, a university teacher from the eastern city of Camaguey who is in town for a conference.

"He's moving mountains," added Mike Phillips, an English teacher at Havana University.

That the city historian is as well known as a baseball star is testament to Leal's devotion to his task. He frequently accompanies Castro on foreign trips, delivering seminars to historic preservationists. What his utilitarian wardrobe lacks in panache he makes up for in the poetry he uses to describe his work.

"Something small for such a great man," Leal said to describe Hemingway's tiny iron bed in Old Havana's restored Ambos Mundos Hotel. Hemingway called the hotel "a good place to work."

Like urban gentrification from Baltimore to Berlin, salvaging Old Havana has a price. More than 35,000 people live within a half-mile radius of Plaza Vieja. Hundreds of them have been moved to distant neighborhoods as a result of the renovation, and many will not return. Only select families, picked by the length of time they have lived in the neighborhood, received temporary housing in American suburban-style miniature villages that sit cheek-by-jowl with the renovation work.

Miguel Angel, a photocopy assistant in a government ministry, has lived 39 of his 43 years in a small second-story apartment on Plaza Vieja. More than two years ago, he was moved out of the apartment during renovation and put up in a complex of two-story metal-sided buildings a block away. Twenty other families are there, too, rotating in and out as the work progresses.

"I thank God for the opportunity to live here and that I will be able to return," said Angel, recalling several longtime neighbors who were moved further away.

Angel's move was supposed to last only a year. He was recently told he would be in by next summer, and he looks forward to leaving the stuffy temporary apartment he says is "fine but not forever."

"Really, though, I think this is a very positive thing," he said of the renovation. "Before Old Havana was a place only for Cubans. Now it is a place for everyone."

2000 The Washington Post