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Posted April 09, 2007 by publisher in Business In Cuba

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By Mike Di Paola | Bloomberg

“There might be 50 families living in there,” says my Cuban guide, Osmin. He points to a squalid Havana building on the Plaza Vieja, one of Old Havana’s grand colonial squares. Almost all the surrounding buildings are sparkling and freshly renovated. Standing beside its glammed-up neighbors, one three-story eyesore looks like a tramp in a chorus line.

Soon, though, the casa will be sparkling like the rest. The families will be moved out during renovations; many won’t be allowed to return. ``One of the big problems in Havana has been overcrowding, and they don’t want to make that mistake again,’’ Osmin says.

While the government of Cuba has committed many sins, allowing the decay of the country’s architectural treasures is no longer among them. The Plaza Vieja is a case in point, the last of the old city’s four main squares to be renovated. The square reflects a confluence of styles—baroque, art nouveau, neoclassical—brought back to life in the stately balconies, limestone columns and wrought-iron gates of the 19th-century mansions. Some of them looked ready to fall down not so long ago.

Bullfights, public executions and assorted fiestas once took place here. Now, it’s one of the crown jewels of Old Havana, both a key tourist attraction and a moneymaker—no small feat in a communist country.

The government recognized Old Havana’s value in 1977, declaring it a national monument; Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site five years later. Since then, the city historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, has headed the ambitious renovation project that will likely be many decades in the making. Leal wields considerable power over the entire effort. With atypical autonomy, he decides which buildings get restored, oversees the work crews and has a say about who occupies the revitalized structures.

Cafe Society?

Critics say the historian’s office has disrupted neighborhoods and displaced longtime residents, giving priority to museums, hotels and cafes. It may seem unfair, but it’s a strategy designed to be financially self-sustaining, since about a third of the revenue generated from tourists is reinvested in more preservation. So far the system works and the pace is picking up: only 57 buildings were restored between 1981 and 1993, but another 300 over the following decade.

Ironically, the Cuban revolution and subsequent failures of the Cuban economy have helped preserve some of the best of Old Havana. Castro never liked the city much, so he concentrated his development projects in rural areas, leaving Havana mostly alone. While hundreds of historic buildings were left to decay, at least they weren’t demolished and replaced with concrete boxes.

Collapsed Hotel

The restoration of the Plaza Vieja is now almost complete. Besides the casa, only a 1906 structure on the square’s southeast corner awaits repair. The Palacio Cueto, with its gaudy, and perhaps Gaudiesque, art nouveau facade, will be a premier hotel when restored, but today it looks like a trauma patient, more scaffolding than building.

``The interior fell in,’’ Osmin tells me. ``Collapsed, roof and all. It’s amazing the outer walls did not fall down with it.’‘

Through the scaffold I can see the solid, intricately carved telamones propping up the archway over the main entrance. ``That kind of craftsmanship has to be relearned if they are to restore it accurately,’’ Osmin says. He explains that specialized trades lost to Cuba—carpentry, stone, iron and woodworking skills—are being resurrected throughout Havana. In 1992, the city historian, with help from the Spanish government, set up a school for artisans, La Escuela Taller Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos.

Plaza Vieja’s centerpiece, a fountain of Carrara marble that is an exact replica of the Giorgio Massari piece destroyed in the 1930s to accommodate a parking garage, is a testament to the city preservationists’ attention to detail.

Artistic Flowering

Old Havana is packed with about 66,000 residents. Nearly half of them might be displaced because of renovations. Yet preservation efforts are also spawning new opportunities for Cubans: Artists are getting gallery space all around Old Havana. Nelson Dominguez, for one, a modernist painter, has a prime spot right on the corner of the Plaza de San Francisco, another of Old Havana’s grand public squares. The other winners are tourists from Canada, Europe and Latin America who have witnessed the city’s remarkable revitalization.

Americans, of course, are largely left out. Cuba has been steadily building up its tourism infrastructure and now attracts more than 2 million visitors annually. Only about 40,000 are from the U.S., most of them sneaking in via Mexico or the Bahamas, as I did. The beauty of Havana’s preservation strategy is that as more visitors come, more cash is generated to fund more preservation projects, and thus attract more visitors—a positive feedback loop if ever there was one.

(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Mike Di Paola at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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  1. Follow up post #1 added on April 09, 2007 by Cuban American

    First of all, I think everyone who has read my posts knows that I am heavily against communism and the Castro regime but wow, what a contradiction of communism if I have ever heard one.  Wait… let me get this straight…. they are kicking people out of there homes, in order to create room for hotels and business geared at tourism to generate more profit…... can anyone say capitalism… isn’t that what they are against?  Is anyone else reading this?!?!  This is just sad. 

    Its great that they are renovating buildings because everyone knows Castro has just let the visual appeal of Cuba go down the drain over the years, but kicking people out of there homes to do so is rediculous.  I thought he was for his people? This should just show everyone once again how full of shit that regime is (pardon the language)


  2. Follow up post #2 added on April 09, 2007 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    It does say that maybe 50 families live there then

    “The families will be moved out during renovations; many won’t be allowed to return.”

    Maybe some will be allowed to return and the rest will be a hotel?

    However, I do think that Habana Vieja is being restored for the tourists, not the current residents.



    Cuba consulting services

  3. Follow up post #3 added on April 09, 2007 by Cuban American

    “Old Havana is packed with about 66,000 residents. Nearly half of them might be displaced because of renovations. Yet preservation efforts are also spawning new opportunities for Cubans: Artists are getting gallery space all around Old Havana. Nelson Dominguez, for one, a modernist painter, has a prime spot right on the corner of the Plaza de San Francisco, another of Old Havana’s grand public squares. The other winners are tourists from Canada, Europe and Latin America who have witnessed the city’s remarkable revitalization. “

    Nearly half will be displaced, thats 33,000 people permenently kicked out of there homes, to generate space for art galleries and hotels and restaurants for guess who?.... the other winners, which are the tourists.  If this does not scream out hypocracy, I don’t know what does.  Plus the hotels do the cubans no good because even if they have the money to stay in them, they are not permitted.


  4. Follow up post #4 added on April 09, 2007 by Pete Chavez

    Old Havana is a whole city in of itself.  This is what separates us mainly from most other new world Latin American cities where they left 2 0r 3 square blocks of historical buildings and raised the rest in favor of bland modern architecture.  This midcentury explosion of what is known as the international style of building left most cities in Latin America (and most abundantly in the U.S.) robbed of any cultural identity.  Our built environment is an important part of the Cuban patrimony.  Havana was right in step with the times just before the revolution.  High rises had been rising for 20 years and just prior to the revolution some (what I can only imagine to be criminally insane) developers were in the process of building a floating island off of Malecon for a casino/hotel complex (all in the name of progress of course).  In the process they were going to demolish most of the abutting neighborhoods of Old Havana in favor of PARKING!  Imagine that.  If there is anything that I could ever say that has positively affected Cuban Culture because of the revolution, I would say it’s the lack of interest in Havana.  They were too arrogant to have value for our past so they let it slip into decay and over populated it adding to the near extinction of our beautiful city.  I know hard currency is their only incentive but as long as our built enviroment is being protected, restored and resurrected I am fine with what they are doing.  I am not happy either about anyone being kicked out of their homes and I know that this is not the only solution but I rather displace 66 thousand Cubans (that have brains and are capable of surviving) than watching our built history turn into dust.  And just wait until Cuba is free, the real fight to protect Havana and her sister cities from the free market city planning style of the U.S. will begin.


  5. Follow up post #5 added on April 09, 2007 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Pete,

    I agree with you.

    I heard or read somewhere that poverty is the friend of preservation. I suppose communism is the friend of preservation too?



    Cuba consulting services

  6. Follow up post #6 added on April 09, 2007 by Pete Chavez

    Publisher,
    It’s a lottery with communism.  Preservation via communism was great for Prague, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Dubrovnik.  Not good at all for Moscow, Kiev, Bucharest, East Berlin.  Lately I have been reading how the ancient historical neighborhoods of Bejing are being demolished in favor of luxury high rises that resemble Miami Beach Condos with names like “The California” or “The Riveria”.  New York (where I live) is a disaster of city planning mainly because the rules that guide what gets built are determined by it’s tax earning potential.  Here it’s a culture of money instead of a culture of culture as with Paris, France. That’s why Paris is Paris.  City planning there is made by a centralized authority with quality of life for it’s citizenry as it’s only agenda (that is the best friend of preservation),  it’s not very democratic at all but that’s a good thing if you believe in urbanity.


  7. Follow up post #7 added on April 14, 2007 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Sorry about the “French” post. It was a comment spammer. Comment removed and member has been banned permanently.



    Cuba consulting services

  8. Follow up post #8 added on April 17, 2007 by Orestes Gonzalez, NYC

    It is true that the last 50 years of communism have ironically been kind to the fabric of Old Havana. This benign neglect has preserved the great architectural legacy of the capital. Thankfully, the preservation wave that started 20 years ago is now saving it from oblivion.
    But as with anything that involves urban dynamics, it is the small scale commercial activities that will make the cuban capital shine. Preservation without mercantilism is banal and soulless.

    I recently went to Vietnam ,and was taken aback by the similarities between Hanoi and Havana. The colonial architecture, the light, the humidity and vegetation. I kept thinking back to the images I had of Havana when I was a kid and from old photographs.  And then I sadly thought of todays Havana…

    Hanoi has a huge difference in its spirit that made it complex and exciting. The varied shops, the barber cutting hair on the sidewalk, the food vendors selling Pho on every corner, the artisans selling their wares ...it was a kaleidoscope of smells, of color, an effusiveness and energy that Havana has not had since 1959.

    The Old Havana of today, with its lack of real shops, street vendors, or anything resembling street life that is not approved by the government, is an empty shell. (If I hear one more travel writer extoll “the Bodeguita del Medio”, I am going into rehab).
    Pristine Old Havana, with its populace prohibited from making a buck (unlike Hanoi), is boring and ‘official”, and not emblematic of what the cuban capital’s spirit of fun, inventiveness and sultriness is all about.

    Why did the government close the “paladares”....why did they get rid of all the sellers in the Plaza de la Catedral? Is making a buck and having street culture really so counterevolutionary? Its SO Cuban!

    Vietnam is a communist country, yet they dont interfere with people’s life so thoroughly that it deprives the society at large from making their city alive and buzzing with the human activity that we all identify with, which is personal freedom of choice. Why not in Cuba…?

    I thoroughly approve of all the restoration going on now and wish for an acceleration of the process to save the “mid impotant” structures that need to be saved to firm up the urban fabric. Keep on truking!
    Hopefully, this will all be ready for the time when Cubans from all over the city will have the chance to stroll by, or own a real cafe or store , sell tamalitos on the street, open up a laundromat so we can sit in front of it , have a cortadito and croqueta from the woman who sublets a space there, and read a ” real paper” chosen from the many being offered by the newsseller across the street. Imagine what a city that would be….wow.

    We cant all be educated intellectuals and not every Cuban wants to be one. But most of us do want to live with the feeling of incentiveness in our belly.
    Thats what makes a city “real”.


  9. Follow up post #9 added on April 17, 2007 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Great insight. Thanks for your post.



    Cuba consulting services

  10. Follow up post #10 added on April 23, 2007 by Cassandra

    Can anyone suggest an alternative to being “kicked out of your home” to improve your living conditions if your home is currently a two-room apartment occupied by eight people?


  11. Follow up post #11 added on April 23, 2007 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    The Cuban government will assign them temporary or permanent housing. Not a great alternative but doesn’t sound like a great place to live in the first place.



    Cuba consulting services

  12. Follow up post #12 added on August 23, 2008 by ERIC,NYC

    People are retarded…..Of course people will have to be displaced.How else can the buildings be restored? And what? Cram them back with 100 people per palace again ????
      From what I am seeing,there has been a resumption of construction of new apartments around Havana’s periphery and many of these are going to families that will be displaced by the restoration .....
      Those families who have been in any palace or building for generations will stay….Those that came from the provinces and lived in a rooftop “bajareque” or subdivided and degraded “barbacoa” will be given new apartments….
      The main problem??? Money and an incompetent and myopic Cuban bureacracy( BURRO-CRAZY) ......
      OBAMA….Please keep the embargo !! Just let us visit our homeland and take money…..I think I will die the day I see a McDonald’s in Cuba….I will be mortified !!!


  13. Follow up post #13 added on August 24, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    just my opinion - but I think when the embargo is lifted (not if), for quite a while the Cuban government is still going to tightly control things so no McDonalads etc on every street corner.
    Of course it could be that the govt (either present composition or future) could discover there are big bucks to be made (call it commissions) by discarding these principles and then of course anything goes (maybe even Lansky’s ghost is waiting on the sidelines).  A whole lot will depend on how greedy the government gets, the people get and the influence of the Miami Cubans


  14. Follow up post #14 added on August 24, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    PlazadeConsumoF.jpg

    Posted with permission from the creator…
    The future nightmare of downtown Havana your mother warned you about…..


  15. Follow up post #15 added on August 24, 2008 by ERIC,NYC

    Manfredz,I totally agree with your assessment .I hope you have seen the movie MEMORIAS DE SUBDESARROLLO…....

      It could also occur that since now Cuba is in new and culturally smilar and superior spheres of influence,we may have Iranian cultural centers,which would be wonderful !!! Better to have the glories of ancient Persia and not the “music” of “50 cent”....We may have new barrios chinos,Mandarin schools,AREPA JOE’S(made up) and Siemen’s locomotives and a bullet train from Pinar to Guantanamo…..Oh,and Guantanamo must be given back to Cuba…..Not only is it an affront,it is an anachronism and after being a concentration camp for a neo-con war of aggression (ABU GHRAIB OF THE CARIBBEAN),it is a no brainer,The first thing OBAMA could do is to close down the base and give the land back ......Once that is done,then they can tear down the only McDonald’s on the island which is in the base !!!

      I also gush knowing that Spain’s Melia RUNS the north coast of Cuba and the best resorts in Cuba .There are the 2 Melias in Havana and the old Hilton was sold to Tryp(Melia group) !!! One bitter Miami Cuban businessman even went on to say that Melia would regret its dealings in Cuba….gee,sounds like sour grapes !!! The Americans have lost out on the prime areas and it thrills me !!!!
    Cubans should not forget that the US gave less than a damn about their well being…..all for one man and the ones he murdered and the hundreds of thousands he caused to flee and has worked to death and outright killed.You know who,the one that used to give six hour diatribes in the sun?
      Unfortunately,Cubans crave what they have been deprived of and I can’t blame them.Cuba had everything the US did in the 50’s.When “Mr. Ed ‘El Caballo’ came to power,time ceased and everything rotted .It must have been fascinating for the first 5 years but it lost its spark.Nothing good came out of that revolution overall.The price was to high.Its leader a narcissist in the purest sense.Microbrigade housing was destructive to the collective soul of the Cubans.The Bio-tec industry is great but 99% of Cubans could not find an aspirin when they had a headache…..and that would be every day in Fidel’s Cuba.

      Nikes and cell phones are fine but I hope that by then, Havana’s beauty will be more obvious as more work is done on the city,slow as it is ,it does seem to be radiating all over the central districts.(Habana Vieja,Centro Habana,Vedado and Miramar and especially around the odd array of buildings in Monte Barretto…..Ugly as it may be,well perhaps architecturally incongruent….the areas does not look quite like anything in the US !!! The old Soviet Embassy and the Neptuno-Triton twins make sure of that !!!
    Perhaps the pathetic failues could put their McDonald’s waaay out in Havana’s periphery or at the airport.
    We need a metro as well…..that will be in 25 years !!! They were gonna build one but the USSR died.

      In the end,it may be that with a more health conscious America(bahaha!!),McDonald’s and KFC,Burger Hut and whatever garbage can come out of these United States,Cuba will always be light years from the US,unlike Puerto Rico…...I mean,good for them,have you seen PR lately? It is a Southern state !!!Crime and all !!
      50 years of isolation has been good and very bad for Cuba…..Now that the country is getting on its feet without the US,why start a new bad habit ?
    People never learn !!! Greed will take over .

    Let me end it by saying that I have met with Eusebio Leal several times and to me he is a hero…..The guardian of Cuban history.He is making today’s Cubans aware that the new city they are seeing is their identity.His dedication is appreciated by intelligent Cuban minds across the straits….I don’t think most Americans coming to Cuba will be interested in nothing more than rum ,girls and sex or family resorts…..Europeans see a mix of nearly 500 years of Mediterranean and African cultures 90 miles from the US and they are fascinated by Cuba.

      I know the McDonald’s will come…..not in the next 10 years though.When Americans do come,they will be too whiny about the glitches that will plague Cuba for a decade or more.

      I have not been back since 2000…...I cannot wait to go back when this sub-human Bush leaves office and hopefully winds up at the Hague !!
    What I find most shocking about the pictures I see are Japanese tourists in Havana !!! Never seen in it in person !!!

      Your plaza de la catedral collage is delightful !!!!    Eric,NYC


  16. Follow up post #16 added on August 24, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    like i said, it wasnt mine, but i asked the person who created it for permission to use.
    Yes, it is interesting to see “exotic tourists”  among the Canadians and Europeans - Cuba, despite its major problems, does have a charm, which I hope it manages to hold on to as it works out its major problems.
    If most Americans end up coming to Cuba for the things you mention, it wont be so different from what many (but not all) Canadians and Europeans come for. What will make it different is many more short term tourists since its just a very short flight from Florida, and many many ex-Cubans wanting to revisit their homeland or the homeland of their parents. Saw that after teh Iron curtain came down in Europe.  Many Germans wanted to visit their old homelands in what is now Poland and Czeckoslovakia.  Fortunately most went with a curiousity rather than a “wanting back” outlook - hopng the many ex Cubans can do the same.


  17. Follow up post #17 added on August 24, 2008 by ERIC,NYC

    Well,when I travel to the places I go to,I don’t mind sampling the local meat myself but those are not my reasons for traveling…..sex is a human thing afterall…..

    Cuba certainly does have more than charm…...it has a sublime natural beauty and wonderful architectural gems of towns throughout…..Towns that could become big cultural attractions are still in a sleepy haze.

    In Oriente Baracoa is big but others like Gibara,Puerto Padre and Manzanillo could become really interesting…...

    San Miguel de los Banos is an old resort that sits in disrepair…..

    The city of Matanzas ,which was the “Athens of Cuba” was referred to in Bohemia magazine in 1986 as “just a bus stop”,its rich culture a distant memory.

      Sagua la Grande,where Wilfredo Lam is from is a dilapidated gem of 19th and early 20th century architecture as is Caibarien to a lesser extent…..These cities along with Remedios offer three very different styles of Cuban urbanism and architecture,along with nearby beaches and valley scenery.

      As for the waves of Americans,I refer to those who would come on Spring Break(heaven forbid),hopefully they would stay in the beaches and not spoil places like Trinidad and Cienfuegos…..

      There is a hotel in Cienfuegos that is being restored,the SAN CARLOS….c.1920 and will be the third important hotel in the city after the Jagua and the Union.

      Camaguey city will probably not be a place many “Spring breakers” will see much of…...too far from the beach.

      Luckily ,as you say,Cuba will be a long weekend and they can go home.

    I have no doubt that some Cubans will go back ,especially recent arrivals since the ones that left in 1959-61 ,like my parents are in their 80’s but recent arrivals (Mariel) still have ties to the island and may “commute between their homes in Miami and Cuba…...These things could be a reality as soon as 2010.

    I am 44 and I intend to have my winter place…..where ,I won’t say !!!

    Ahhh !!! So many possibilities !!!


  18. Follow up post #18 added on August 24, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    Canadian students are discovering Cuba (especially Varadero) more and more each year and as spring breakers everywhere, are disrupting things to various degrees.  But, like elsewhere, people are learning to avoid certain resorts at certain times if they want to avoid spring breakers.
    From what I heard in a couple of extreme cases this past spring break, one group was relocated to another hotel where they would be more tolerated and another more roudy group got an escort to the airport and put on the next planes back to Canada. Don’t know about the long run, but in teh short run, I don’t think the Cuban authorities will be quite as tolerant as, say those of Cancun, for spring breakers.


  19. Follow up post #19 added on August 24, 2008 by ERIC,NYC

    Thanks so much for that tidbit of information…...It is very gratifying that the Cuban government will not put up with such nonsense….
    “Spring break”......like all things coming out of the US,is a cancer….

    I know you said they were Canadians…...

    The only good thing about America in Cuba are the old cars…....America,and Cuba were different then.

    So I guess that my predictions of the rowdy youth staying at the beaches is pretty correct.
    Such behaviour would certainly get Canadians arrested in Havana and the interior…..not a very desirable way to spend spring break…..In detention awaiting deportation !!

      Can’t wait to go to a post Bush,post Fidel Cuba in 2009 !!!!

      Despite Raul in power,Raul is not Fidel…..I don’t think Raul could take Cuba looking the way it was and our people suffering any further as the hunger in the 60’s and during the “special period” when people looked like they were starving and were going blind from malnutrition.I went to Cuba for 10 days in 1994 and it was quite desolate and terrifying.
      I suppose there are no more 18 hour blackouts….well,to be fair,I went twice in 1998 and once in 1999 and 2000 and blackouts seemed to be on the wane.


  20. Follow up post #20 added on August 24, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    In 4 trips in the past 2 years, to Varadero and Playa del Este, I think i eperienced 2 power outages each one lasting less than a second.  Understand electricity is not quite as reliable outside the large urban areas, but its not a major headache anymore anyway either..  Although far too many people aren’t living as well as they could and should, don’t think anyone is starving either. In Havana, Varadero, Trinidad and SDanta Clara, I noticed teh stores in which you have to pay in CUC to be both well stocked and lots of (Cuban) buyers.  Sad to say, in the CUP stores, its still a somewhat desolate picture with lots of potential customers and relatively little to buy.
    Thats why Raol has to do some significant economic reforms pretty soon.
    Varadero (Cuban) youths in designer jeans with cell phones and digital cameras etc and bare shelves in CUP stores don’t go well together.  But maybe the government can turn things around - one only has to look at what the Astro buses did to transportation and the new buses in Havana (Yutang or something like that) to show what can be done..  Yet even so, the packed buses and hundreds of hitchhikers you see on the road just between Havana and Playa del Este (not exaggerating) show how much still needs to be done even in this area.
    I hope you get to go soon and see a Cuba with a hopeful future.


  21. Follow up post #21 added on August 24, 2008 by ERIC,NYC

    Thanks so much for all the detailed updates !!! I have certainly seen the new buses and they are better than those fearsome camellos….my god !!

      I think that once the elections are done with,Cuba and the US have some scores to settle .......Like I said,keep the embargo,let Raul make some economic reforms…..With moderate prosperity everything else will fall into place.
      The “yanquis” will NEVER meddle in Cuban affairs AGAIN!!

      Let the Cubans travel to Cuba and take money+economic reforms and things will start to flourish.

      HOPE…...A word that is never redundant when it comes to Cuba.
      My family is from Puerto Padre.


  22. Follow up post #22 added on August 24, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    ahh down by the Holguin area ...quite popular for lots of tourists who are tired of or don’t want the Varadero scene.  A bit of research has also shown that the Villa Covarrubias is also popular to a small group of Canadiansand otehrs who have been there have written very very negative reviews.
    Next trip I want to still stay in the Playa del Estes area to continue exploring Havana and get up to Vinales.
    Think after that its off to the other end, either Holguin or Santiago de Cuba direction (was briefly in Santiago last year when I took train from havana down)


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