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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Business

Preservationists Fear for Havana’s Future

Posted March 03, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Business.
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 23, 2003; Page A31


MEXICO CITY, Feb. 22—It is an image Jeffrey Horowitz cannot bear: Havana, the crumbling colonial gem of the Caribbean, transformed into a generic city of shopping malls, glass office buildings and cul-de-sacs sprouting with as much beauty and planning as garden weeds.

So Horowitz, a leading U.S. architect and urban planner, is in Havana this weekend with a group of high-level colleagues to confer with their Cuban counterparts about the future of a city whose architecture and development have been essentially frozen in time since Fidel Castro took over in 1959.

“This is an innocent, lost city that is going to be raped by the world,” said Horowitz, noting that cash-flush developers from around the world are lining up to get into Cuba the moment the four-decade-old U.S. economic embargo is lifted.

“Everyone says, ‘You’ve got to go now before it’s ruined,’ ” said Horowitz, an architectural designer from California and founder of the Harvard Architecture Review. “What people are all assuming is that this city is going to turn into a nightmare, that it is going to be overrun and look like every other identity-less island resort with a cute historic tourist district on the side. This doesn’t have to happen.”

Horowitz’s group, Urbanists International, which was formed in September, is launching its efforts in Havana at a time of increasingly polarized debate in Washington about Cuba. A growing number of senators and representatives from both parties support lifting the embargo and the travel restrictions on U.S. citizens.

Agricultural interests are also demanding more freedom to sell to Cuba. Under an easing of the embargo passed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, U.S. businesses sold Cuba about $189 million worth of food last year—making the United States Cuba’s 10th-largest trading partner, according to Cuban officials.

But the Bush administration has tightened the embargo and travel ban, and this month stripped language from the federal budget that would have weakened them.

Horowitz said his group assumes that the embargo will be lifted sooner or later. When that happens, he said Havana would be like a city “emerging from a time capsule” that needs to be prepared for the investment and people who will flow in. He said, for example, that the island’s 2 million tourists annually—200,000 of them Americans, visiting legally or illegally—could eventually increase five or six times.

Cuban officials have already laid much groundwork, investing millions of dollars in recent years on preservation and restoration efforts, mainly in Old Havana, the city’s colonial-era heart. Several important squares, notably the elegant Plaza Vieja, have been meticulously restored with tourist revenues pumped into preservation efforts. Buildings, cobblestones and fountains there glimmer in the tropical sun as monuments to a cash-strapped government’s investment in historic preservation.

But the effort is incomplete. A block from the restored tourist areas, families live in crumbling shells of once-grand buildings. Along the seafront boulevard known as the Malecon, a few restored facades stand alongside a sad row of derelict buildings with no windows and falling-down walls. All over the city, gems of architecture, from the classic Spanish colonial homes to Miami-style hipster hotels built by mobsters like Meyer Lansky, sit in desperate need of salvation.

Horowitz said the eventual lifting of the embargo would offer Cuba great opportunities to save those buildings. But he said it would also create an enormous temptation for the government to grab millions dangled by developers who have little concern for preserving Havana’s character. He said Cuban officials need to develop a broad master plan to accommodate growth.

“This isn’t some academic exercise,” Horowitz said. “This is one of those rare moments in time when we really can make a difference. People are sick of seeing their cities destroyed, and this is an opportunity to show people that there is a different way of doing things.”

Many high-ranking Cuban officials are participating in this weekend’s visit, including Eusebio Leal, who has overseen the restoration efforts in Old Havana. The Cuban government is scheduled to co-host a larger conference with the U.S. group in June.

Horowitz said Urbanists International is nonprofit and nonpolitical and will visit Cuba on an informational exchange that will violate no U.S. laws. He said the group would not actually help draw a master plan or offer any paid services, but would simply offer ideas.

The 32-member delegation includes two members of Congress, California Democrats Rep. Sam Farr and Rep. Barbara T. Lee, as well as former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke and the planning directors of Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. It also includes some of America’s top architects and designers, including Fred Koetter of the Yale School of Architecture and Harrison S. Fraker Jr. of the University of California at Berkeley.

Those officials and architects will describe their experiences with urban planning in cities as diverse as Knoxville, Tenn., Beijing, Beirut and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

James R. Jones, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who is not associated with Urbanists International, said the group’s trip to Cuba illustrated the growing interest in Cuba among a “broad scope” of Americans. Jones chaired a policy group, composed of Republicans, Democrats and members of the Cuban-American community from Miami, which issued a report last month calling for normalized relations with Cuba.

“There have been changes in attitude in the United States and Cuba,” Jones said, “and this group senses that.”


2003 The Washington Post Company

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