Orlando Matos | IPS
Ongoing restoration work in the historic centre of the Cuban capital has been praised by UNESCO consultants, and could serve as a model for preserving heritage sites around the world.
Next year Old Havana will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of its proclamation as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), with one-third of its total area of 2.1 square kilometres completely restored.
Two highly qualified independent experts, architects Sylvio Mutal of the Netherlands and Fernando Carrión of Ecuador, described the work carried out by the Cuban state in that part of the city as “successful and commendable,” in a report commissioned by UNESCO.
More than just a model that can be replicated in other cities, the renovation of Old Havana is a successful policy that demonstrates how, in a situation of tremendous diversity, it is feasible to find solutions, the experts said.
“Certain concepts used in the restoration of Old Havana deserve consideration in the rest of Latin America as well as in other parts of the world. We cannot try to transplant this model, but we should learn from it,” Herman van Hooff, director of UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Culture in Latin America and Caribbean, based in Havana, told IPS.
The consultants’ appraisal appeared in a book, “A Singular Experience: Appraisal of the Integral Management Model of Old Havana, World Heritage Site”, released in late September.
The book is the result of collaboration between UNESCO and the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, which the government of Fidel Castro put in charge of restoration work in the historic centre.
The book documents the restoration, repair and conservation work in Havana’s colonial-era centre in the period 1994-2004, in rigorous detail and depth.
Efforts to revitalise and preserve the heritage site steadily grew during the decade studied, although the first serious steps in this direction date back to the early 1980s.
The recovery of the historic centre started on May 5, 1981, with the first Five-Year Restoration Plan coordinated by the Havana Historian’s Office, which was founded in 1938.
Eusebio Leal, director of the Havana Historian’s Office, came up with the idea for the book. He was backed by Mounir Bouchenaki, former UNESCO assistant director general for culture. The aim was to assess Cuba’s restoration experiences during the decade in question.
In the book, Van Hooff refers to the Cuban experience as an unprecedented model for heritage conservation, achieved without loss of historical authenticity, nor of its enjoyment by the public.
And indeed, a stroll through the fascinating surroundings of Old Havana, which can transport a visitor back centuries in time, creates an impression of a huge museum in which Cubans live in today.
However, this feeling is not a result of magic, but of a careful strategy devised and implemented by the Havana Historian’s Office. From the start, the restoration of the old city was conceived within a policy of including the community.
This policy “is part of a comprehensive vision of what a city’s historic centre should be: the city centre exists for its people, and the residents must appropriate the heritage and the city itself,” Van Hooff told IPS.
The UNESCO official expressed the hope that the island’s experience “will be sustainable in the long term,” because “it’s a management model that generates its own income, which in turn is invested in social and cultural projects.”
According to information from the Havana Historian’s Office, “60 percent of the profits” derived from its enterprises (a number of businesses the Office has established in the tourism and service sectors to raise funds for its work) “are devoted to projects which continue to yield financial benefits for the restoration work, and approximately 40 percent are spent on social projects.”
The book discusses the economic aspects that are the basis of the heritage restoration work. According to Carrión, in terms of the amount of investment it handles, Cuba’s restoration efforts are among the most far-reaching of all the historic city centres in Latin America.
Architect Patricia Rodríguez, head of the Master Plan for the restoration of Old Havana, begun in 1994, told IPS that over the decade referred to in the book, the businesses set up in the historic centre “have generated some 250 million dollars.”
She added that “about 14 million dollars have been raised through international cooperation, another 14 million from taxes on economic activities in the area, and 67 million dollars in loans from Cuban banks.”
Rodríguez said that “all of this has been reinvested in the area,” in addition to the “341 million Cuban pesos (about 13.6 million dollars at the official exchange rate) contributed by the State.”
The City Historian’s Office enterprise system was created in 1994 under Decree-Law 143, enacted one year earlier, to transform the historic centre restoration work into a self-financing activity, rather than one subsidised by the state.
The innovative character of the restoration model for Old Havana, defined by this self-financing facet and its integral approach to social, environmental, cultural and community aspects, makes it an example that could be considered for use in other countries.
The book also contains a plea for international aid to support the rehabilitation of the colonial quarter, as two-thirds of this historic area, home to 66,700 people, still awaits preservation.
Among the buildings yet to be repaired are the Prat Puig house, one of very few remaining examples of 17th-century Cuban architecture, and the Segundo Cabo (deputy governor’s) Palace, the most significant civic monument of the late 18th century.
Rodríguez also pointed out that “a large number of dwellings have already been built,” both inside and outside the historic centre, to relocate local residents in order to continue the restoration of crumbling old buildings.
As she watched the tourists going to and fro in the Plaza de Armas in the historic centre, Zenaida López, a pensioner “born and raised” in Old Havana, did not bother with theoretical complexities involving the restoration, but merely said that “Living here is much nicer now.”