Every winter, tourists from frozen homelands in the north fill the sunny streets of Old Havana admiring its picturesque colonial buildings and centuries-old squares.
They sip mojitos in the Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway supposedly hung out, eat in atmospheric restaurants along Calle Obispo and stay in lovely old hotels restored to their former glory as part of a massive remake of Havana’s historic center by the Cuban government.
But if they walk a few blocks on, they leave the manicured surroundings and emerge into a different Old Havana, where broken, unpainted buildings line pothole-filled streets and history is not recreated, but lived in a continuum of decay.
There, people live in rundown apartments, get their monthly food ration at spartan government stores and buy their drink at state-run shops where wine and rum are served in old water bottles.
Cuba’s capital, founded beside Havana Bay by the Spaniards in 1519, is a place where the past is remarkably intact, but thousands of its historic buildings are threatened by neglect and the government’s inability to preserve them.
In a race against time, time is winning, except in part of Old Havana where more than 350 buildings have been restored in a widely praised operation led by city historian Eusebio Leal.
He and a group of colleagues began the effort in 1967, but it took wings in 1994 when then-President Fidel Castro put Leal in charge of a state-owned firm to restore the old quarter using profits from the money spent there by tourists.
“We define our battle in Old Havana as a defense of utopia,” Leal told Reuters in an interview.
He said tourist spending allowed him to invest US$20 million in the project last year as half a million visitors traipsed through Old Havana.
PRESERVING THE PAST
The amount of money is small compared to the need, he said. A pre-restoration study found 4,000 buildings in Old Havana’s 3.4km2 area, virtually all historically valuable and in bad shape.
Leal would like to expand preservation to historic neighborhoods like Central Havana and Vedado, and has done a few renovations outside of Old Havana as “sources of inspiration.”
“But economic resources are decisive, and we cannot stray too far from the source, nor the idea of the core,” he said.
Havana is a treasure trove of architectural history with block after block of historic buildings in styles ranging from colonial to modernism. Most need repair and many have already fallen.
When Hurricane Ike brushed the city in 2008, 67 buildings collapsed, raising fears about what will happen when a big storm hits Havana head on.
The most basic problem is a lack of maintenance for many years following the 1959 revolution that transformed Cuba into a communist state. The new government focused on building infrastructure in the impoverished countryside and basically ignored Havana.
Leal said Cuba does not have the money to do more, due in part to the longstanding US trade embargo against the island. “We have lived for more than 50 years in an economic and commercial war,” he said.
Government opponents blame the communist system Fidel Castro put in place and the economic woes that followed.
Leal argues that the revolution saved historic Havana from Cuban capitalists, who he said had plans to replace old buildings with new, even in Old Havana.
“Without socialism, Old Havana would not be preserved,” he said.
About 6 per cent of Old Havana restoration funds come from organisations such as the United Nations, but more could be done if the government allowed greater private investment from abroad, said Bernd Herrmann, head of the Havana-based Swiss travel agency Cuba Real Tours.
Cuba has a problem in that many visitors come – 2.42 million in 2009 – but, due to insufficient tourist infrastructure and poor service, do not return, Herrmann said.
“If they would let in investors, the satisfaction of the clients would be greater. We’d have more repeaters,” he said.
Other ideas have been floated about how best to save Havana’s history, including at least two proposed city plans, one by the architecture school at Florida International University in Miami, the other by Cuban architect Julio Cesar Perez Hernandez.
Perez Hernandez said he drew up a plan because the government does not have one and the city desperately needs it. “It’s overwhelming. When I see how much should and could be done to give Havana back its glorious image, I suffer.”
It is likely a moot point for now because Cuba has been hit hard by the global recession, so the government is more concerned with putting food on Cuban tables than preserving the past.
There is a social side to the project in Old Havana, where Leal said schools and health clinics have been restored or constructed, and the program’s 16 hotels create employment.
But many locals say they have to illegally sell cigars to tourists or serve them meals in their homes or just try to befriend them in hopes of getting money because while Old Havana flourishes, they do not.
“The people in Old Havana benefit from tourism from the things they do on the side,” said Diogenes, who is trying to make his rustic home presentable so he can rent rooms to tourists. “I only want what I need to live. I don’t want to be rich.”