Saving Old Havana

Cuba’s built heritage owes a personal debt.

The Presidential Palace on Havana’s Plaza 13 de Marzo in the 1950s. In 1974, it became the Museum of the Revolution © AFP/Getty Images.

Cuba’s greatest revolutionary might not be Fidel Castro or Che Guevara, but Havana’s city historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, who died on 31 July 2020, aged 77.

While Guevara’s face has adorned a thousand T-shirts and the ghost of Castro still lurks on countless Havana billboards, Leal’s legacy is more subtle. In Cuba, he commands widespread respect. Outside the country, few have heard of him. Yet, over the space of five decades, this modest academic transformed Old Havana from a crumbling slum into one of the finest restoration projects in the Americas. 

The genius of Leal was not just what he did, but how he did it. Havana’s evolution from neglected eyesore to Unesco World Heritage Site was groundbreaking in more ways than one. By rehabilitating Havana’s colonial core, Leal not only safeguarded the best of the city’s architecture, he also helped resuscitate the Cuban economy and boost the capital’s flagging infrastructure with a raft of social projects. The task would have been a tall order anywhere, but carried out during the crippling austerity that plagued Cuba following the demise of the Soviet Union, it was nothing short of miraculous.

Today, there is hardly a street or square in Old Havana that does not bear Leal’s imprint, from the swirling Baroque cathedral, to the hulking Belén Convent, converted into a convalescent home and meteorological museum.

Leal graduated from Havana University in the mid-1960s with a doctorate in historical science. Taking up the reins at the City Historian’s office, his role was more hands-on construction worker than chronicler of Havana’s past. Inspired by a childhood spent absorbing the colours and crowds of Old Havana, he dreamt of reversing the city’s 1960s stagnation and rekindling the magic of previous eras, be they Baroque, Neoclassical or Art Deco. 

His work started inauspiciously. Leal spent the best part of a decade converting an 18th-century palace in Havana’s Plaza de Armas into the city’s main museum. It was a slow-burning project. In 1961, Cuba had been hit by President Kennedy’s US trade embargo and Castro’s post-revolutionary government was more interested in its survival than revisiting Havana’s sketchy past. Nevertheless, Leal found an early ally. His museum work attracted the attention of Celia Sánchez, an historical archivist close to the new regime and a doorway into the higher echelons of the Cuban government. With Sánchez’s help, Old Havana was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982. Still isolated by the embargo, the city’s colonial relics remained dishevelled and haggard, but at least they were protected from the demolition ball.

Times got harder before they got better. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s economy went into freefall, as Castro battened down the hatches and Cubans struggled to find enough food to feed their families. Ironically, the upheaval offered Leal the biggest opportunity of his career. Facing an existential crisis, the government was forced to turn to tourism to rescue its stuttering economy. As hotel development was prescribed for Cuba’s northern beaches, Leal convinced Castro that Havana’s unique historical heritage, frayed by two independence wars and a revolution, but still largely intact, could provide an extra lure for potential visitors. Anxious to resist the temptation to turn the colonial centre into a historical theme park, Leal assured Castro he would redesign the city as an authentic ‘living’ space that provided social benefits for the quarter’s 65,000 inhabitants. For every tourist hotel, museum and restaurant, there was to be a neighbourhood committee, care home and school. 

In 1994, Leal set up Habaguanex, one of the few capitalist enterprises allowed in Cuba at that time. Armed with US$1 million from the government and the promise of nurturing further investment from abroad, Habaguanex began converting semi-ruined colonial buildings into hotels and museums, remaining scrupulously faithful to their original designs. As the tourists began to trickle in, the money Habaguanex banked was invested back into the city, shared between further historical preservation on the one hand and urban regeneration on the other.

As Habaguanex became a self-financing entity, Leal developed a masterplan, splitting Old Havana into colour-coded zones and prioritising buildings by their condition, age and historical importance. The first to be renovated under the plan was the Ambos Mundos Hotel, a former haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Numerous other hotels followed, along with esoteric museums, antique shops, reimagined restaurants and muscular forts. By 2011, Cuba was attracting nearly three million visitors a year and Habaguanex’s initial start-up fund of $1 million had grown to $119 million in annual revenue. The process was not without its problems. Work was painfully slow and question marks lingered over how and where Havana’s population should be rehoused, but the results were electrifying, at least aesthetically. A walk around Old Havana become a journey into the past where real people still lived, worked, went to school and played baseball in the street. 

Leal received Orders of Merit and honorary degrees from half a dozen countries and, in 2012, Havana was named one of the 25 World Heritage sites with ‘best practices’ in conservation. Yet, Leal remained an unpretentious and enigmatic figure, a devout Catholic in a Communist state who loved to walk Havana’s streets admiring the ongoing renovations. 

Following Leal’s death, the Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, referred to him as ‘the Cuban who saved Havana’. Without a doubt, Leal was a tireless ambassador for his city, a quiet revolutionary who, despite his closeness to the Castro regime, largely stayed out of political polemics. The city was his canvas and he worked like a meticulous art restorer wiping the grime off an old masterpiece. Havana is a much richer place for his efforts. 

 

Brendan Sainsbury is the author of the last seven editions of the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba.