Interview with Eusebio Leal Spengler, on the restoration of Old Havana


To say ‘Eusebio Leal Spengler’ is to say Havana – how many other cities have their personal historian? On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban capital, the Historian of the City of Havana, in charge of the restoration of its historic centre for the last thirty years, talks about its strength, its beauty … and its ailments to Lucía Iglesias Kuntz (UNESCO).

This year Havana celebrates five centuries. How is the health of the city?

Thinking of me, and I imagine myself like a city, I think that the ailments you have are what you feel when you’ve lived so long. Five centuries is little compared to ancient cities like Athens, in Greece, or Istanbul, in Turkey. But it is a lot for us in our America, except for the large pre-Hispanic cities – Cuzco, the Inca town of Peru, the Aztec Tenochtitlan in Mexico or the Mayan cities of Central America. Havana is part of that new wave that opens with the Spanish conquest and colonization. After the Dominican towns of Santo Domingo, Vega Real, San Pedro de Macorís and Santiago de los Caballeros immediately come the cities of Cuba. I think that they have a noble antiquity and their ailments reflect the historical moments they have lived.

The historic centre [Old Havana] was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982 for its “outstanding universal value” that any visitor can verify. But, from your personal point of view, what is the value of Havana?

It has a broad spectrum of value. There is a symbolic value as the nation’s capital; but at the same time it represents  the cultural, intellectual, political, historical and social values ​​of the Cuban people. It is also a showcase of the most beautiful and dazzling architecture that reached the island, with features that can also be found in Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba or Trinidad.

For example, that Moorish architecture, of Hispanic and Muslim influence, is very typical in the historical centre. Later, the baroque era displayed by the Cathedral of Havana,  which the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier reflected in ‘The Century of Lights’, his great novel.

There is the neoclassical city, with El Templete, the monument dedicated to the foundation  of Havana, a kind of small model.

And then, in Centro Habana, it is incredibly eclectic full of gargoyles, atlantes, extraordinary figures, imaginary creatures. There, the art nouveau (Cueto de la Plaza Vieja building) is almost subversively cast and the art deco is impressive, as in the Emilio Bacardí building, to make the architecture conversation even more intense.

And finally, modern Havana, which reaches a height with the Schulthess house designed by Viennese architect Richard Neutra, one of the most beautiful of that era on Fifth Avenue.

Havana is a living city full of knowledge and memory: we also have an acropolis of wisdom –  the beautiful buildings of the University of Havana and the great monumental cemetery.

What will the November 2019 celebrations consist of?

The city government has developed a big commemoration project. In the Office of the Historian we have designed a specific one for the historical area, which is incorporated into the main project. Our task is to promote the idea of ​​preserving the memory of the city, not only when it comes to commemorating its fifth centenary, but in everyday life. I have dedicated more than three decades and I confess that sometimes preaching that cause was like doing it in the desert.

We have developed a programme of events, radio and television programs and publications of different books. However, we continue to use both the restoration of monumental symbols of the city – the main one being the conclusion of the restoration of the Capitol building, the Castle of Atarés and other very emblematic buildings in the heart of Havana. We will remember and celebrate not only the founding of the city, but also its history and culture.

In fact culture has been almost a mantra of our Master Plan for the rehabilitation and restoration of the historic centre. Every development project that forgets about culture only produces decay.

On the other hand, the human factor is very important. It is important to capture the passion of the public in these commemorations. Otherwise the town will be reduced only to an official speech, move some stones and print some papers.

Would you say that cultural heritage has more to do with everyday life than with museums?

Of course, I consider museums to be essential for history, memory and culture. The City Museum is of paramount importance for the entire nation, not just for Habaneros. But I have also fought against “museumisation” and defended the cause of a living city.

One of the challenges facing cities declared ‘World Heritage’ is the difficulty of reconciling tourism – sometimes massive – with the conservation of heritage values. Has Havana had to face contradictions like this?

We must ensure that Havana does not disappear under a tide of tourists. But, at the same time, I believe that tourism should not be demonised, it is a necessary activity, an important economic factor, and in the case of Cuba – given its isolation – an opportunity also to initiate a direct dialogue with visitors from all regions of the world. Something that seems wonderful to me.

Once the rehabilitation is over, there are many buildings in Old Havana that are still inhabited, aren’t there?

In many cases, the buildings that were in ruins and that we have restored were inhabited by families living in precarious conditions. It is still the case with many of these. The answer has been to give thousands of people a safe and dignified roof, provide education and training for young people and create secure jobs for adults. We have tried to travel through what UNESCO defined, at the time, as “a unique project”, doing it differently. Singular does not mean better. We do not claim to have done better than in other parts of the world. It was done rather according to our own experience. That is, despite the mishaps and mistakes we suffered in the search for a rehabilitation model that we finally found.

You have also put a lot of effort into the restoration of the Malecón, the emblematic avenue of Havana that runs along the seafront. You have defined it as “the smile of Havana”.

I must confess that I feel I have almost lost the battle against the sea, a battle that could only be fought by Neptune with his trident. I cannot forget the images of the devastating waves breaking against the Castillo del Morro, erected for centuries in front of the sea and the latter penetrating the city, covering the Prado gardens with salt [like Hurricane Irma in 2017], wearing down the foundations of ancient palaces and modern buildings. They are dantesque visions that are repeated at every step of a cyclone.

The tornado that hit us recently, during the night between January 27 and 28 [2019], causing the death of several people and about 200 injured, reminds us that the time has come to understand that climate change is a latent threat against the elegant Malecon silhouette, which will always be that beautiful smile that Havana directs you to the sea and that we have a duty to protect.

We have lost the battle against the sea, but we must win our fight against climate change. Great challenges and new adventures await us.

Did you never get tired of working for Havana?

It is true that everything brings me back to Havana. It has been many years of work and commitment which I do not regret. If there were an afterlife, my soul will wander eternally through Havana. It has been the best of my loves, the best of my passions, the greatest of my challenges. I really don’t know why I always return mysteriously to it, in the light and in the silence, in life and in dreams.

For full interview in Spanish here

About Eusebio Leal Spengler

Eusebio Leal Spengler (Havana, September 11, 1942) is a Cuban intellectual, politician, essayist and researcher, historian of Havana and Deputy [Member of Parliament] to the Cuban National Assembly in April 2018. Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations and advisor on the topic of the Eradication of Poverty, for the United Nations Development Program. Honorary Doctor of several universities in Latin America and Europe. A large part of the restoration work carried out in the historic centre of Havana is due to his efforts and work. Among other awards, he holds the Victor Hugo Medal and the Medal of the World Decade for Cultural Development, presented by UNESCO.


About the Master Plan for the restoration of Old Havana 

See the brochure in English here