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Old Havana
By Orlando Matos (IPS)

The restoration work underway in the historic quarter of the Cuban capital has received the approval of UNESCO consultants and could serve as a reference for reviving this type of patrimonial environment in other latitudes.

Next year, the area known as La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), plans to commemorate - with one-third of its total 2.1 square kilometers rehabilitated - the 25th anniversary of its declaration as World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Two extremely-qualified specialists in this area, architects Sylvio Mutal, of Holland, and Fernando Carrión, of Ecuador, issued a report at that agencys request evaluating the work undertaken by the Cuban state in that part of the city as "successful and laudable."

"More than a triumphant case or a model that can be replicated in other cities, the renovation of La Habana Vieja is a successful policy that demonstrates how in a situation of great diversity, it is feasible to find fitting solutions," the experts say.

"There are concepts in the case of La Habana Viejas restoration that may be taken into consideration both in Latin America and elsewhere in the world. This model does not need to be transplanted, but it should be learned from," said Herman van Hooff, director of UNESCOs regional Culture Office for Latin America and the Caribbean - based in Havana - in remarks to IPS.

The consultants remarks appear in the book Una experiencia singular. Valoraciones sobre el modelo de gestión integral de La Habana Vieja, Patrimonio de la Humanidad (A Singular Experience. Assessments of the Comprehensive Process for La Habana Vieja, World heritage Site). The book is the fruit of cooperation between UNESCO and the Havana City Historians Office, charged by Fidel Castros government with carrying out reconstruction work on the citys historical district.

In its pages, it reflects rigorously and profoundly the restoration, rehabilitation and preservation work that has been undertaken in Havanas colonial area in the period 1994 to 2004.

The decade analyzed showed stable and progressively greater work in revitalizing and preserving that patrimony, although the first serious efforts date back to the early 1980s.

The program to physically recover the historic quarter began on May 5, 1981, with the start of the First Five-Year Restoration Plan, coordinated by the Historians Office, which was founded in 1938.

The idea for the book came from Eusebio Leal, Havana City historian, with help from Mounir Bouchenaki, former UNESCO general deputy director for culture, with the goal of obtaining an assessment of the islands rehabilitation experiences over the aforementioned 10-year period.

Van Hooff says, in the book, that the Cuban experience is "an unprecedented model in preservation of patrimony," attained "without losing the authenticity of the legacy or its public enjoyment."

And, certainly, by walking through this fascinating environment, which can transport us back into past centuries, there is a perceptible atmosphere of an immense and authentic museum inhabited by present-day Cuban people.

The sensation does not come from magic, however, but from a thought-out and implemented strategy of the City Historians Office, which from the start of reconstruction work in the historical quality, conceived of as a policy of community inclusion.

This policy "is inserted into a comprehensive vision of what the citys historical district should be, something that lives for its people, and where inhabitants appropriate for themselves their heritage and the city itself," Van Hoof commented in an interview with IPS.

The UNESCO official expressed his hope that the islands experience would be "sustainable in the long term," given, in his opinion, "that it is a model process, which generates its own income, which is then invested in its social and cultural projects."

According to information from the City Historians Office, "60 percent of earnings" from the business sector "are dedicated to projects that continue to bring financial benefits for restoration, and approximately 40 percent for social projects."

The book addresses this economic aspect that serves as a basis for patrimonial recovery work, and according to the consultant, Carrión: "because of the total investment made," the islands experience is "one of the most significant of all historical quarters in Latin America."

Consulted by IPS, architect Patricia Rodríguez, director of the Master Plan for the Comprehensive Revitalization of La Habana Vieja, dating to 1994, revealed that over that 10-year period, businesses in the historic quarter "have produced some $250 million."

She also added that, in addition, "some $14 million from international cooperation were mobilized; another $14 million from taxes on economic activity in the area; and, in terms of loans, $67 million from the Cuban banking industry."

According to the official, "all of this has been reinvested in the area," along with "341 million pesos (in national currency, the equivalent of $13.6 million according to official exchange rates) contributed by the state."

The City Historians Office business system also emerged in 1994 under Decree-Law 143, which was passed a year earlier and stipulates that restoration of the historical quarter was to move from being a state-subsidized activity to a self-financed one.

This is one of the main aspects, together with the way it comprehensively extends to the social, environmental, cultural and community areas that makes the restoration process for Havanas historical district a new one, and why it could be projected as an experience that other nations can use.

Moreover, the book is very timely given that its final part is dedicated to international collaboration for rehabilitation projects in the colonial area, given that two-thirds of it - where more than 66,700 people live - still remains to be preserved.

For example, that is the situation of the Casa Prat Puig, one of the few examples of 17th century Cuban architecture, and the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, the most significant monumental civic space from the late 18th century.

However, Rodríguez understands that "what gives a new perspective" to the islands restoration project is that "there is a large volume of housing built," both inside and outside of the historical quarter, to relocate residents and this practice is ongoing.

As she watches tourists come and go from the emblematic Plaza de Armas in La Habana Vieja, retiree Zenaida López says that she was "born and raised" in the historical part of the city and is not inclined to ponder on restoration theories. "Now, it is much nicer to live here," she comments simply. •

Source: Granma International

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