Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Conversations with Eusebio Leal Spengler, City Historian of Havana: 'We Are an Island and We Need to Have an Ongoing Dialogue with the World That Surrounds Us. Any Attempt to Isolate Us Is a Mistake.'

Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Conversations with Eusebio Leal Spengler, City Historian of Havana: 'We Are an Island and We Need to Have an Ongoing Dialogue with the World That Surrounds Us. Any Attempt to Isolate Us Is a Mistake.'

Article excerpt

Eusebio Leal Spengler is City Historian of Havana, the 'City of Columns', as Alejo Carpentier liked to call it. A Doctor of Historical Sciences (University of Havana), he is a specialist in archaeological science and internationally recognised for his work in preserving the historic character of the Cuban capital.

Born in 1942 and self-educated in his youth, Eusebio Leal was a disciple of Emilio Roig de Leushenring, founder of the Office of the Historian of Havana, the leadership of which Leal assumed in 1967.

The mission of the Historian's Office is to contribute to the dissemination of Cuban history and culture through 'the preservation of material and spiritual symbols and expressions of nationality [... and] the collective historical and cultural memory of the city, especially its Historic Centre', the largest such colonial centre in Latin America.

He is also President of the National Monuments Commission, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and a member of the unicameral Cuban Parliament. Since 1981, Leal has been responsible for the restoration and preservation of the Historic Centre of Havana, a national monument since 1976 and a Heritage for Humanity site since 1982.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the advent of the Special Period in Time of Peace, Cuba was plunged into a deep economic crisis. Leal was nonetheless charged with continuing the work of restoring the Historic Centre of the capital, but with severely limited resources. As head of the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage, a new institution created for this purpose, he managed to obtain a certain degree of autonomy from the authorities in the management of the Office of the Historian but only a limited US$1 million budget.

Nonetheless, Leal has transformed that institution into a veritable economic and cultural network that includes hotels, restaurants, shops, museums and construction and restoration workshops that are capable of generating the funds necessary to preserve the Historic Centre. The results have been spectacular and have earned him worldwide fame. In total, nearly 100 old buildings, for the most part complex structures of great historical importance, have been restored.

Eusebio Leal has also expanded the scope of responsibility of the Office of the Historian. He has brought new energy to the cultural and social life of Old Havana with a multitude of activities, which are held monthly in museums, cultural centres, libraries, research laboratories and elsewhere.

Leal was able to demonstrate that saving the cultural patrimony of the city was possible, even under conditions of extreme economic adversity. The original US$1 million invested generates more than 100 million in resources today. His excellent management abilities and his love for Havana have made his work an undeniable economic and cultural success.

A man of exceptional culture, a winner of the world's highest honours, he is considered to be one of the three greatest living Cuban speakers, the other two being Fidel Castro and Max Lesnik.

During these conversations, Leal evokes his city and speaks of the level of management autonomy enjoyed by his institution. He addresses the question of relations with the US, economic sanctions, tourism development, socio-economic reforms and the Cuba of tomorrow.

Salim Lamrani (SL): Eusebio Leal, you're Havana's historian. What exactly is this city?

Eusebio Leal (EL): Havana is an enormously attractive city. It possesses a magnetism that grows out of its history and its geographical location. It is a beautiful city that appeals to us for numerous reasons. It is not in step with the times and, therefore, has preserved a wide range of values and a unique identity within the heart of Cuban identity itself. Havana has played an important role in the construction of our national identity and our national character, as well as in the struggles for independence and those of students and the working class. …

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