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Eusebio Leal: Fixing up Old Havana, one street at a time
CubaNews / August 2004

By Larry Luxner

When he was 16 years old, Eusebio Leal Spengler landed his first job as a lowly municipal clerk at the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, an ornate Cuban Baroque palace located at the Plaza de Armas in the heart of Old Havana.

Forty-six years and a revolution later, Leal says the palacio is still his favorite building — though he now has dozens of restored architectural gems to choose from.

Since 1967, Leal has been Havana’s official city historian, a position that has earned him respect in Cuba and abroad. He’s also president and CEO of Habaguanex S.A., a state enterprise whose goal is to make the restoration of the colonial zone profitable and economically sustainable.

For almost two years, CubaNews had been trying to arrange an interview with the overworked Leal. He finally spoke to us one recent morning from his office on Calle Lamparilla, as construction crews with jackhammers worked to restore decaying buildings nearby.

“This is the most interesting city in the Caribbean because it unites tourism with social and community development projects,” he said. “We’re not only trying to attract tourism, but also to keep our promise with the 74,000 people who inhabit Old Havana.”

Leal, 62, was born and raised in Havana, and lives just a few blocks from his office. He normally starts his day at 7 a.m., and doesn’t finish until 6:30 p.m.

For most of his adult life, Leal has campaigned zealously to save the historical treasures of his beloved Habana Vieja, but in the beginning, few people took him seriously. Some in the government hierarchy even viewed him with considerable suspicion, led by Marta Arjona Pérez, who today directs the Consejo Nacional de Cultura.

Raised by devoutly Catholic parents, Leal had strong ties to the church but for financial reasons was forced to drop out of high school and find work.

His revolutionary fervor wasn’t enough, so Leal struggled to improve his education. He eventually graduated from the University of Havana with impeccable academic credentials, joined the Cuban Communist Party in 1972 and devoted his career to the rescue of Old Havana.

Leal gradually gained followers — among them two important mayors of Havana, Oscar Fernández Mell and Conrado Martínez Corona. But ordinary people also respected his integrity and willingness to work hard.

Leal became a familiar sight every morning on the cobblestoned streets of the crowded old city, full of dust, supervising every aspect of whatever restoration project was underway at the moment.

He also became adept at winning financial support from various institutions including foreign embassies, especially those of Spain, Italy, France, Britain, Germany and Canada. A television series, “Andar La Habana” — in which Leal explained to the people what he was doing and why their involvement and contributions were crucial — made him a local celebrity.

The United Nations’ designation of Old Havana as a UNESCO World Heritage Site further boosted his standing, and in October 1993, Leal was given the official go-ahead by Fidel Castro to establish Habaguanex with $1 million in capital. Last year, the company’s total revenues exceeded $80 million.

“We currently have 16 hotels with a total of more than 500 rooms, as well as 75 restaurants and other businesses under our jurisdiction,” he told us. An affiliated company, Fenix S.A., has apartment and office buildings for rent, as well as a taxi service.

Both Habaguanex and Fenix generate dollars to fund the restoration of Old Havana, in a climate free of interference by the Ministry of Tourism and other Cuban state entities.

The largest hotel in the Habaguanex portfolio is the Telégrafo, with 70 rooms. The smallest is the Villanueva, with only nine rooms. In between are 14 other small, boutique hotel properties such as the 55-room Park View, the 39-room Armadores de Santander, the 38-room Palacio de O’Farrill and the 11-room Beltrán de Santa Cruz.

Some of these hotels have achieved fame, like the 27-room Santa Isabel, which has hosted Jimmy Carter, Jack Nicholson, Danny Glover and the Duchess of Luxembourg. Other colonial palaces and hotels from the old days are currently being restored, such as the Packard and Saratoga, and will expand Old Havana’s lodging infrastructure considerably.

“We have chosen to focus on restoring old hotels and create new boutique hotels which are very popular for specialized tourists,” he said. “For example, the Santa Isabel attracts celebrities like President Carter and Robert Redford, while the Raquel attracts many American Jewish groups and El Conde de Villanueva attracts cigar aficionados. These are small groups of people who can pay top prices. We must capture this market.”

Last year, said Leal, about 120,000 of the one million or so tourists who visited Old Havana chose to spend at least one night in an Old Havana hotel property, translating into an average 73% occupancy rate for Habaguanex.

The dollars generated by those tourists helped create 10,000 jobs for residents of the old city, he said, including the 2,000 employees of Habaguanex itself. The money also funds construction projects, public services and utilities such as water and electricity, not to mention the maintenance of 36 antique palaces, museums and gardens.

But to really restore Old Havana to its former grandeur and improve the quality of life for its residents, Leal estimates he needs at least $1 billion.

“In 4.9 square kilometers live 74,000 people. That’s the highest population density in Cuba,” he said, insisting that density must be cut by 30%. “Because of the saturation of people in old buildings, living conditions are very difficult. That is why the restoration must have a social context.”

A few foreign investors have helped out; British money is contributing to the restoration of the Hotel Saratoga, while the Lonja de Comercio has Spanish investors. The newly inaugurated Hotel Raquel was not built with Israeli investment, contrary to previously published reports, though the 25-room hotel caters mainly to Jewish visitors and appears to be doing very well so far (see CubaNews, November 2003, page 7).

“We’re looking for large investors, because the small investments we can do ourselves,” said Leal. “We’re talking about at least $10 million per project.”

When he’s not supervising excavation projects in the street, Leal gives classes on restoration and records radio and TV programs for Cuban media outlets. He’s also in charge of a glossy tourist magazine, Opus Havana, and attends to journalists who call on him from all over the world.

Eight years ago, Leal visited Puerto Rico to see how Old San Juan — which is much smaller than Old Havana but shares many cultural and geographical similarities — was proceeding with its own restoration program.

“I admire very much the work of Ricardo Alegria in Viejo San Juan,” he told CubaNews, noting that there’s a monument honoring Alegria at the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, right near Havana’s new cruise-ship terminal.

“He did very important work, and gave the restoration of Viejo San Juan a spiritual aspect. We are trying to do the same thing here in Old Havana by restoring not just hotels and restaurants, but also old-age homes and schools for disabled children.”

Unfortunately, Leal can’t seem to get a U.S. visa these days, even though he’s made two prior trips to the United States. Half a dozen institutions including Columbia University, Pace University and the New York Art School have invited him back, to no avail.

“I am a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations, but I cannot attend UN sessions,” he complained. “For five years, I have not been able to travel to the U.S. They don’t respond to my applications.”

Even so, Leal is hopeful that the mood in Washington will change, leading to a lifting of the travel ban soon. Even with the ban in place, thousands of Americans manage to find a way to the forbidden island every year.

“We have always promoted cruise ships, because for an island like Cuba, the image of a cruise ship arriving is always a happy one,” he said. “We are a blockaded island, but someday we will have lots of cruise ships in Old Havana, because it continues to be the most attractive city in the Caribbean, especially for Americans.”

Leal predicts that in the first year of unrestricted travel, at least 500,000 Americans will visit Old Havana.

“We can’t say we’re ready for mass tourism, but we are preparing for it,” he said, insisting that Cuba is by far the safest country for U.S. tourists in the Western Hemisphere.

“The part of Old Havana that’s been restored is very clean, and pedestrians come before automobiles. All of Old Havana is controlled by TV cameras that give absolute security to tourists.”

He added: “Here we don’t burn the American flag, we don’t kidnap Americans, we don’t commit hostile acts. The government maintains a policy against imperialism, but we have no problem with the American people.”

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