Arriving for Tom Miller’s talk on “Havana from the Street” we learned that Tom would not be our speaker. Instead we would be hearing from Miguel Coyula, a member from the UNEAC Commission on the City, Culture and Architecture, who would be discussing the challenges Havana is facing in trying to preserve its rich architectural and cultural heritage.

We really shouldn’t have been surprised with the last minute switch. In all its contacts, National Geographic had cautioned that in Cuba things seldom go exactly according to plan. Here’s how they put it:

It has been our experience that changes, sometimes significant, are likely to occur to the itinerary, often with very little notice. The order of activities, the time of events, the activities themselves, the speakers scheduled, and even the hotels and restaurants currently confirmed may change. A spirit of flexibility and patience will go a long way toward making this adventure an enjoyable one.

As Coyula was setting up the computer for slides to accompany his talk, our guide Hilary handed out  specially designed Cuban travel journals that National Geographic had prepared for the trip. As part of the conditions of the cultural exchange, we had all agreed to take notes on what we saw and did and actively participate in programs and talks with both Cuban officials and regular citizens.

Coyula began by stressing that he was optimistic about Havana’s future. “As far as the restoration and the preservation of Havana is concerned, after years of misunderstanding, understanding is coming,” he said.

The priority for any true restoration must take the burgeoning population of modern-day Havana in mind. Currently, 2.2 million people call the city home. And that number is growing. “The city has become a magnet. Everybody wants to come here,” Coyula said. “So our effort is not just to preserve the buildings, but to improve the city. If you don’t hear a baby cry and you don’t hear a dog bark, the city is tasteless.”

A large problem facing the restorers is the deplorable conditions of many of the older buildings caused by a combination of age, Caribbean weather, and harsh financial conditions. For example, 3.1 structures in Havana crumble to the ground daily. Almost 15% of the city consists of now uninhabitable tenements. Old Havana, in particular, is extremely deteriorated. There, residents have been moved into provisional communities until their homes can be restored.  

Coyula explained that to understand the Havana of today you have to begin with the Havana of old. Initially, the Spanish paid little attention to Cuba because it lacked treasures the conquerors were seeking. But Havana quickly became the major port of distribution for all of the Spanish new world. “It was first ignored because of lack of gold and now all the gold was coming to Havana,” he said. The riches made the city attractive to pirates and so, in 1589, Castle Morro was built to discourage any attacks on the port. Today, that still-standing fortress is one of the city’s main attractions.

The city has always reflected a totally European flavor, unlike other Spanish cities in the Americas. Parts of the city remind visitors of Spanish towns. Others are reflective of French New Orleans. “The indigenous culture was exterminated in only 30 years, so there really isn’t any lasting influence of those peoples here,” Coyula said.

Two huge financial booms also greatly shaped Havana. The first was the wealth brought from the massive sugar plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1950s, the American Mafia established an opulent, but corrupt, gambling empire centered in Havana.

Those developments came to an abrupt halt on Jan. 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro and his supporters triumphed. Havana residents, angered by years of outside control, “took to the streets to destroy all the gambling houses. They even took baseball bats to the parking meters,” Coyula said.

For the next 30 years, Cuba relied on economic support from its Communist partner the Soviet Union. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 left Cuba with 80% of its trade income gone. Castro and his party referred to the next few years as “The Special Period in a Time of Peace” But the reality was much harsher. The people were forced to endure unimaginable shortages of virtually all items. For example, Havana was blacked out 14 to 16 hours a day because there was no fuel to provide electricity. The 50-year old American trade embargo and the Soviet dissolution forced Cuba to look elsewhere for economic help for all its projects, including  renovation and preservation. Today, such projects are being funded by Spain, England, Israel, and most recently, China.

Coyula said that while he “didn’t see any lifting of the (American) embargo” in the immediate future, he believed that Havana could be restored using the funding from other countries and new sources of revenue such as expanding tourism..

Citing those of us in the room as an example, Coyula explained that officials project that Cuba will  be visited by 3 million tourists this year. Most of them will come from Canada, Mexico, South America, and selected European countries. But because of recent relaxing of restrictions, 100,000 Americans are also expected to visit. “Maybe these visits can lead to a dismantling of the embargo,” Coyula said.

“Because of its special circumstances, Havana is really the last virgin city in the Americas,” the architect said. “I would like to see my city preserved and I hope that common sense will prevail.”

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order