Every winter, tourists from frozen homelands in the north fill the sunny streets of Old Havana, admiring its picturesque colonial buildings and centuries-old squares.
They sip mojitos in the Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway supposedly hung out, eat in atmospheric restaurants along Calle Obispo and stay in lovely old hotels restored to their former glory as part of a massive remake of Havana’s historic center by the Cuban government.
But if they walk a few blocks on, they leave the manicured surroundings and emerge into a different Old Havana, where broken, unpainted buildings line pothole-filled streets and history is not recreated, but lived in a continuum of decay.
There, people live in rundown apartments, get their monthly food ration at spartan government stores and buy their drink at state-run shops where wine and rum are served in old water bottles.
With its two very different faces, Old Havana is both the centerpiece of Cuban tourism and a symbol of the city’s larger problems.
Cuba’s capital, founded beside Havana Bay by the Spaniards in 1519, is a place where the past is remarkably intact, but thousands of its historic buildings are threatened by neglect and the government’s inability to preserve them.
In a race against time, time is winning, except in part of Old Havana where more than 350 buildings have been restored in a widely praised operation led by city historian Eusebio Leal.
He and a group of colleagues began the effort in 1967, but it took wings in 1994 when then-president Fidel Castro put Leal in charge of a state company to restore the old quarter using profits from the money spent there by tourists.
“We define our battle in Old Havana as a defense of utopia,” Leal said in an interview.
He said tourist spending allowed him to invest US$20 million in the project last year as half a million visitors traipsed through Old Havana.
The amount of money is small compared to the need, he said. A pre-restoration study found 4,000 buildings in Old Havana’s 3.4km² area virtually all historically valuable and in bad shape.
Leal would like to expand preservation to historic neighborhoods like Central Havana and Vedado and has done a few renovations outside of Old Havana as “sources of inspiration.”
“But economic resources are decisive, and we cannot stray too far from the source, nor the idea of the core,” he said.
Havana is a treasure trove of architectural history with block after block of historic buildings in styles ranging from colonial to modernism. Most need repair and many have already fallen.
When Hurricane Ike brushed the city in 2008, 67 buildings collapsed, raising fears about what will happen when a big storm hits Havana head on.
The most basic problem is a lack of maintenance for many years following the 1959 revolution that transformed Cuba into a communist state. The new government focused on building infrastructure in the impoverished countryside and basically ignored Havana.
Leal said Cuba does not have the money to do more, in part because of the longstanding US trade embargo against the island.
“We have lived for more than 50 years in an economic and commercial war,” he said.
Government opponents blame the communist system Fidel Castro put in place and the economic woes that followed.
Leal argues that the revolution saved historic Havana from Cuban capitalists, who he said had plans to replace old buildings with new, even in Old Havana.