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Eusebio Leal, the historian who saved the Historic Center of Havana.

Eusebio Leal, the historian who saved the Historic Center of Havana.
It is impossible to calculate how much Havana and Cuban culture owes Eusebio Leal. Although his official position was simply that of a historian of the city, Leal, who died on Friday in the Cuban capital at the age of 77, was much more than that because he largely owes the rescue and rehabilitation of the old colonial city, fatally wounded due to lack of resources and carelessness when Eusebio appeared on the scene and began to raise awareness. Without him and his huge restoration work, Old Havana and its exceptional architectural background, which has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1982, would probably have succumbed.

In his last interview with EL PAÍS, days before the President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, traveled to Cuba in November 2018, Eusebio Leal said: “Beyond its immense heritage value, Havana is a state of mind . When you arrive you feel that there is something that seduces you, that attracts you ... Havana leaves no one indifferent. Sometimes you see it covered by a veil of decadence, but when you break that veil then the splendor of its urbanism and architecture appears. ”

Eusebio spoke with contagious passion of his city, to which he dedicated all his life. Whoever listened to him, whether they were kings, presidents, ambassadors, artists, potentates, or the simplest people in Old Havana, was committed to the cause of the rescue of the city, and many supported him with resources or in various ways in his rehabilitation effort, a work that he conceived to be inextricably linked to social development, not simply aimed at saving buildings or squares.

Preserving the material and intangible heritage of the city is important, but not as a task to mummify the past. The Havana project and the mission we have is precisely to give it life, that the city is for those who live it, that is why the Office of the Historian has created schools, health centers and homes in the Historic Center, it is the only way to that it does not become an old town or a tourist center, ”said Leal in that interview, already ill at the time, although he worked until the last day.

Born on September 11, 1942 in Havana, of very humble origin, his training was self-taught. As a child he dropped out of school to help his mother, and it was not until after the triumph of the revolution that he was able to finish high school and pursue a degree in History at the University of Havana. Disciple of Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, who succeeded him as historian of the city, he played a leading role in the restoration of the former Palace of the Captains General, the first major rehabilitation work undertaken in the city, completed in 1979. From In 1981 he began directing the restoration works of the Historic Center of Havana. The funds dedicated to this endeavor were few then, but Leal palliated the imponderables with his will and enthusiasm, achieving notable successes and carrying out in the following years the rehabilitation of the fortress of San Carlos de La Cabaña and the Castle of the Three Kings from El Morro.

Since then he has dedicated himself to raising awareness in the heights of the importance of saving the heritage wealth of the Historic Center and the colonial city and fought to get the necessary resources to finance this gigantic work, something that was not always well understood by the bureaucracy. In 1993, when the collapse of the socialist camp left the country without resources, Leal convinced then-Cuban President Fidel Castro of the need to give Old Havana considerable margins of autonomy and create his own business system to self-finance the restoration. The question was to save Havana at any cost, Leal defended because otherwise, and if he did not act quickly, high-value buildings and spaces would be destroyed.

Fidel Castro supported Leal, and for almost three decades the city historian's office rehabilitated hundreds of buildings of great heritage value - such as the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, the Castillo de la Fuerza, the Galician Center or the Capitol - and spaces publics that today are the heart of the city, such as the Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral, San Francisco or the Old Square, with the streets that connect them, Merchants, Trades, Bishop, today full of life and business private.

The restorative work of Old Havana, under the leadership of Eusebio, has won many international awards and has been set as an example and model of a sustainable project of a high technical level. This model was transformed over time, because if at first the State carried the full weight of the rehabilitation, Leal gradually granted more margins to the private sector to finance the restoration of houses and buildings to start businesses, the Office focusing on rehabilitate public spaces and ensure that standards are met and that everything is done in accordance with safeguarding heritage.

Old Havana with Eusebio was synonymous with dynamism and entrepreneurship, that is why the news of his death was lived with shock, among the most humble people, in the world of culture and also in the highest official instances. “Today the Cuban who saved Havana on behalf of Fidel has left us and took it so passionately that his name is no longer his, but synonymous with the city. Our dear Leal is dead. Let's celebrate his wonderful journey through life, too brief for those who loved him for his work and for himself. We must continue on those tracks, the patient and infinite work of saving the heritage of our Cuba, which he loved and devoted so much to his life, ”Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel wrote on his Twitter account first thing in the morning.

Leal was revered by everyone, as he was considered the great support of Havana, the one who avoided disaster. In a conversation a few months ago, already very ill, the City Historian sentenced with impressive spirit: "There is more work than ever, there is still much to save."


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