Cuba struggles to preserve past in hard times
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - 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-owned firm to restore the old quarter using profits from the money spent there by tourists. Continued...