Almost déjà vu

La Habana (Havana), the capital of the Republic of Cuba,  was almost déjà vu. There were six of us who joined the tour arranged by Red Vinta Travel; someone had to go to Kuala Lumpur to get visas and my application was almost denied because I had written “periodista” as my occupation.

From the hotel (Melia Cohiba) room on the third floor, I had a splendid view of the malecon, bay walk to us. There was no tropical land scaping, no coconut or palm trees, much less park benches, and no statues. The stone pavement was probably granite, the sea wall massive and followed the gentle contours of the bay, which looked more like the open sea, not a luneta or crescent. It was fastidiously clean and no one slept there at night. At the extreme right, there were fortifications, early 16th century, the Spaniards came here before venturing into the Pacific. I saw an imposing tower, like a sentinel guarding the city against pirates; the fortifications were massive, stonewalls, ramparts, turrets, reminiscent of Intramuros and Fort Santiago at the mouth of the Pasig River. “El Morro” it is called and the fortified castle within is San Carlos de la Cabaña.

We could have strolled leisurely to the tower and castle, enjoying the breeze of Cuba’s winter, if it were not for the International Book Fair. Our guide (from Cuba Select) begged us not to go because it was crawling with what looked like 2 million bookworms (Havana’s population); we kept postponing, but when we returned to Havana after doing Santiago the Cuba in the southeast, the El Morro was still swarming with book lovers.

On day one, we visited the four plazas, de rigueur for first-timers, all inter-connected, evidently part of a greater cuadrícula, where streets were laid out in a grid pattern. It obeyed the Law of the Indies to the letter—narrow streets and arcaded buildings to protect pedestrians from the sun. Intramuros was probably like this, we sighed collectively, had the Americans not bombed it to smithereens during the Battle for Manila. We were totally fascinated with everything, even the cobblestones; there were musicians at practically every corner, Cuban children and tourists photographed street performers imitating legendary personalities; sensuous mulatas balancing flower baskets on their heads asked where we were from.

I like Plaza de San Francisco; it is near the bay so there is a caressing breeze; it was busiest during the 17th century, a natural market place where boats would unload precious cargo. The mansions of the Captain-General, the mayor, and wealthy families were built around the square; these have been re-purposed into galleries, cafes, offices, and shops. None of the edifices were white-washed with lime, despite occasional epidemics. Cubans adore dazzling colors.  Vintage structures in bright pink, turquoise, sunflower yellow, saffron, stand shoulder to shoulder; only their pediments, arches, window frames are painted white for accent.

How we envy Cuba! How can this beleaguered republic have eight sites that are in the UNESCO World Heritage List? It is not easy to get on that prestigious list because the government has to present a detailed restoration plan according to accepted rules of conservation and show that it is sustainable for decades to come. In 1982, Havana’s historic center, including the El Morro fortifications, made it to the list, followed bythe Valle de los Ingenios (sugar mills) in Trinidad province (1988), the San Pedro de la Roca Castle in Santiago de Cuba (1997), Viñales Valley and the Desembarco (landing) del Granma (1999), the archeological landscape of the first coffee plantations (2000), Humboldt National Park (2001), and the urban historic center of Cienfuegos (2005). Cuba has submitted two more, the Cienaga de Zapata National Park and the Reef System of Halguin province.

How can a country like Cuba afford it? What creative accounting do they use? It was mind- boggling for us heritage advocates: Apparently, in the 1950’s (“during the rule of the tyrants,” to use our guide’s words) a lot of heritage was endangered by real estate speculation. The most shocking loss was the demolition of the very first university, where many Cuban heroes like Jose Marti studied. Shortly after the victory of the socialist Revolution, Fidel Castro made history and heritage an essential part of the Food, Health, and Education programs. He appointed Dr. Eusebio Leal y Spengler as the city historian and gave him full authority to restore Cuba’s heritage, starting with Havana’s historical core.

That long-term investment is paying off today. Tourism is booming in Cuba despite the embargo. Hordes of Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, USA citizens and Canadians are flying in, especially during the Cuban winter (first quarter of the year). I spotted some tourists basking in the sun at Playa Girón, after visiting the Bay of Pigs invasion museum, but the bulk of them are drawn to the UNESCO World heritage sites. We concluded that Fidel Castro’s concern for heritage is a legacy that enhances national identity and pride of place, specially since Cuba is a mere 90 kilometers from Miami and its neo-liberal, market- driven lifestyle.