La restauración de la Habana Vieja: Una estrategia singular

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Introduction

The project of integral development and rehabilitation of Old Havana City, leaded by the City Historian’s Office since 1967, has been recognized at national and international levels for its strategic importance in the economic, social and urban fields, linking processes such as patrimonial rescue, housing solution and social inclusion, through the active participation of the community. As a consequence of that, (Rodríguez, 2001) local economy has been reactivated, new employments have been generated, the conditions of the habitat were improved and the precarious profile decreased.

Thus, the City Historian’s Office, under the leadership of his Director, Eusebio Leal Spengler, develops an integral, sustainable and self-financed project with political support at the highest level of Cuban making-decision process.  In terms of human development, the economical and social rehabilitation of old buildings has strategic importance, while culture –in the broadest sense of the term- become a developmental key factor, and community involvement a major aspect in the process, since the participation of citizens in the process is plainly promoted.

The dynamics of cultural heritage recovery has a synergic and multiplying effect of the investments, widening the recovered areas and increasing the resources available for development.

The Old Havana Historian Office (the Office) has established five main premises:

  • To promote the preservation of national identity through research, promotion and cultural development.
  • To protect architectural heritage by rehabilitating the territory through a continuous Special Integral Development Plan.
  • To avoid the displacement of the local population, improving their living conditions by protecting them from the impact of restoration process.
  • To provide modern infrastructure and basic services to population, and guarantee their basic maintenance.
  • To achieve an integral, self-financed development making investment in heritage both recoverable and productive.

Background

Population

Despite momentary anti-urban rhetoric in the late sixties, Cuba increased the proportion of its population living in urban areas, reaching 75 per cent by 2000.  Nevertheless, Cuban annual rate of urban growth has been one of the lowest in Latin America, and this consistent process of urbanization did not necessarily include the capital until nineties.

After that (Oliveras and Nuñez, 2001), the severe economic and social crisis that affects the country structurally modified the local migration patterns and urban growth rates in the capital, a phenomenon that obliged the Government to take measures to discourage it.

Havana’s population grew slowly as a result of tailored development policies, which also was combined with other population facts such as Havana’s low birth rate and the high rate of emigration abroad.  The historical low rate of domestic migration was also related with the city’s housing shortage. As it was mentioned before (Lee, 1997), when the migration pattern changed (after the economic crisis of the nineties), the authorities regulated by law migration to Old Havana City and to some areas within Havana.

The 1990s Economic Crisis

The fall of the Socialist Bloc in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe starting in 1989 had overwhelming consequences for Cuba.  Cuba’s extremely beneficial participation in COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance – the Eastern European common market) allowed the country to established long-term economic planning and provided the basis for a very comprehensive Welfare State.

Among other relevant aspects (Coyula and Hamberg, 2002), Cuba had depended heavily on those countries for oil, equipment and spare parts, while enjoying faire prices in closed markets for imports and exports at favorable conditions and soft credits.

The impact was so severe that the Cuban government decided to address the severity of the crisis by declaring an economic state of emergency called the “special period in peacetime”.

Cuba rapidly modified the pattern of its foreign commerce and opened its economy, pursuing joint ventures with foreign companies, receiving investment in the tourist and biotechnology sectors.

In spite of all efforts, Cuban GDP was contracted by more than a third between 1989 and 1993, energy availability by half and import capacity dropped by 75 per cent (Coyula, 2009, CEPAL, 2000; Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda, 1999)

Poverty and slums

Cuban housing situation of vulnerable population is different compared with capitalist countries with market economies, characterized by most of the poor living in slums and most slum-dwellers with no access to health and education services.

Generally speaking (ONE Report, 1997), in Cuba there is a relative tenure security, generally low-cost or free housing, and restricted legal housing and land markets.  At the same time, people living in poor quality housing usually have access to the same education, health care, job opportunities and social security as those who live in better neighborhoods.

Cuban slums are quite socially diverse, and poverty is relatively dispersed, even though Cuban researchers (and local authorities) describe disadvantage population as “at risk” or “vulnerable”

Housing conditions -based on the degree of deterioration and need for repairs, according to official figures- shows that 50 per cent of Old Havana’s units are in “good” condition, 25 per cent are “fair” condition and 25 per cent in “poor” condition. More than 50,000 needed to be replaced; partial or total building collapses are common.

Old Havana commonest housing problems:

  • Roof problems: 9780
  • Wall cracks: 8.811
  • Collapsing floor: 4.981
  • Shored-up walls: 1.452
  • Leaking roofs: 10.646
  • Leaking walls: 8.319

Living conditions: electricity, water and sanitation

Virtually all residents of Old Havana have electric service. Some residents have illegally tapped into nearby power lines, but they do have electricity. The vast majority of slum dwellers have an array of electric appliances. The economic crisis during the nineties led to frequent blackouts. Though much reduced by the end of the decade, power outages are still common.

Water and sanitation are almost universally available, even if not always inside the house.  Since Old Havana is at the end of water supply and sewer networks, they get less water and have more trouble disposing wastewater into busy and old pipes.

As half the city does not count with sewer system, many residents use septic tanks. Furthermore, extensive water loss through leaks means water is only available several hours a day or even every other day.

Old Havana´s popular solution: barbacoa

Barbacoa is the Spanish for barbeque, a place to grill meat. But in Cuba this meaning was modified in recent years, to be used to label an extremely informal mezzanine, created with the intention to provide an extra floor, nearly doubling the floor space of the house.

Even though it is a very common housing solution in Old Havana (nearly 50 % of the residents of tenements with high ceilings have built barbacoas) and an original way to enhance room, they are usually unsafe, poorly ventilated and – adding considerable weight to load-bearing walls- one of the causes of building collapses.

This is a graphic on the uses of a barbacoa (make-shift mezzanine) to expand floor space in buildings with high ceilings.  The original house gets a barbacoa in two different levels (González and Menocal, 1984).

As it was pointed by Mario Coluya (Coluya, 2000), the barbacoas “usually violate many building regulations, are hazardous, hot, uncomfortable and distort the facades and the streetscape. Many barbacoas end in time as a solid structure, thus eliminating some of its flaws at the expense of making others more permanent”.

Solutions

Political participation in Old Havana

After 16 years of extra-constitutional rule (1959–1975), needed to consolidate its power, the revolutionary government of Cuba decided to institutionalize the country political system.

Thus, the “institutionalization process” began, with the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party held and the consequent adoption by popular referendum of the Socialist Constitution in 1976

The county’s political and administrative structures were reorganized, a new Constitution promulgated, and a system of local, provincial and national government –based on the active participation of the communal leaders- known as People’s Power Council (Consejos del Poder Popular) was established. In Old Havana, there are seven People´s Power Councils.

Geographical distribution of citizens represented in Old Havana City of People´s Power Councils:

  • Prado: 5.077
  • Catedral: 15.480
  • Plaza Vieja: 17.398
  • Belén: 14.217
  • San Isidro: 10.803
  • Jesús María: 3.777
  • TOTAL: 66 752

Voters elect delegates to Municipal Assemblies in competitive elections. Since there is only one political party – the Communist Party – the political race is reduced to the contest between two candidates -members of the Communist Party, but nominated by mass organizations- who run against each other in a very sober but picturesque political campaign that is basically centered in the candidates´ social and political background whose candidacies are supported by their neighborhoods in public meetings.

Municipal Assembly delegates in turn elect members of the Provincial Assembly, which in Havana serves roughly as the City Council; its president functions as the Mayor.

Citizens are also often consulted about major policy issues (Lotti, 1998). However, local grassroots initiatives are less common. There are also frequent public calls for mass mobilizations of citizens in agricultural and construction work, national defense, protest against United States foreign policy, and literacy and vaccination campaigns.

Since these popular mobilizations are called from the highest political level and the massive presence of citizens is organized from their places of work or study, several experts (Domínguez, 1978, Pérez-Stable, 1999) argue that, far from reflecting a genuine individual involvement, some popular mobilization in recent years could reflect a certain degree of political coercion.

The two major national “mass organizations” with a country wide community presence are the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, CDR) and the Federation of Cuban Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, FMC).

Both organizations are present in Old Havana and remain very active at neighbor-level and –together with local authorities- take responsibility for mutual assistance in different fields, such as child welfare, juvenile delinquency prevention and emergency home repairs.

Housing policy and slum eradication program

In spite of the negative impact of the economic and social crisis after collapse of the former USSR, and the consequences of the commercial, economic and political American embargo, Old Havana has been also affected by natural disasters.

Hurricane Michelle in 2001 devastated west-central Cuba, and therefore, in 2002 almost all housing efforts were directed to repairing or replacing the 160,000 units damaged in that hurricane and by other recent storms, including 12,500 houses completely destroyed and another 21,000 partially collapsed.

In early nineties, Old Havana authorities realized the persistence of a serious social and housing situation (Coyula, 2002), which includes a growing deterioration of housing and the built environment, a severe drop in new housing construction, increase misuse of non-residential uses to dwellings, continued overcrowding of instable constructions and thousands of inhabitants living in shantytowns

With the participative role of local leaders, the authorities established the Esquema de Ordenamiento Territorial y Urbanismo (Guidelines for Zoning and Urban Planning) developed by urban planning department, which recommends to containing the deterioration in several residential areas, giving priority to a comprehensive rehabilitation strategy.

The Strategic Plan (which evolved through different phases, in 1992, 1996 and 1999) urged for a comprehensive policy focused in the rehabilitation and repairs of extremely damaged residential buildings, and gave priority to addressing conditions in shelters, shantytowns and tenements, recommending, as well:

  • Enhancing communal participation in the making decision process and resident self-help efforts,
  • Greater decentralization and participation of local governments, grassroots organizations and local citizens,
  • More use of local resources and alternative technologies.

Micro brigades

Micro brigades is an initiative created in the seventies, a form of popular participation in housing programs with strong government support, which provides an alternative solution of conventional building technologies of heavy concrete prefabricated panels.

A reduce group of workers -from a government-run workplace- were dismissed from their duties to build apartments. Under the mechanism of “sweat equity” the members of the brigade were assigned a unit.

Micro brigades were gradually phased out in the late seventies and early eighties, but later revived, with an interesting variant: the social micro brigade, which worked on rehabilitation projects of National Hallmarks and valuables buildings of Old Havana, as well as replacing shantytowns, but instead of using employees of a workplace, the work is done based on the effort of local residents.

The economic crisis also promote changes on technology, since heavy-concrete panel pre-fabricated plants have been replacing by a construction based on the use of available materials under an architectonic approach that implies a smaller, more insightful design,  having a more respectful relationship with the social environment.

A legal exception for unusual circumstances

The economic crisis of the nineties imposes a new challenge for the preservation of Old Havana (Pérez-López, 1995). These severe conditions were tackled by special legal privileges to manage the Historical Center, joining a new vision on local economy.

The goal is to make these assets productive by an efficient exploitation under a cultural perspective and while achieving social development, which allows to continue the rehabilitative work in its entire dimension.

Under these criteria, the State Council issued the Decree Law 143, October 1993, which extends the powers of the Historian’s Office, stating the old town area prioritized for Conservation, giving it a new authority that allows management to develop a self-funded recovery of the historic center.

Since the enactment of the Act, the Office ceases to be an institution subject to government provincial town for a subordinate directly to the State Council, which helps to streamline the decision-making process.

This economic autonomy allowed the Office to continue the rehabilitation process even in the midst of the worst crisis economic of Cuban history; an effort that not only includes the recovery of buildings, but is intended also to improve its inhabitants living conditions.

Thus, to the original socio-cultural focus, the Office adds economic and social goals. From the very beginning, the process demanded agile solutions due to the nature and severity of the accumulated problems. Local, national and global circumstances urged for greater efficiency in the use resources, better organization with the intent to multiply positive externalities and cause synergies, ensuring the sustainability of the processes. To do that, the Office decided to organize the Master Plan, the Process Plan and the Document Plan. It was necessary then to create the Master Plan as a dynamic and flexible, interdisciplinary, not limited to a period of study, but able to ensure continuity of a process that bases its development on the ability to satisfy both the operation of an investment strong; the Process Plan to generate tools able to direct it more efficiently; and the Document Plan, based on economic and legal entitling to provide new instruments for the participation of all citizens (Plan Maestro de Revitalización Integral de La Habana Vieja´s Report, 1996)

This system was launched by the enactment of Decree Law 143 (October 1993) and the 2951 Agreement (November 1995), originally bestowing USD $ 60,000,000.

The investment plan includes the participation of the Municipal Government
Old Havana (World Habitat Awards Report, 2010), which analyzed the priorities according to the strategies development, needs and emergencies, and prepared a plan that balances the various destinations of resources. Since 1999, the budget was allocated to 48 percent income-generating projects, the 33 percent to social programs, while 8 percent is dedicated to contributing to the national budget. The whole process of economic recovery has generated more than five thousand jobs, creating an institution, the Employer Agency, which guarantees that the new workers  are primarily residents of Old Havana. The profits derived from the income generated by the Office of the Historian take the following destinations:

  • Reinvesting in productive activities, social inclusion by direct subsidies to the resident population;
  • Contributions to central governments (not exceed 10 percent of utilities),
  • Provincial (through contributions to the rehabilitation of other areas of the city),
  • The reconstruction of the aqueduct,
  • The financing of the construction housing for residents of Old Havana,
  • Partnerships with the health sector (reconstruction a maternity home),
  • Education (support to the local library),
  • Housing services communal services (waste collection system, supply of water).

The restoration of the historic district has been implemented in a sustainable way.  Thus, beyond the financial resources provided by Cuban Central Budget, the income generated by tourism were devoted  to financing community facilities and social programs for local residents, to repair and rehabilitate dwellings, even in non-historic areas or building that not have architectural value, but could be used to address housing problems.

The before and after comparison lets note the focus on the square fountain, but also in the residential homes surrounding the monument. Therefore, we can note that the resources were used in a twofold goal, restoring a historic building and using part of it to solve housing problems. Taking advantage of other experiences, gentrification seen in most other historic areas in other cities has been avoided since housing for local residents is usually included in the upper floors of most restored buildings.

The work the Office has been done was helped in a relevant way by the international cooperation, particularly to provide community facilities and ensure social programs including a rehabilitation centre for disabled children, a maternity home for women with problem pregnancies, facilities for the elderly, special equipment for schools, and a program of holding primary school classes in museums.

The United Nations Program for Development, through the UN Program for Local Human Development (PDHL) has sponsored the most important social projects throughout Old Havana, promoting local economic development, job creation, protection of vulnerable groups, and upgrading of the environment and public services, including education and health care.

The experience of the PDHL

The Local Human Development Programme was introduced in Old Havana City in 1998, when the PDHL Local Working Group was established as an operational structure under the PDHL within the territory of the Municipal Government and, in the specific case of Old Havana, the Historian’s Office.

The PDHL Local Working Group (PDHL Report, 200) is composed of representatives from the main municipal sectors related with human development (health, education, risk management), and institutions such as the Historian’s Office, which plays a strategic role in terms of local management.

This cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary composition ensures the integrality of the Group’s work. The Group constitutes then a suitable framework for the coordination of internal strategies and actions aimed to local development, as well as for the articulation and coordination of the external initiatives supported by international cooperation.

Being local, the Group enables the social actors’ appropriation of and identification with the PDHL, facilitates community participation, and reduces the costs of the PDHL.

The Risk and Resources Maps methodology allows obtaining accurate, comprehensive and geographical information in an expeditious way and without the need to thoroughly train the participants beforehand.

The experience in terms of formulation, implementation and evaluation of the PDHL in Havana could be summarized by the following key points of local management process:

  • High degree of both internal participation (community and local development actors) and external participation (foreign collaborators).
  • Sharing of technical experiences in common interest areas.
  • Search for innovative elements that try to improve the projects.
  • Systematization of accomplishments in order to ensure replicability and mistakes correction.
  • Public visibility of the project results both internally and externally.
  • Financial, political, and environmental sustainability of the goals.

Beyond the main specific goals (restoration, housing and social inclusion), one of the most positive externalities is the strengthening of local capabilities to manage local and international support, allowing Old Havana authorities to organize and strengthen a cross-sectorial structure (involving mainly the Municipal Government and the City Historian’s Office).

Not only the important number of initiatives, but also the wide diversity and amount of cooperation and stakeholders (international agencies, central government, local, regional, municipal and provincial entities, NGO and universities) have strengthened local management capabilities.

Another important result of the PDHL´s activity in Old Havana is the implementation of coordinated actions by various actors, based on a common scheduling ground (Guidelines for Zoning and Urban Planning), with a coherent articulation with the local developmental priorities, and multiplying effect on the local economy´s performance.

The mechanism of implementation (through decentralized cooperation, triangular and South-South cooperation) has been another significant outcome of the Local Human Development Programme, since contributed to modify the conventional paradigm of international cooperation, by moving from a relationship among «donors and beneficiaries» onto an association among «partners», in a more horizontal liaison between the main stakeholders.

Lessons learned

The work done by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana to solve housing problems has achieved relevant success. The positive impact is accountable in many noticeable aspects of Old Havana´s daily life. The project has significantly improved the living conditions of the most vulnerable sectors of population, reducing social risks associated with environmental or structural issues.

The positive externalities went beyond from a conventional approach of others Old City´s restorations experiences. The indirect benefits changed every single dimension of economic and social aspect of its inhabitants, since the historic preservation approach has become the leading factor for the revitalization of the local economy.

But there is an important intangible factor that needs to be highlighted: Havana residents recovered a sense of pride of belonging to a beautiful city, understanding the relevance of being member of a vibrant community whose authorities take in consideration its citizen’s specific needs.

One of the most important innovations is the wide-ranging, financially sustainable management model developed by the Office, according to which, its profit-making companies (real estate or tourism) income´s are devoted into social programs and housing rehabilitation.

It is also true that the community involvement became both a prerequisite and a visible result. The developmental model shows a participatory approach in a twofold sense: the restoration of historic places provides a role for social participation (which promotes the local ownership); at the same time, keeping residents in the city historic centre, instead of displacing them to other parts of the city, helps to solve housing problems, due to the inclusion of housing for local residents on the upper floors of restored buildings.

Challenges

One of the principal constraint faces by the Office is the continued urban deterioration accumulated over the years.  The majority of residential buildings are overcrowded. Furthermore, in almost have of the existing houses, the households enjoying free usufruct (the legal right to live in the property, with no charges at all). Beyond the beneficial impact of the renovation of historic buildings in the local economy, the increased costs of construction and limited availability of some construction materials are permanent barriers to this process.

But there are also others systemic elements, related with the particular role played by Eusebio Leal Spengler in domestic politics. Leal is a unique personality of Cuban politics and culture who national and enjoys international recognition.  His model of developmental strategy through architectural restoration, economic recovery with social inclusion has massive support.

Although his efficient management style always had a clear support from the highest levels of Cuban political decision -including an explicit support from the Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruz- his situation is far from being worriless.

The existence of a ‘leader entity’ around his particular leadership has been proved as key factor for the coordination of an overall process enables a more viable and agile recovery of the Old City. It is not clear whether this process could be sustained without his leadership or without the current legal exceptions.

Since reinvesting profits in housing solutions, restoration and social programs is a relevant part of an integrated sustainable developmental model, a substantial modification of current legal rules or the declining of Leal´s leadership could jeopardize the whole process.

Bibliography

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Web sites

  • CDR Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, Committees for the Defence of the Revolution
  • FMC Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, Federation of Cuban Women
  • GDIC Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital, Group for the Comprehensive Development of the Capital
  • INAV Instituto Nacional de Ahorro y Vivienda, National Savings and Housing Institute
  • INV Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda, National Housing Institute
  • World Habitat Awards.
  • PDHL Programa de Desarrollo Human Local, Local Human Development
  • Programme of UNDP (United National Development Programme)
  • TTIB Taller de Transformación Integral del Barrio, Neighbourhood Transformation Workshop
  • UJC Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas, Union of Young Communists

Nueva York, septiembre de 2011.

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