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La Habana: Contributions of the citizens in view of its 500 years

By Lohania Aruca Alonso
Source CUBARTE 19.04.2016

El Templete
The ceiba tree in El Templete

La Habana will be the last of the historic cities to celebrate its 500 years of foundation as a Spanish village in Cuba, as Historian of the City of Havana Eusebio Leal Spengler said.

An important reason is that the distant foundation of the San Cristóbal de La Habana village, in 1514, in the proximities of the southern coast, and the subsequent changes of settlement to the north, doesn’t have in any case the historic importance granted to its last settlement, in 1519, by the western coast of the Havana port.

It’s also true that the magnitude of the work still to be conducted, in addition to what has been done for some decades now in Havana’s Historical Site, is greater than the work the other seven villages of the country did to celebrate their 500 year anniversary.  “La Habana is extraordinary in all its immensity, not only in particular sites. But it’s too big to be saved in one go.” (Paz, 1995: 70)

This argument, by Senel Paz, has been widely explained and documented by architect Rosendo Mesías when referring to the subsequent widening and connections of different places, in different centuries, with the old part of Havana that was within the city walls. In relation to the 20th century, he said:

“In the first quarter of the 20th century, the areas located to the west of the port were connected forming an homogenous and continuous, reticular design, from La Habana Vieja to El Vedado, east to west; to the south, until Jesús del Monte and the new area of Luyanó; to the south-west, until Marianao, going through El Cerro – forming the urban segment that we identify today as the Old Center Zone, which includes the current municipalities of Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, Diez de Octubre and El Cerro. This is the part of the city where the social production of the habitat has had a strong impact, and where the most critical housing problems are concentrated.” [Mesías, 2003: 32).

When referring to the “social production”, the aforementioned author talks about the informal ways of self-production (i.e., without technical guidance or qualified workforce, ignorant of the urban regulations, and with low budget) that “are the main sources of investment and energy the housing patrimony of the old center zone has received (or, unfortunately, wrongly received, most of them).” (Ibid.37)

For this reason, we agree with Mesías on the fact that “the housing deterioration in the central zone of La Habana is one of the biggest challenges the city faces” (Ibid. 33). The problem gets worst if we consider that this situation was identified and studied in 2003, over 13 years now.

Though the selection of La Habana as the capital city, for over three centuries, and its condition as a World Heritage Site and a Wonder City of the world (2015) makes us feel proud, it also commits us to be responsible citizens, starting from our own houses and neighborhoods, including all the city and each of its 15 municipalities.

Perhaps, a systematic, constant campaign is still needed in the media to clarify, from the didactic point of view, the urban and architectonic values we must preserve in our city, each of its neighborhoods included.

We have somehow moved forward in what regards local history, taught and studied at schools since the primary education. But this is not enough, as it doesn’t include all the citizens, nor it is projected in concrete actions of preservation, maintenance, restoration and rebuilding. These are mainly the responsibility of the local governmental institutions. The cost of these actions may be relatively low, depending on the problems to be solved.

For example, the sanitation of an urban zone is related to social discipline and the fulfillment of the public hygiene measures, as well as to the attention to green spaces, under the supervision of the Community Services department.

Social organizations such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women, and others, should carry out frequent, simple tasks and foster the patrimonial value each place has, and refer to the name of such a place, be it that of a hero or heroin, or a local historic event.

Such simple tasks would contribute to highlight the environment in which the life of a small community takes place, and would increase the collective self-esteem of its inhabitants, while reducing the individualistic actions that are taking control day by day of our urban and social context. By doing so, we would recover the relationship between neighbors – that has evidently broken up for several reasons.

To be a Cuban man or woman is a citizen honor for several reasons: first, because we are part of a heroic people that has fought for its independence, sovereignty and cultural identity, without giving up, for almost 150 years (October 10, 1868 – 2018). There are almost two years to go before the celebration of such a glorious anniversary!

Besides, we are a working, peaceful country, of proven internationalist solidarity, where education and culture have reached levels never reached before in other Latin American countries, in spite of the blockade by the great imperial power since 1960.

What do we have to improve and must do as citizens in order to achieve a higher level of respect towards ourselves? In my opinion, to take care, preserve and protect right away the 500-year-old Havana. She is the material support of our citizen life, locally and nationally.

We must all act upon the basis of our faith as Havana citizens, following the call of our founding fathers and the first inhabitants of La Habana, in order to increase and maintain the material and spiritual legacy of the famous Cuban capital.

Translation: Yanely Interián (Cubarte)



─Mesías, Rosendo: “La Habana desde el centro. El hábitat en la Zona antigua”, in: Mesías, R. y Suárez, A. (Coordinators): Los Centros Vivos, Alternativas de hábitat en los Centros Antiguos de las ciudades de América Latina: La Habana, Lima, México, Montevideo, CYTED, La Habana- Ciudad México, 2002.

─Paz, Senel: Ciudades del Mundo (transcript by Isabel León of the homonymous program of the London BBC in 1994, Community 6/95, IPF, 1995.)

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