Old Havana, unlike other historic districts in Latin America, is not only a tourist attraction. In this part of the city, functioning alongside history are social institutions, medical centers, schools, and cultural venues. Achieving this coexistence - and preserving an historic site that is inhabited and has an active cultural life of its own - has been possible thanks to the efforts of many institutions and of the population, always involved in preservation projects.
The City Historian's Office has been a key participant over the years since 1938, first led by historian Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, and later by Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler.
Since then, La Habana Vieja has seen restoration works to preserve the district's valuable assets, and been recognized as a National Monument and a World Heritage Site.
In 1993, in Decree Law no. 143, the recovery of the central historic district was emphasized as a key task of the City Historian's Office. As part of this declaration, mandated was a Master Plan, a tool that has guided the comprehensive development of this part of the city for 24 years.
Drafting of the document was initiated and, in 1998, it was published as the Comprehensive Development Plan. Now, more than two decades later, the Historian's Office is responsible for restoring and preserving the area. The project has always been guided by the principle that the population must benefit and play a leading role in all efforts. The concept of integral citizenship was very advanced at that time, and all work over the years has been consistent with the principle.
Dr. Patricia Rodríguez Alomá, director of the City Historian's Office Master Plan, explained, "In that era, a structure was designed that included the Office, the archeology and architecture cabinets, and the museums, but over time, everything grew. An enterprise system was created to develop tourism and began to generate economic resources.
"We envisioned the project as not only directed toward the restoration of a building, a stained glass window, or a plaza. We also wanted to include the recovery of cultural spaces, dwellings, schools, healthcare facilities, leisure and recreation centers. We sought projects that would expand, and at the same time address aspects related to the environment and vulnerable groups in the area, among whom were the elderly."
To do all of this, from the very beginning, a working multi-disciplinary team was created. The first objective was to prepare a document that could serve as a guide to plan comprehensive development. Over time, the need arose to charge the group with implementation of the plan, monitoring, and updating.
"First was the learning and the construction of the project, something we did little by little, something that, as we learned, became the Comprehensive Development Plan. We had to study and learn a great deal. We had meetings, participated in congresses, and then began to create it all.
"We did it day by day. It was constant participation that went hand in hand with the investment process. We were getting feedback through the process of learning and daily praxis. It was a period of trial and error. We were right about many things, but not in others, and this way, we learned to organize the work," Rodríguez recalled.
The implementation of this Master Plan began in 1998 and has reached the present with new methods. Today, the work of the City Historian's Office is aligned with the country's National Economic and Social Development Plan through 2030, and includes some variations based on the current context.
"Culture continues to be a central axis of the project. Housing must be protected as a social interest and La Habana Vieja must continue to be an inhabited place," she explained.
"From the economic and social point of view, this must be a sustainable project, with a participative instrument that has legal standing, and which guides the process. Moreover, among its objectives is providing the area with contemporary infrastructure that allows for modern life," she stated.
What has changed, Rodríguez adds, is the way that objectives have been defined, and indicators established, to be able to measure what is being done and how much progress is being made.
In this sense, new participants have joined the effort, given contemporary dynamics. Small businesses have arrived as an allies after 20 years of restoration work, to give the Office another aspect to address. Large hotel companies are also partners, who the director says have allowed restoration projects to include human development, raising the standard of living of residents, and generating employment.
"Working with real estate of such great cultural value requires much specialization and the involvement of all those who are capable of contributing to the restoration. The inter-disciplinary nature (of the work) has been very positive, because we have been able to involve participants on a small scale such as self-employed workers, the municipal and provincial government, and even the national government," Rodríguez noted.
The success of the City Historian's Office and its Master Plan lies in the integrated work carried out over years, with all sectors. A highly complex achievement that faces the everyday challenge of maintaining the Cuban capital's central historic district as an inhabited, living neighborhood, where this mix of past and present, with 498 years of history, is preserved.