Twenty years are only a blink of the eye in the life of any city, much more so if we are talking about one like the former Villa de Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe, which has a history of more than 500 years, forged with the blood and sweat of its people who fiercely love and defend their home.
But over the last two decades, the city's landscape has been transformed, according to locals and visitors, as a result of the enterprising spirit and perseverance of leaders, specialists, and workers at the Camagüey City Historian's Office, although this group insists that the credit is not theirs alone.
Created February 24, 1997, in accordance with Council of State Decree-Law no. 213, the institution was invested with the authority to carry out a strategy, policies, and plans to ensure the restoration and preservation of the city's central historic district and the province's great patrimonial wealth.
"We have moved from empiricism, a shortage of technical staff, and lots of willpower, to more mature, well-planned work, that does not allow for any improvisation, on the basis of close collaboration between the province's government bodies, institutions, and enterprises," explained José Rodríguez Barreras, the Office director.
"Without this indispensable collaboration," he adds, "a complex city such as ours cannot be managed, nor could we confront the enormous challenges that the preservation of the historical, cultural, and architectural patrimony of the locality implies, fully aware of how much remains to be done."
STARTING WITH AGRAMONTE
No one doubted the decision that restoration work would begin with what was called the "Ignacio Agramonte Route," a years-long, colossal investment project to restore sites and buildings linked to the legendary independence leader, known as El Mayor and beloved for his patriotism and loyalty to Cuba's cause.
The inventory of sites returned to life includes the house where Agramonte was born, the Quinta Simoni, Potreros de Jimaguayú, the Plaza de San Juan de Dios, his cenotaph in the city's General Cemetery, Parque Agramonte (formerly the Plaza de Armas,) and Mayor General Ignacio Agramonte Loynaz Plaza de la Revolución.
Back in 2002, experts from the City Historian's Office identified the area to be prioritized for restoration - that with the greatest heritage value - which led to an inventory and catalogue of sites and buildings with exceptional characteristics, a good portion of which were in poor condition, some almost in ruins.
From that point on, starting with sites that established the city's urban fabric, ambitious projects were launched to emphasize Camagüey's assets, with the culminating achievement of its central historic district being designated a World Cultural Heritage Site in June of 2008.
The effort was nothing less than a construction revolution, which reached its maximum expression in the lead-up to the 500th anniversary of the city's founding, February 2, 2014, and has continued without pause, despite the many challenges and obstacles, overcome with willpower and a commitment to comprehensive, integral renovation.
"The goal," insists María Isabel Carmenates Bringas, director of the Office's Master Plan, "is to make our city an increasingly welcoming and safe place, where public spaces, plazas, squares, and streets are used as appropriate sites to enjoy our heritage."
The fact that Camagüey is among a limited number of places declared World Heritage Sites also implies a good share of compromise and responsibility, since the area must continue to function if its universal, exceptional assets are to be preserved.
"Toward this end," the expert explained, "a partial plan, and a management one, have been conceived, which is no more than well-planned action, implicit in all economic plans, with scientific-technical studies and required popular consultation, to confront current problems and future challenges in the best way."
The Historian's Office has three indispensable supports in its effort: the Restoration Enterprise, essential to the rehabilitation of buildings and public spaces; the Ciudad Santa María Tourism Enterprise, which generates some of the funds needed; and the Francisco Sánchez Betancourt Trade School.
Thanks to this ongoing work, dozens of buildings have been restored with first class protection; the city's religious architecture has been conserved impeccably; while lodging, retail, restaurant, and cultural facilities have been renovated to meet superior standards of quality.
"The historic city, with a high concentration of services, today faces the challenge of modernity, including new forms of non-state economic management, and therefore requires exquisite treatment. I always say that it's like the grandmother at home, the one we must care for and venerate the most," Rodríguez Barreras commented.
An accurate opinion if we take into consideration that it is the central historic district which is called upon to dynamize the city's economy and become an attractive tourist destination, on the basis of optimal management of its patrimony and the active, conscious participation of residents.
"Today, what is done in the area of conservation and restoration," he said, "must be accompanied by untiring work to sensitize institutions and the citizenry, directed toward transforming behavior in relation to the ways we interact and coexist with these assets which have been restored to their full splendor."
To achieve the city's necessary sustainability, the City Historian's Office experts are immersed in studies that include those addressing the ecosystem; care and respect for patrimony; urban zoning regulations; traffic solutions; and the impact of the Hatibonico River on the historic district.
Since there are many who dream, love, struggle, and work for a better city, the transformation in Camagüey is unstoppable, guided by the principle of taking advantage of all opportunities, and the decisive support and effective efforts of many actors in the province.
Already completed are the fairgrounds in the area of the former Manuel Julién electrical plant, a project that in its first stage includes a 6,000-seat amphitheater, and will later feature exhibition halls, stores, restaurants, cafes, and other recreational options for families.
Aileen Marín González, director of restoration and projects at the City Historian's Office, reported that already underway is the restoration of the former train station and its surroundings, which will serve as the Railroad Museum, meant to preserve the history and traditions of this important sector.
Work is simultaneously being undertaken on the construction of the José Marín Varona Concert Hall and the Research Directorate, with an archaeology office, to complement the network of institutions and social-cultural projects of the City Historian's Office.
Without ever seeking the limelight, but conscious of their role and responsibility, behind every building restored, every plaza rescued from oblivion, is the mark of this small army of Camagüeyans who find the greatest satisfaction in fulfilling their duty on a daily basis.