TAMPA — Havana’s official historian, Eusebio Leal, has spent the past four decades helping preserve and restore more than 300 landmark buildings within Old Havana, a borough of the Cuban capital.
The Ybor City Chamber of Commerce hosted Leal at the Columbia Restaurant on Friday. He gave the crowd a brief history, through a translator, of Havana and its important ties to the United States — specifically to Ybor City.
Leal feels attached to Ybor City, especially in a place like the Columbia, because of the cities’ joint history together. He also spoke of the Old and New Worlds meeting in Cuba, Florida and the Caribbean.
“We are all fruits of that encounter,” Leal said.
With about 80,000 Cuban-Americans, the bond between Tampa and Havana goes back more than 100 years. In the 1890s, Cuban freedom fighter José Martí pursued aid from Ybor City cigar workers. Cuba still owns a plot of land in Ybor, José Martí Park. In April, the Tampa City Council endorsed the idea of one day hosting a Cuban consulate here (even though the mayor’s not so keen on the idea).
Ybor City Chamber chairman Larry Wilder said Leal was brought here as part of a cultural heritage exchange. They wanted Leal to show the connections between Havana and Ybor. “The similarities are parallel,” Wilder said.
“(Leal) is revered and respected around the world,” said Al Fox, president of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Federation. “He’s more familiar with Ybor than most people who live here.”
Some of the significant restorations Leal led were the renovations of the Cuban capitol building, “El Capitolio,” and the Havana Cathedral. The cathedral, in the center of Old Havana, played host to Pope Francis during his recent visit to Cuba.
Aside from the visual aspects of his restoration, Leal said the most important part of his work is local participation. The restored buildings create more businesses and activities for families.
“The projects involve everyone,” he said. “It’s not just a restoration project — it’s a social project.”
His presentation showcased some of the more than 500 family businesses created by the renovation, from a $4 million theater to a historic marketplace.
The projects resulted in the first animal sanctuaries in Cuba, Leal said, as well as more homes for the elderly and single-parent families. Leal also helped restore a building where Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls.
“We preserve everything that was Hemingway’s,” he said.
He uses restoration as his tool to guide tourists and locals to the center of Old Havana. He calls Havana “an organic city” that mixes traditional and new heritages and cultures.
Though the American embargo still remains, Leal one day hopes hundreds of thousands of tourists will visit Cuba if it lifts.
“They will find a part of their history there,” he said. “People are anxious to know those who sit right in front of them.”
He hopes to use profits from increased tourism to continue his work bringing parts of Havana back to their former glory.
“Let all this be for Cuba,” he said.