Tag Archives: Eusebio Leal

More bad news for new ideas in Cuba

eusebioleal

The Miami Herald, by Paul W. Hare

Very few without Castro in their name have survived in the leadership of the Cuban Revolution as long as Eusebio Leal. And he didn’t do it by the conventional means of silence and obedience. He brought loyalty but also ideas to the Castros. Now the military-run business empire has asserted itself in Old Havana as elsewhere and Leal appears to have been outmaneuvered.

Uniquely among Cuban leaders Leal has cared about other things beyond preserving the Castro Revolution. He has been as fascinated by Cuba’s past as its future. He has received numerous overseas cultural awards but his stature in Cuba has been that he thought differently.

In 2002 the British embassy in Havana staged a two-month-long series of events to commemorate 100 years of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United Kingdom. We were told it was the largest such festival by an overseas country ever held in Cuba. Leal was our indispensable ally for venues, organization, contacts and vision. At times the Revolution’s agenda surfaced and he negotiated hard. But his heart was in the history of both our countries. Leal even created a garden in Old Havana in memory of Princess Diana. And as a historian he loved the story of the British invasion of Havana in 1762.

The military conglomerate GAESA will now assume business control over Leal’s beloved Old Havana project. This has been a labor of love and ingenuity. But it has also depended on his versatile role at the heart of revolutionary politics. He proved a man of taste, of determination but also shone as a contemporary entrepreneur in a Cuba which despises individualism.

His versatility served him well. A teenager at the time of the Revolution, he chose to prove that innovation and a love of past cultures and elegance could coexist with the new era. He admired Fidel, a fellow intellectual, and — not accidentally — he was chosen by the official Cuban media to eulogize his old friend again on his 90th birthday. Typically, the Revolution was extracting a declaration of loyalty from a man who was feeling pretty disgruntled .

Times are changing in Cuba and the undermining of Leal’s control has wider implications. He may not be a household name outside Cuba and he may be in failing health. But his project showed he knew the Castros would never allow private sector growth to restore the largest area of Spanish colonial architecture in the Western Hemisphere.

His only chance was to harness funds from tourist visitors and foreign investors. There is still much to do but the current rush of tourists to Cuba owes much to achievement.

Leal’s fate is nothing new. Set in the 57-year context of the Cuban Revolution, many able and loyal leaders have been discarded. Felipe Pérez Roque, Carlos Lage and Roberto Robaina are recent examples. But Leal had survived and appeared to be growing in stature with Raúl. His walking tour of Old Havana with Obama received worldwide publicity.

Leal’s bonding with the U.S. president may have irked the Castros. The disintegration of Venezuela and loss of subsidies under Nicolás Maduro gave the military companies the opening they needed to swoop for Old Havana. Now, effectively Raúl Castro’s son-in-law will rule the roost and U.S.-operated cruise ships will soon be occupying many berths in the Old Havana harbor.

But perhaps the saddest lesson from Leal’s marginalization is the signal it sends to Cuban innovators and foreign investors. The restoration of the Revolution is still more important than the architectural jewels of past eras. Almost at the same time as Leal’s demise, a far less visionary but unquestioning loyalist, Ricardo Cabrisas, was promoted. These are indeed depressing times for Cubans hoping for some new ideas and less of the same.

PAUL W. HARE IS A FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO CUBA AND CURRENTLY SENIOR LECTURER AT THE FREDERICK S. PARDEE SCHOOL OF GLOBAL STUDIES AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY.

Cuba’s Military Dictatorship in Complete Control: Historian confirms military taking over operations

Hotel Ambos Mundos

The Miami Herald

In the early 1990s, with Havana in ruins and Cuba mired in a devastating economic crisis, the island’s government granted historian Eusebio Leal Spengler and his office broad and rare powers to return Old Havana to its former glory.

Under his guidance, and largely reinvesting its own funds, the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana (OHCH) rescued at least one third of the buildings in the historic heart of the Cuban capital and won lavish international praise.

But Leal’s autonomy appears to have come to an end, with all OHCH operations now under the control of the Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA), a holding company controlled by the Cuban armed forces.

“You see that building? Ten years ago it was full of putrid water, rats and garbage. The balconies could fall on people walking under them any time. Today they are apartments, thanks to Eusebio’s work,” said Mirna, 68, a retiree who added that she’s worried about the future of the OHCH.

Leal confirmed the change in an email response to questions from a reporter but chose his words carefully. The OHCH, he wrote, “was not transferred to the armed forces but to (GAESA), a development enterprise that has the prestige and capacity to invest, while the Historian’s Office retains the power to advise on preservation and new construction projects.”

Cuba’s government-controlled news media has not reported on the change. Some independent journalists have described the shift as a direct takeover by the armed forces.

Leal, however, said that OHCH employees are not worried because “the preservation work is being extended to (other) cities important to Cuba’s heritage.” But he went on to take a sharp jab at unidentified critics of his efforts to protect the national patrimony.

“We have been hurt, it’s true, because at a moment that requires the utmost respect for life, mediocre people who never achieved anything and are spiritually poor are taking advantage to injure and damage the many others who have worked so many years to preserve the patrimony of a nation, either in Cuba or any other part of the world,” he wrote.

Leal took over the OHCH in 1967 after the death of Emilio Roig de Leuchshering, who had led the agency since its founding in the 1930s. It began to grow, in size, revenue and autonomy as it renovated and sold or rented buildings in Old Havana.

Its almost total autonomy — rarely seen in Cuba’s communist system — was assured in the 1990s with a government decree that empowered Leal to create an enterprise that could earn revenues and reinvest them in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The decree ordered the OHCH to report directly to the national Council of State rather than to the municipal government. The office also has its own special legal code and judicial standing, as well as permission to import and export goods directly instead of going through the cumbersome national system for foreign trade.

One of its most important benefits is the power to require payments from companies that are based in Old Havana but are not under direct OHCH control. They pay the office 1 percent of revenue if they work in Cuban pesos and 5 percent if they work in convertible pesos known as CUCs.

Among the entities are the Habaguanex hotel chain, the San Cristobal travel agency, the Opus Havana cultural magazine, the Habana Radio station, the Bologna publishing house and several businesses with web pages that advertise and sell OHCH products.

OHCH also controlled the Aurea and Fénix real estate companies, more than 50 cafeterias and two dozen restaurants, museums, concert halls and shops, an import company, a trade school and three construction companies.

In the past two decades, it created 13,000 jobs directly and thousands more indirectly, according to studies carried out by the organization. Sixty percent of the $500 million in revenues it brought went to “social” projects such as a home for the aged. The OHCH also received more than $30 million in foreign assistance.

About 55 percent of the tourists who go to the island visit Havana, and 90 percent of them walk around the historic city center. Per capita tourist income in Old Havana is estimated at 2,185 convertible pesos, compared to 245 in the rest of the capital, studies show.

“The biggest slice of the cake is in Old Havana. Everyone knows that, and that’s why they are taking away of all of Leal’s enterprises,” said one employee of a senior citizen’s home financed by the OHCH.

Leal’s email said OHCH will retain the power to impose a 5 percent charge on any public or private activity in Old Havana, and will still run “heritage” shops such as those in museums. Other state institutions also will continue to contribute to the historian’s office.

Leal’s office grew even bigger in 2003, when it took control of the redevelopment of the old part of the seaside Malecón boulevard, and then in 2005 when it began running the Chinatown section of the capital.

But it began losing branches to other government entities after a string of corruption scandals involving some of its administrators covered by the islands’ independent journalists and never by the government’s mass media monopoly.

“The process of pruning its branches has been slow. They have been removing one after another to protect Leal,” said one Cuban economist who spoken on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “The auditors found a huge embezzlement, and the only way of not judging the Historian, who in fact had nothing to do with the theft, is to terminate his responsibility for those enterprises.”

Leal flatly denied that version of OHCH’s break up in his email, but added that “wherever there is someone willing to sell his soul to the devil, there will be administrative and corruption scandals.”

The shift to GAESA control, he added, is designed “simply to consolidate development efforts that we cannot face with our own resources.”

Eugenio Yanez, a Cuban academic with the online think tank Cubanálisis, has a somewhat different view of the problems at OHCH.

“First of all, (Cuban ruler) Raúl Castro is more pragmatic, and so he may want an enterprise that specializes in management to focus on running the businesses in Havana,” said Yanez.

But Yanez added that the corruption scandals and Leal’s suspected poor health — he was said to have nearly died recently from an unspecified ailment — had unquestionably added to OHCH’s troubles.

“The auditors found shady dealings,” he said. “The solution was the transfer to the armed forces, which Castro trusts.”

Some of the small private businesses in Old Havana said they felt protected by the OHCH and expressed concerns about its transfer to GAESA.

“The government always promotes its own restaurants, hotels and businesses ahead of the private sector,” said Reinaldo, who runs a clothing shop in Old Havana.

Hairdresser Camilo Condis said the small private businesses in Old Havana have thrived under the OHCH umbrella.

“Without the Historian’s office, the work we do would not have been possible,” said Condis, who works with Gilberto Valladares, the beauty shop owner who met with President Barack Obama during his visit to Cuba.

But since GAESA’s takeover on Aug. 1, the institution that preserved at least one third of Havana’s historic center has been limited to “managing museums, promoting cultural activities and the care of our patrimony,” said a source at the Vitrina de Valonia museum in Old Havana.

It’s not clear how the military will manage the restoration projects in Old Havana, but many expressed fear that they will not know how to maintain Leal’s legacy, and will seek more immediate profits without taking residents into account.