My barrio, my home. A glance at the state of conservation of local heritage

Faced by the ravages of time, oblivion or ignorance, the conservation, study and promotion of tangible and intangible heritage are vital in view of cultural colonialism.

“It’s from abroad,” an actress repeated on a humour programme on Cuban television, as a guarantee of a product’s quality. This is not one of the performer’s bits, but rather a phrase the script writer took from the street and that confirms a feeling of undervalue proper of the underdevelopment enthroned in our very identity and which generates perversions of the people’s spirit, like wanting to be like someone else, linked to the racial and cultural stereotypes in tune with the image promoted by the major media.

The emigration of Cubans, a phenomenon with a strong economic component, today is seasoned with a feeling of pettiness that comes hand in hand with the material penuries and the replacing of the euphoria and delight in the ego proper of the 1960s and 1970s.
Neither is heritage, the offspring of the society that generated it, alien to the privations that, with the passing of time, sheltered it. In the Cuba of today it receives the effort of many, the result of laws and regulations that protect it, but also the ravages of the shortages and vandalism, and to a certain extent the ignorance, oblivion and underestimation of what belongs to us.

Regarding this, Raida Mara Suárez, who for several decades has been the director of Heritage of the Office of the City of Havana Historian, affirmed: “I want to think that the ignoramus, the rich whose wealth is ill-gotten, the mercantilists and the weak and the indecisive, the populists, those who confuse the concept of people with that of anti-social elements, of workers with that of thieves, that of social disadvantage with delinquency, of the capable with that of the rascals, will not be able to destroy the nation forged during so many years.”

On another occasion the expert expressed as medullar the intangible heritage (history, oral traditions, customs, beliefs, festivities, music….) and pointed out: “only if it exists is it worthwhile to speak of the tangible, which otherwise would become merchandise, money or a treasure of curiosities.”

It is not a question of staying anchored or reproducing images of the past, but rather of assuming a creative attitude based on our own roots, not forgetting that the great centres that generated images have always existed and that, in the present, those scenes, associated to the asset-stripping, frivolity and the empire of the ultra-light, are expanding in seconds through the technology in use.

The conservation, study and promotion of heritage are vital for that upright path, very necessary for progress, and as a shield in the face of cultural colonialism. Cuba has followed that path, placing emphasis on sites and buildings registered as World Heritage and National Monument.

It should not be forgotten that the raison d’être of these classifications (local, national and world heritage) is to establish a hierarchy for their study, conservation and restoration.

Especially these two latter spheres, conservation and restoration, involve highly expensive practices, especially for Cuba: almost all the necessary products are imported and their manufacturing condition makes them extremely expensive. Frequently they involve implements with a reduced market, for which factories are not set up.

This is why – and because there is an order of priorities governed by urgent needs and a depleted and centralised economy -, the local heritage, classified thus not because it is locally generated but rather because its importance is limited to a community, has generally been left out of the distribution of funds.

Of course, this is not a question of bogged down compartments and that, with the passage of time and the social consensus, the local heritage can become national or world, and then attract some attention. What today is unknown tomorrow can be registered.

For example, industrial assets were always underestimated from the cultural point of view compared to the major architectural works. However, they are part of our history and today their heritage value is underlined. Vernacular architecture was given a sidelong glance, was associated to minor constructions, with no stylistic pretensions, but today we know that it has a value as a whole that is being lost. Every day new elements and typologies are incorporated that have to be protected. But, what happens with what a barrio or town identifies as valuable, even though for the rest of the mortals it is not classified as such? What is the fate of that building sentimentally linked to the inhabitants of Cojímar or the town of Zulueta?

Law and order

It should be specified that Cuba has a National Commission of Monuments, established on January 12, 1978 under Law No. 2 of National and Local Monuments. It is the responsibility of the specialists of this commission to prepare studies and plans for the localisation, conservation and restoration of historic centres, buildings, sites and objects declared National or Local Monument, as well as those that, without being declared, are registered as having heritage value. Moreover, they are the custodians of the archives and documentation that corresponds to the National and Local Monuments.

Marta Arjona, who was the president of the National Heritage Council until her death in 2006, in 1977 approved Law No. 1 on the Protection of Heritage and Law No. on Monuments and Historic Sites. All countries do not have this legal framework. There are other laws, like the one establishing, among other important subjects, the policy on collection and preservation in our museums.

That is a key weapon to draw up strategies and seek viable alternatives for the sustainability of heritage. Neither the Louvre nor the Prado museums are profitable; none is, but there are financing alternatives.

Likewise, the National Commission decides on the protection area, which is the area adjoining a National or Local Monument, whether the declaration of this condition has already been done or if it is in the prior process of investigation. Once the protection area is defined, the National Commission supervises the constructions done inside it, recommends measures when necessary to eliminate or modify the interventions in progress and limit and proscribe, if necessary, the economic activity.

The law stipulates that the installation of an industry or commerce will not be allowed in buildings declared National or Local Monuments, or in protection areas without the prior permit of the commission. This green light will also be necessary for the installation of billboards, signs and decorations, and the holding of public performances in those places.

The definitive export of all goods declared National or Local Monuments is forbidden. A National or Local Monument can be exported, totally or partially and for a certain time, only with the authorisation of the National Commission after the necessary verifications have been made. Therefore, it will be an indispensable requirement to present before the customs officials the certificate issued by the National Commission proving that the transfer abroad of the good involved has been authorised, and the time it will be allowed to remain outside the national territory.

Beyond the laws and regulations (which apart from that are sometimes broken, like during the recent plundering in the Museum of Fine Arts, which generated a major scandal), the heritage education and specifically what concerns the history and value of the communities where the students live is part of the study plans in primary and secondary education.

Moreover, precisely because of the pressing need to save heritage, a workshop is currently being built for its conservation and restoration in Santiago de Cuba, an initiative of deceased Marta Arjona, who was famous for her dedication to the conservation of national and local values.

The installation, very close to the Emilio Bacardí Museum, will be devoted to the care of documents, works in stone and metal, furniture, easel painting and textiles, the newspaper Sierra Maestra recently reported.

In addition, the workshop “will have a quarantine warehouse where the physical, chemical or any other kind of damage to the pieces will be determined, and a sowing lab, where biologists and microbiologists will carry out the tests required by the conservation and restoration works,” the newspaper said.  

The centre, to which experts from the entire country will contribute, mainly from Havana and Santiago de Cuba, will provide services to the different institutions in the province that are devoted to safeguarding heritage, in the first place the Emilio Bacardí Museum, famous for the preservation of mummies dating back to several thousands of years and important belongings of the leaders of the Cuban wars of independence.

The workshop will also back other provinces whose heritage assets are today at risk, for whose safeguarding the trade schools in the country, depressed for a long time, are being revitalised.

According to the publication, different foreign collaboration projects are currently being prepared for equipping the installation, whose line of priority will be the handling of documents.

Heritage as the heart of local development

The search for diverse economic and political mechanisms appears in several of the transformations drawn out by the government of Raúl Castro and should have an effect in all the spheres of life in Cuba.

Boosting the so-called local development alternatives and the need for the autonomy of the territories for this, is contained in the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).  

The transformations expected in the country’s barrios and municipalities with the gradual application of economic decentralisation measures will make it possible, according to specialists, to facilitate the solution of some problems and to better coordinate the available resources in the territories by granting power to the primary authorities.

In this regard, it is necessary to assess the cultural heritage as a foundational element of the development projects to produce added territorial value and contribute to integral local progress; to extend, to the extent that it is possible, the experience of Havana’s Historic Centre, which in turn is being repeated in the rest of the Cuban heritage townships, with the specifications imposed by each case.

Some places have found in their industrial inheritance valuable heritage elements. There is already a series of initiatives and experiences regarding the use of the industrial remains of the past as resource centres with a cultural and didactic character.  

With respect to the use in Cuba of the heritage resulting from the industrial activity, it is necessary to mention the organisation of visits to cigar factories in Havana and the tobacco plantations of Pinar del Río; to the copper mines in Santiago de Cuba, to sugar mills and to the Railroad Museum in Havana, among other sites.

But, in terms of a vision of integral local development, the pioneering experience is the one being carried out for decades by the Office of the City of Havana Historian led by Eusebio Leal Spengler, who defends that a real project of progress can only be achieved through culture. The work of the Office has demonstrated that what at times can be considered a limitation becomes its antipode, is a potential to advance.

With the start of the crisis in the 1990s in country, Cuban academic circles started debating the viability of these projects, in an underdeveloped country with a high level of centralisation in decision making and the distribution of resources. The discourse on the local gained a relevant position, first in studies placing emphasis on their adaptation to the Cuban reality.

On the other hand, any local development programme must be based on a diagnosis and analysis of the territory’s potentials. It is understood that this includes a study of the cultural heritage it has so that later it can have an expression of the strategies for progress.

A voice from the National Council of Cultural Heritage

Regarding the details of the local values in Cuba and their future in the midst of the changes in sight in the country, the IPS Cuba Editorial Staff spoke with architect Nilson Acosta Reyes, vice president of the agency that governs the cultural heritage in the nation.

What assets do you classify as local heritage?
We assess the local heritage as that associated to a community and, in that sense, it can be an asset that has been declared, that has legal protection or can lack it. What is relevant is the inhabitants’ appreciation. It can be a building that marks the history of the territory, a town’s church or another building, but it can also be part of the intangible heritage, which ranges from cuisine to festivities; it is very varied and is associated to the characteristics of each locality.

Beyond the assets that are legally protected, what is the state of that local heritage?
The built heritage is one of those that suffer the most the economic ravages. If you cannot have a policy of conservation, even in the case of National Monuments (we cannot say that the more than 500 assets that are registered are in optimum condition), what remains for those in many of the communities? Perhaps the most illustrative example is in the sugar heritage: what happened with many of the sugar mills? The associated populations were left without that support, which was not only economic but also cultural, essential for their identity.

It is a complex issue that cannot be separated from the economic situation. The local built heritage is obviously also very threatened by the lack of maintenance, by meteorological events, by the shortage of materials that the conservation of assets requires…for example, in the case of vernacular architecture, it needs quality wood; roof tiles, which are in short supply because the mineral deposits are running out, but also because of the loss of trades we have suffered for many years.

The communities’ intangible heritage, on the contrary, has been enriched. The country has mechanisms for promoting it and guaranteeing their passing on to the new generations, also thanks to the work of the houses of culture and the municipal museums. The Special Period  was unable to eliminate Remedios’ Parrandas, in the province of Villa Clara, or the Santiago de Cuba Carnival. Those traditions were stronger than the economic limitations. I must specify that there wasn’t a law that forced the holding of those festivities.

Could one think that the conservation and restoration efforts are concentrated in the heritage cities?
There is a hierarchy and that defines the priorities. When the resources are restricted, work starts on what has the biggest impact.

Is something being done in favour of vernacular architecture?
Yes. The fact that there is a Vernacular Architecture Chair in collaboration with the Office of the City of Havana Historian (the Gonzalo de Cárdenas Chair of Vernacular Architecture, created by initiative of the Diego de Sagredo Foundation) recognises that anonymous, modest architecture, but also important because it contains the physiognomy of our towns.

Conservation is a challenge because it requires fundamental materials, but is being worked and an effort is made to seek palliatives, at least we need to identify in that great amount of constructions what is the most valuable and what can be the criteria for future interventions.  

Vernacular architecture is frequently associated to scarcity. Does this call to attention a supposed defence of practices like dirt floors and others related to the primitive layers of human development?
Not necessarily. Heritage is not divorced from development, from the evolution of persons’ living conditions. What we try to encourage is the search for a language coherent with the antecedents and the environment. Our aim is not that a person who was born in a home with dirt floors to continue permanently living in the same conditions. But to improve people’s life it is necessary to find formulas that do not attack the context.

This is also the case of the access to the new technologies or to the hydraulic and electrical infrastructures. The case of Viñales Valley is an analysed issue, a declared World Heritage Site and that has vernacular architecture as part of its values…. We are aware that that dialogue between the improvement of the living conditions of its inhabitants and the conservation as much as possible of a certain visualisation and landscape has to be strengthened.

In terms of museums, there was a time in which each municipality had one, the result of a battle led by Marta Arjona, who at the time was the director of the National Council of Cultural Heritage and who in agreement with the municipal authorities chose the most valuable buildings for this purpose, is that idea out-dated?

It has not become out-dated. The municipal museums were born through Law 23 of 1980. In principle that has been maintained, though in practice it never was 100 per cent achieved. There were municipalities in which a museum was never founded. Today we have more than 300 museums and we are talking of a country with serious economic limitations. A municipal museum is necessary, but it has to be adapted to the characteristics of each territory and have the minimum conditions to carry out its work.  

At present there is intensified talk of greater citizen participation, of giving the municipalities economic and management power, what would this represent for heritage?  
It is a challenge for the territories. When that new strategy is structured, there will be municipalities that have more income and possibilities based on culture, like Trinidad, in the centre of the country, and others that will depend on the territory’s capacity in other sectors and on the sensitivity of the government concerning the institutions that have to be maintained. The Council will continue assuming what is its essence: the methodological guidance. This economic scheme that we have today has been inherited from a distortion caused by the dual currency. When this disappears, the budgets will be those of the governments and the financing to maintain museums, houses of culture and heritage assets will come from there. It has been previewed that in this way the municipality will govern and that it not sits down to wait for orientations from higher up.

What perspective do you see in Isla de la Juventud, which has the Modelo Prison; the El Abra Estate, where José Martí stayed; the Punta del Este Caves; El Pinero ship…?
It will be extremely difficult for the Isla de la Juventud if it doesn’t have a differentiated national attention from the start. Only the Modelo Prison surpasses the municipality’s possibilities, and the Isla’s national monuments, like El Pinero, are very threatened. In Punta del Este actions are already being carried out, but systematic actions are required. Every once in a while El Abra needs attention. In the case of the Isla’s heritage, with unique assets, a scheme that prioritises some of these interventions has to be found.

The Isla also has a considerable tourist potential.
We have also defended that. The case of the Prison, for example, requires an investment of millions of pesos, but it is a heritage that can generate local development.

We have made a diagnosis of the threatened monuments throughout the country. It was presented to the highest government authorities as well as the amount of financing for their restoration, to present it to the Economy and Planning Ministry, and it is tentatively being assessed. (2014).

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