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Havana Bay restoration proceeds, yet Leal's future murky.

The beauty and charm of Old Havana is inseparable from its bay--yet today that bay is becoming unrecognizable. Its rapid degradation began in the early 20th century. By the mid-1950s, it was full of filth; lovers could not take a romantic evening boat ride because the smell was unbearable.

Three refineries were built on the bay's southern shores, and oil spills became commonplace. With Soviet ships full of petroleum and general cargo to be unloaded, the bay's pollution worsened, driving out the few fishermen, seagulls and pelicans that remained.

About 10 years ago, though, things started turning around. An ambitious project aimed at rescuing the bay has gradually eliminated major sources of contamination. Two government agencies can take the credit.

The first is Grupo de Trabajo Estatal Bahia de La Habana [State Work Group for Havana Bay], led by a group of scientists, technicians and military engineers under the supervision of retired Brig. Gen. Victor Shueg Colas.

Support has come from several international agencies, especially those from Japan.

The second is Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad [Office of Historian of Havana], presided over by chief historian Eusebio Leal Spengler. OHC has jurisdiction for the section of bay running along Avenida del Puerto.

The old docks and Customs building are being demolished and replaced by new wharves and facilities that will serve as terminals for cruise ships and eventually ferries. Crumbling warehouses (San Jose, Hines and others) have been renovated into shopping centers, malls, cafes, bars and a marina where the Juan Manuel Diaz dock is now located.

Also planned are upgrades to the traditional water links to Regla and Casablanca across the bay (see map on this page).

Funds for all this work come directly from OHC and its subsidiary, Habaguanex SA, which was already reporting $50 million in profits by the late 1990s and now earns dramatically more than that. The overall budget for this project, to be completed by 2017, is approximately $150 million.

Under this plan, industrial facilities such as grain mills, refineries, power stations and the container port will be relocated elsewhere.


Some of the areas will be reclaimed by Old Havana under its 1982 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This include Atares (next to the La Coubre docks), Regla, Casablanca and the El Morro/La Cabana fortresses dating from the 18th century across the bay.

Havana's commercial port is being transferred to Mariel and Matanzas, while the bay itself is successfully being transformed into an attractive tourist hub.



Yet since October, word on the street is that the two government agencies connected to Havana Bay are at odds with each other. Some people are saying that "the guards"--meaning the Revolutionary Armed Forces--will take over OHC, and that this will be the end of Eusebio Leal's illustrious career.

These rumors have taken on some credibility in recent weeks with the revelation of two corruption cases. One of them involved the CEO of Habaguanex, Missi Weis. Despite her closeness to Leal, the prominent historian has received extensive favorable media coverage lately--something that in Cuba doesn't happen by chance.

It's perfectly natural that these two agencies might squabble over policies and priorities when it comes to the area's transformation. Yet under present circumstances, it's hard to imagine that a minor corruption scandal which does not directly involve Leal would lead to the crumbling of major institutions such as OHC.

Given the global reputation Leal, 70, enjoys as a historian, any takeover by FAR would be an extreme action, seriously compromising OHC's reputation and damaging one of the crown jewels of Cuba's tourism industry.

Even so, Leal's days may be numbered.

Events marking the 30th anniversary of Old Havana's UNESCO's designation were kept low-key. The Communist Party newspaper Granma didn't publish a word on the subject, nor were there any public celebrations.


Likewise, Cuba's official TV network, which did run a short documentary on the subject, contained not a single mention of Leal or even the OHC itself--almost as if Old Havana's much-praised restoration never took place.

On the other hand, Luis Sexto, a columnist with the increasingly rebellious newspaper Juventud Rebelde, ran a long interview with Leal from August.

The message was fairly obvious: Pay tribute to this man, whose contributions have been acknowledged in Cuba and around the world, and stop the rampant "secretismo" associated with this case.
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Author:Amuchastegui, Domingo
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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