Written by Kevin Daniels
It’s been a quick week in Cuba, but today is the final day of the research trip. The group is heading out to a cooperative farm in Alamar Housing Project that is very controversial because it allows the co-op members to keep their profits. A little bit of market capitalism in a socialistic based economy. But I had taken that tour last year so I decided to join a friend, Val Thomas, and head about 45 minutes west of Havana into the mountains. I admit it will be a struggle to connect my trip to preservation, but here is my feeble attempt.
Like our country, the differences between the bustle and complexity of the city with the peacefulness and simplicity of rural areas are dramatic. As we headed to our destination, Las Terrazas in Candelario , Pino del Rio, we picked up the director of a restaurant in Havana so we could give him a ride to and from his restaurant (saved him a long bus ride). In return Tito played tour guide for us and we ended up with the better part of that deal.
We were able to see the rural area through his eyes. On the way we stopped at a 17th century French coffee plantation for a visit and then stopped by a small rural village to buy peanuts from a local farmer. Apparently his vegetarian restaurant had run out the night before. It was so much fun to see the excitement from both parties when they greeted each other. From there we traveled to the Biosphere Reserve and up to the mountain resort. It’s not a resort by our standards, but serves the purpose for vacationers from Havana. It was refreshing to see Cuban tourists rather the hordes of European tourists in busy Old Havana. After a serenading of the two of us by a very good Cuban band (I bought a CD), we had lunch at his restaurant with our driver, and spent a wonderful time learning about the lives of common Cubans. We avoided politics and focused on day to day living.
The preservation lesson I can glean from this experience is no surprise to any preservationists. It’s that the complete love of any place by the community is what makes it so livable. The built environment plays an important role in the equation, but we must remember that there is a lot more to making a “place” than a great historic building. In this community the built environment played no part in making the “place” special.
Now I’d like to share some of the great quotes of the week from the lecturers:
Fidel Castro - “Revolution is to change everything that needs to be changed.” (He needs to walk his talk because Cuba is in dire need of economic change.)
Miguel Coyula - “Intelligence has its limits but ignorance doesn’t.”
Miguel Coyula – “Buildings are the unbribable stewards of history.”
Doctor Panchito - “We are poor people but we die like rich people.”
Miguel Coyula - “Every three days in Havana on average there is a partial or full collapse of a building.”
I believe my fellow preservationist that traveled on the trip would agree that the week in Cuba was enlightening. From the standpoint of seeing the built environment within Havana, but also understanding the social context that plays an important role in defining place. I came away having a better understanding of how to frame our arguments in the next local preservation battle to better define the importance of preservation within our communities.
Kevin Daniels is a preservationist and developer in Seattle, Washington. He currently serves on the National Trust’s Board of Trustees as vice chair of the Preservation Committee.
Read more from Kevin’s trip to Cuba: