food / travel

Havana Restores Heritage Sites Ahead Of 500th Anniversary

Cuba is restoring its colonial architecture in Havana and beyond, and promoting the national heritage among young Cubans, ahead of the 500th anniversary of Havana's foundation.

Havana is charged with history
Havana is charged with history
Vivian Urfeig

HAVANA — Havana is 498 years old. The emblematic Cuban capital, which fought off pirates and buccaneers for centuries and more recently battled Hurricane Irma, is now preparing a huge celebration: The 500th anniversary of its foundation by Spanish settlers on Nov. 16, 1519.

Ahead of the date, the city has begun restoring some 600 buildings and complexes in its historical district. The agency tasked with the restoration, the Havana Historian's Office (La Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de Havana), has already won prizes for two of its projects.

The Gubbio award recognizes projects safeguarding the heritage of different historical centers of Latin America and the Caribbean. It was given to the Historian's Office, which brings together 10,000 interdisciplinary professionals including archaeologists, historians and architects, for the restoration of the 18th century Palacio del Segundo Cabo, and the Plaza de la Marqueta in Holguín, in eastern Cuba.

Two of the agency's members, Tatiana Fernández de los Santos, an engineer, and Kenia Díaz Santos, an architect, traveled to Buenos Aires to collect the prizes. The two say that old Havana has become a complex zone socially, and difficult to maintain because of a lack of resources. But with the urban structure still intact, a conservation plan has been created at the initiative of the agency's director, Eusebio Leal Spengler, an expert on Havana who saw a "sustainable opportunity," Fernández and Díaz say. The mechanism they are implementing consists in the redistribution of income: "The government allows the construction of hotels and restaurants in exchange for the profits being reinvested in the historical center and the maintenance of schools," they explain.

This virtuous cycle generates resources, inviting more and more young people to join the project. Before, Cubans did not go to Old Havana, the two women said, but with the start of architectural tours and guides encouraging domestic tourism, the situation has drastically improved. Also, Museums have become very popular with children, especially when their schools are being renovated and classes are held inside these heritage sites. It exposes the children to the cultural processes and generates a sense of ownership, Fernández and Díaz say.

All eras accounted for on streets of Havana — Photo: Pedrosz

The Historian's Office's professionals are trained in Europe and enjoy support from international agencies that facilitate access to techniques and innovations. The update is constant, Fernández and Díaz explain, and all experience is shared. One concern, they say, remains access to the latest technologies, "but we're already advanced with professional training courses. We are constantly improving."

Work has meanwhile started in Havana to rescue archaeological remains that testify to the city's foundation, as part of plans to create a museum complex that will hopefully be ready by the anniversary on Nov. 16, 2019. "In two years, Havana will be like Cuba's other heritage cities or the Hispaniola Haiti and Dominican Republic, and one of the continent's oldest cities and capitals with its preponderant role in the history of navigation and culture," Eusebio Leal, the Havana historian, says.

Fernández and Díaz are proud of the prizes awarded to the agency. "The Segundo Cabo palace is an example of a sober and monumental construction of the late 18th century and considered one of the greatest showpieces of the Cuban baroque," they say. Set in the old city's main square, Plaza de Armas, it was initially the royal post office or Real Casa de Correos, and serves today as a modernized, interactive museum. "It provides visitors with knowledge of history and culture that is broader, instructive and enjoyable," they add.

The Plaza de la Marqueta project was the restoration and reuse of Holguín's old market square, established in the first half of the 19th century and considered an innovative contribution to the city's growth. It is one of the 12 squares that distinguish this urban center, known as the City of Parks.

"The rehabilitation of this public space has had a social and cultural impact that is expanding into its surrounding environment. It is giving back to the city a space for trade and culture, where diverse activities come together and mix, and improve the quality of life," say Fernández and Díaz.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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