Historic Preservation in Cuba

When Americans think of Cuba, they often think of a land frozen in time. Indeed, a quick Google search for “Cuba” brings forward images of vintage cars parked in front of historic, if run-down, looking buildings. Palm trees and statues stand side-by-side in what is undoubtedly a historic island. Given such a reputation, one might assume that Cuba has a robust national agenda for historic preservation. But this is not the case. Due to the lessening of tensions between Cuba and the United States that began under the Obama administration, tourism in the country has continued to increase. Tourism and preservation efforts are not usually forces that work in tandem. Accordingly, those of us who are history-minded should pay close attention to the ongoing state of preservation practice in Cuba.

Unlike the United States, Cuba lacks national policies that encourage historic preservation. Perhaps most indicative of this is the absence of media articles on governmental policies promoting preservation. Most of the few available accounts of the topic in Cuba link the country’s seeming timelessness to sociopolitical factors. Journalists reporting on preservation in Cuba often attribute the country’s visually static city landscapes to the Cuban Revolution, which halted building and development projects across the country. But contrary to this typical narrative of passive, even unintentional preservation stands Havana, Cuba’s capital.

As it is with historic conservation efforts in the United States, funding is a substantial concern. Lacking a strong national preservation initiative, Cubans have found two reliable sources for such funds: international support and a self-sustaining model of taxation. As described by journalist Antonio Pacheco, the former preservation funding in Havana has come most recently from Italy. Although the United States does not rely on international funding for preservation, it does provide funds for preservation in other countries through the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, under the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The taxation for historic buildings is a distinctly Havana contribution. The innovative strategy was introduced by Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler in the 1990s. As the official historian for the city, and lacking funds from Fidel Castro, Leal created a system of taxation whereby hotels, museums, stores, and restaurants in Old Havana (the most historic part) paid a 1 percent tax, 60 percent of which goes to preservation efforts. As he put it in an interview in the International Journal of Cuban Studies, “the creation of the Old Havana preservation project ought to be achieved through the creation of an autonomous and sustainable management model.” The ability of a local government to do this speaks to the essentially local nature of Cuban preservation; most of the power to preserve exists at the city level of government. In contrast, the United States favors tax breaks for preservation, mainly through the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program.

Because businesses frequented by tourists provide preservation funds in Havana, there might be some hope that the continued influx of tourists to the city (and to Cuba as a whole) will not threaten the landscape treasured by preservationists. If the spirit of preservation remains alive and well, and landmarks are not sacrificed in the name of development, Havana might be able to maintain its picturesque image while promoting local business.