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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 November 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 recognises projects safeguarding the heritage of different historical centres 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 Holguin, in eastern Cuba.

Two of the agency’s members, Tatiana Fernandez de los Santos, an engineer, and Kenia Diaz Santos, an architect, 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”, Fernandez and Diaz say. The mechanism they are implementing consists of the redistribution of income: “The government allows the construction of hotels and restaurants in exchange for the profits being reinvested in the historical centre 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 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.

The Historian’s Office’s professionals are trained in Europe and enjoy support from international agencies that facilitate access to techniques and innovations. The updates are constant, Fernandez and Diaz 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 November 16, 2019. In two years, Havana will be like Cuba’s other heritage cities or 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.

Fernandez and Diaz 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. 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 modernised, 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 Holguin’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 Havana’s 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.

— Worldcrunch, 2017/New York Times News Service

Vivian Urfeig is a senior columnist and specialises in Latin American history.