Restoring the Cuban City with a French Colonial Air

CIENFUEGOS, Cuba, Aug 5 (IPS) – The city of Cienfuegos, known in Cuba as the “Pearl of the South”, is unique for its spotless cleanliness, the orderly grid pattern of its streets, its 19th century architecture and its air of “Grande Dame” elegance. Now its past splendours, ravaged by time or left to deteriorate because of economic difficulties, are being restored.

“If you see anyone throwing trash in the streets, you can be sure it’s a stranger from out of town,” a woman born and raised in Cienfuegos told IPS, with a touch of civic pride and ownership.

Located 250 km southeast of Havana, the city was founded by French settlers in 1819, and its historic centre was declared a World Cultural Heritage site in 2005 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Gaining acceptance on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity list was not an easy task, said Irán Millán, an architect who has worked for the city for more than three decades. “At the outset people assumed that only ancient cities counted as heritage, not those as modern as Cienfuegos,” he told IPS.

The small but tenacious team responsible for protecting cultural heritage in Cienfuegos got their first taste of victory in 1995, when the city’s historic centre was declared a national monument. “We kept going in the conviction that our contemporary heritage had value, and we persuaded the authorities to appreciate that,” he said.

Millán has been the city conservator for Cienfuegos since the office for heritage restoration was opened in 2005. He said the fact that most of his fellow architects trained in Italy influenced Cuba’s policy of preserving buildings without evicting the people who live in them, so that the residents reap the benefits of urban renewal.

“We cannot remove the population from the historic centre; that would take all the life and joy out of it,” he said. The strategy puts more pressure on the meagre resources available, and sometimes only façades of buildings have actually been painted in the “cuarterías” (tenements) in the heritage zone, where hundreds of families live in crowded conditions, all looking forward to a better life.

The policy of the office is for businesses and organisations in the historic centre to contribute the funds they internally allocate to conservation, towards the heritage restoration and development plans designed by this authority.

“If a firm wants to renovate premises, we give them the go-ahead on condition that they cooperate with the heritage office’s plans, and undertake the repair and renewal of the sidewalk and specified housing units in the vicinity,” he explained.

So far, resources have permitted the restoration of 46 percent of the 70-hectare World Heritage zone and 47 percent of the 90-hectare national monument area. Improvements have been made to 1,480 homes and 146 workplaces, and 45 “cuarterías” have been partially or totally renovated.

Coordinated efforts are helping to realise the “dream project” of pedestrianising Street 29, previously called Santa Isabel Street, and restoring it “just like it used to be,” said Millán. This thoroughfare connects the colonial-era pier with Martí Park, a large open space at the centre of the city street grid, named for Cuban national hero José Martí, that was once the “plaza de armas” or military drilling ground.

The remodelling of Street 29 will provide space for self-employed people engaged in private enterprise, a growing sector in Cuba as the state drastically reduces its payroll, on the rationale that local people will have a vested interest in looking after public property.

The project also includes an art gallery, pharmacy and coffee shop, to be ready when the newly-restored pedestrian street is completed.

Eighteen families living in a “cuartería” close to the coffee shop are also pitching in with a will. “We are working for better conditions. We will have more space and our walls and roofing will be solid, and we will have separate water pipes supplying each household,” Oslayda Miranda, who lives with her married son and two grandchildren, told IPS.

According to Miranda, at least one member of each of the families must work directly on the reconstruction, on contract to the Cuban government, which supplies the building materials, including bathroom fittings. “But in fact we all work: I help my son do the plastering, and I also do the cooking,” she stressed.

“It’s very hard work and we still have a lot to do. What is being rescued here is human beings, rather than bricks and mortar,” said Millán, the city conservator.

Cienfuegos contains architectural gems like the Thomas Terry theatre, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the government palace, and the Lion House, so called because of its imposing feline statues.

And then there is the Paseo del Prado, leading from the town entrance to the Malecón – the seaside promenade around the bay – which after sundown is a popular spot for lovers’ trysts. Above the normally calm waters of Cienfuegos bay, the fortress of Our Lady of the Angels, erected for protection against Caribbean pirates, stands guard over the city.

“Recovering our heritage is not the same thing as worshipping the past. We are committed to improving people’s quality of life,” said Millán. This has awakened interest in conservation and restoration work in Cienfuegos, he said.

Millán said international development aid provides complementary funding that contributes decisively to the city’s development plan.

The office of heritage and restoration relies on state funding for its work, so the projects department has developed its own strategies to channel “the support of culture-loving organisations and individuals who want to help raise our people’s standard of living, whether or not they identify politically with Cuba,” he said.

Participating organisations include the Franco-Cuban Cooperation Association, the Canadian embassy, the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). According to Millán, the Franco-Cuban Cooperation Association has adopted the skilled trades school as a key project.

The trades school, which is being rebuilt by its own students, trains young people in the special skills needed for the heritage office’s restoration work.

Millán said the school is a shining example of harmonious coordination of the efforts of different individuals and groups to employ young people who were neither working nor studying and reintegrate them into society, with guaranteed jobs at the end of the process. In Millán’s view, “That is the highest accomplishment of all, in addition to getting the students to appreciate and relate to their local heritage,” he said.

The official hopes his office will qualify as a “special treatment unit” in next year’s budget, with greater financial control and independence that would confer more stability and sustainability on its projects.

If funding is placed on a more favourable footing, the Fernandina Radio station, run by the heritage restoration office, might enjoy some expansion. At the moment reception of the radio signal is limited to the main shopping avenue in Cienfuegos. The station airs publicity and news about the historic centre for one hour every morning, and once an hour it plays music by Cuban singer-songwriter Benny Moré (1919-1963).

Inside Cuba, small businesses ramp up tourism offer

(Reuters) – Communist Cuba’s recent easing of red tape for private enterprise is improving services for tourists in provincial towns on the Caribbean island, with hundreds of new restaurants and lodgings opening up.

“Mom-and-pop” small businesses have begun to boom in Cuban cities and towns following reforms by President Raul Castro to boost private enterprise and lay off state workers to improve efficiency in one of the world’s last Soviet-style economies.

In the quaint south coast port city of Cienfuegos, the number of private restaurants has jumped from two to 16 in just a few months. There are now more than 100 home-based ‘bed and breakfast’ lodgings, local entrepreneurs say.

That is a welcome relief for visitors to the town, nestled between the foothills of the Escambray mountains and a palm-lined bay. Both foreigners and locals have grumbled in the past about the poor food and accommodation on offer in the Cuban interior, away from the capital and main tourist resorts.

Cienfuegos’ 400,000 residents and wandering tourists, who last year struggled to find refreshment in the often sweltering city, can now choose between dozens of home-based snack outlets serving pizza, pastries, coffee and soft drinks.

“Competition means you have to improve your service and that’s a good thing, everyone gains, you, the tourists and the country,” said Orestes Toledo, owner of the Perla Hostal, a two-room bed and breakfast.

“Now even the state will have to shape up,” he added, sipping coffee on his roof-top terrace overlooking the bay.

Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro nationalized all small businesses in 1968 and only after the collapse of longtime benefactor the Soviet Union in 1991 begrudgingly allowed their return under tight regulation.

But after a few years, his government stopped issuing new private self-employment licenses that underpinned small business. Many small businesses were strangled by red tape.

Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro, became president in 2008 and has now struck out in a different direction with plans to turn much of the retail sector over to leasing arrangements, cooperatives and private entrepreneurs.

Cienfuegos is 150 miles east of Havana, near the restored colonial town of Trinidad and a few hours from the popular Varadero beach resort. Foreign visitors to the city usually pass through for a day or two.


Cienfuegos’ new private entrepreneurs believe their businesses will now steadily improve and seem to relish the challenge of more joining their ranks.

“I think a lot of people are going to open restaurants. I calculate you might eventually see 40 or 50 and a lot of cafes,” said Tony Azorlin, a strapping former forest ranger.

Azorlin and his wife doted over clients last week at the Ache ‘paladar’, or home-based restaurant.

“I think there is a market for that many, as long as tourism holds up,” he said. Azorlin added the sky would be the limit for local private business if the United States lifted its ban on most Americans visiting the island.

This ban persists under the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which U.S. President Barack Obama slightly eased earlier this month, to allow more trips by American professors and students, artists and church groups.

Some 2.5 million foreign tourists visited Cuba last year, the government reported.

The Ache was one of 18 ‘paladares’ that opened in Cienfuegos in the 1990s when small family businesses were first allowed. All but two closed over the years under ensuing over-regulation imposed by a state loath to allow competition.

Azorlin said under rules introduced in the last few months, his taxes were now lower. He also could have more seats, hire employees and serve what he pleased, with beef, shrimp, lobster and potatoes no longer banned from private restaurant menus.

At a government office in Cienfuegos issuing private business permits, Arlina Rodriguez estimated she and colleagues had issued more than 200 licenses since Castro lifted restrictions in October, proclaiming small business vital to the country’s future.

“It hasn’t stopped and doesn’t appear it will any time soon,” said Rodriguez, busy dealing with eight people seeking licenses at her poorly lit hole-in-the-wall office.

Nationwide, the government reports more than 75,000 self-employment licenses have been granted so far.

The Ache is a quaint, upscale eatery, but right next door neighbor Carlos Alberto is of a more ambitious breed. He has just opened the Casa de Chango restaurant and bar, a splashier and lower-priced establishment, operating around the clock.

Carlos Alberto said he wanted to take full advantage of new regulations allowing him to hire labor and rent space.

“I have decided to expand and open a second Casa de Chango, and eventually will have three, four or five,” he said, insisting local authorities and Chango, the most powerful deity in the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, would bless his ambition to found the first private restaurant chain in the country.

Cuba to add new docks, terminal at Cienfuegos port

HAVANA – Cuba will build three additional loading docks and a terminal large enough to accommodate modern supertankers by 2014 at its port in Cienfuegos, part of the communist government’s effort with Venezuela to rehabilitate and modernize the area’s oil refinery.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-described socialist and close friend of Fidel Castro, attended the December 2007 re-inauguration of the Soviet-era facility on central Cuba’s southern coast, and since then it has refined 55 million barrels.

Cuba and Venezuelan plan to expand capacity there to 150,000 barrels refined per day and the new berths and terminal will ensure tankers carrying more oil can come and go more freely, said Luis Medina, director of Cuba’s national port authority, at a news conference Friday in Havana, 185 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of Cienfuegos.

Chavez’s government ships more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba in exchange for island doctors who provide free medical care in his country and other social services. The expanded capacity at Cienfuegos will allow Venezuela to ship more petroleum products that can be refined on the island.

Cuba independently operates its largest oil field, the Varadero field discovered by Russian scientists in 1971, but the communist government relies on energy companies from Canada, Spain, Norway, India, Malaysia and China for other drilling operations.

The government has laid out zones in the Gulf of Mexico where private energy companies, mostly from Canada and Europe, have said they could one day drill deep-water test wells searching for crude.

A 2004 test well by a Spanish company was not considered commercially viable, however, and Washington’s 48-year-old trade embargo prohibits U.S. companies from investing in Cuban oil exploration and production, even though the island’s Gulf waters are close to the Florida coast.

A meeting of U.S., Mexican and Cuban scientists wrapped up Wednesday in Sarasota, Florida, with an outline for a plan to better protect the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean through collaborative management and conservation.

It includes actions that scientists in each country will undertake to conserve coral reefs, marine mammals, sea turtles and shark and other fish populations. Examples include a regional monitoring protocol for sea turtles to make sure results are compatible among nations and continued research expeditions focused on sharks.

New Encanto Hotel in Central Cuba

DTC: Havana.- A new Encanto hotel, La Casa Verde, will be inaugurated in the central Cuban province of Cienfuegos.

The establishment is located in the residential area of Punta Gorda, in a building that was declared a National Monument in January 2000.

Hoteles E is a project aimed at recovering and restoring buildings with high cultural value in the major historic sites, and turning them into lodging facilities.

Other Hoteles E in Cienfuegos are La Unión and Palacio Azul.

The two-story hotel La Casa Verde, which is undergoing remodeling works, will offer eight rooms, including four doubles, three rooms for couples and one suite. – Travel to Cuba with the specialists

Cuba Expands Electricity Generating Capacity

Vice President Carlos Lage and Basic Industry Minister Yadira García Vera were in Cienfuegos to assess progress at the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Thermoelectric plan.

Cuba’s efforts to revamp its energy infrastructure has brought large scale change to the country under what is called the Energy Revolution that promotes energy consciousness and is centered on the installation of fuel oil generator sets. More than 700 of these efficient energy generator sets are up and running and by late 2010 the project is set to conclude with the installation of a combined total of 1,700 megawatts.
Vice President Carlos Lage and Basic Industry Minister Yadira García Vera were in Cienfuegos and spoke of the Energy Revolution during a visit to the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Thermoelectric plant. The plant has been undergoing a US $50 million reparation investment and will supply the country with 158 megawatts once completed.
Lage spoke at a reception at the plant, recalling the beginning of the Energy Revolution that was implemented by Fidel Castro. The first part of the program involved the installation of diesel powered generator sets that now provide the country with 1,200 megawatts, effectively eliminating power outages that had plagued the country after the collapse of the USSR and the ensuing Special Period.
Lage spoke about the benefits of the new system of independent power sources, especially during this year’s hurricane season that saw three major storms thrash the island. He said the fuel oil generators are cheaper to power than the diesel ones and as such will be used 24 hours a day, while the diesel ones will be used for emergencies and during peak hours. Lage also said that the diesel generators will undergo maintenance and repair after being severely taxed by the multiple emergencies caused by one of the worst hurricane seasons on record.
The vice president said that some of the more efficient thermoelectric plants, such as the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes will still play a role in the nation’s energy production while others are being retired.
Yadira García gave a positive assessment of the progress of the plant’s restoration project which kept its course despite the recent hurricanes and heavy rainfall. She said it was a reference point in how to best carry out this type of investment.
While in Cienfuegos, the two Cuban ministers also visited a stone milling plant built using Chinese technology as well as a multifamily apartment building that is nearing completion.

(Juventud Rebelde)