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from issue no. 02/03 - 2008

An interview with Eusebio Leal Spengler

Renovating, social activities as well

Interview with Eusebio Leal Spengler by Davide Malacaria

The Oficina del Historiador de la ciudad, a concept untranslatable into English, is undoubtedly the most important cultural body in Cuba. It supervises the renovation of the charming but deteriorated buildings of old Havana. But that is only one of the many activities of this versatile body: some of the renovated buildings have become museums, others house brightly colored shops, workshops, service centers, in which work is provided for the people of the neighborhood, perhaps among the poorest in the city. A series of activities coming under the Historiador that backs their development and uses the proceeds to widen its own work. At the same time, the organization promotes humanitarian and cultural activities, in an attempt to recuperate and encourage the social growth of this area, once, and largely still, very dilapidated. So old Havana has become an open air building site, where the diverse humanity of the barrio mixes with the crowds of tourists and the loud groups of schoolchildren doing gym. The Oficina del Historiador is directed by Eusebio Leal Spengler, a very singular figure in the political panorama of Cuba. A declared Catholic since ever, though not holding a post in the Party, he sits in the Council of State, the highest political body in the country. Eusebio Leal has made of the office he directs a bridge between Cuba and the rest of the world, attracting with imagination and intelligence financing and tourists. And weaving a wide web of international relations.

Fidel Castro, Mother Tekla Famiglietti and Eusebio Leal Spengler at the Brigidine convent of Havana (unpublished photograph, coming from Fidel Castro’s personal archive)

Fidel Castro, Mother Tekla Famiglietti and Eusebio Leal Spengler at the Brigidine convent of Havana (unpublished photograph, coming from Fidel Castro’s personal archive)

When was the Oficina del Historiador founded?
EUSEBIO LEAL SPENGLER: In 1937, following the tradition of the chroniclers of the Indies who narrated the history of the Spanish conquest in America and the birth of the cities. Before that date, various intellectuals undertook the task of historiador, leaving works on the city of Havana. Our purpose has been that of giving continuity to the tireless work of Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring. Thus archive, museum, publications, conferences and an adequate use of the press marked the history of our progress up to October 1994, when the Oficina del Historiador, as a result of decree 143, took on a new dimension and undertook with decision the work of restoration of the historical center, basing itself on the previous experience and on other contributions that came during the development of the initiative.
How did the Belén project come about? What is its relation with the work of the Oficina del Historiador and what is the relation with the Catholic Church?
LEAL SPENGLER: The idea is that of getting the inhabitants of the historical center to share in a project of house building, job creation, making full enjoyment of public space possible and producing a fair and proportional division of the fruits of labor, so that a favorable basis is formed for cooperation and international solidarity and harmonious relations with all the social forces acting in the community, in the professional, religious or philanthropic institutions. We gained the support of the more important figures in the world of culture, as well as the respect and appreciation of His Eminence Ortega y Alamino, Cardinal of Havana.
You know Italy, our customs and our culture very well...
LEAL SPENGLER: In my judgment, Italy has been an exceptional school. The relations between the classical world and modern times, manifested in the culture and the spirituality of its people, have offered, in my judgment, exceptional examples to civilization. Countless Italians took part in the fight for the emancipation of the Cuban people and one cannot forget the sympathy that the Italian Risorgimento stirred in the Cuban people. Our national hero, José Martí, declared a deep admiration for Garibaldi.
A memory from the visit of John Paul II to Cuba…
LEAL SPENGLER: John Paul II will always be remembered for his kind attention in keeping himself constantly informed on affairs in Cuba. His visit was a memorable moment for the island. A visit preceded and prepared by other religious figures, whose work had profound influence in enabling the event. Among those I remember Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Reverend Mother Tekla Famiglietti, Superior General of the Order of Saint Bridget. Relations with the Church are enjoying a moment of exceptional creativity. They are based on mutual respect and the tireless quest for the good of the Cuban people. An idea expressed no few times by Fidel Castro: to fight to win all the justice that lies within our possibilities and to preserve the successes and social conquests of the revolution for future generations. That is the basis of our hopes.

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