How does a historian serve a dictator? Many people might assume it is only by being false to history, but one man showed that is not always the case and left behind a fantastic city.
Eusebio Leal Spengler was born in Havana in 1942, descended from Spaniards on his father’s side, the nation that first developed Cuba and created Havana, and on his mother’s side, Alsatians who emigrated to Cuba via Charleston, South Carolina. That last is an intriguing detail because among the treasure houses of architecture in the Western Hemisphere, Charleston vies for top honors with Leal’s birthplace, the city he spent his life restoring, and protecting from communism and capitalism.
Leal was reared by his mother, who worked as a washerwoman. He left school at 15 to help support his family. In his youth, Old Havana was a slum, one that was slated to be partly razed for a highway. But it was spared the wrecking when Leal was 16, because Fidel Castro and his bearded compañeros ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista. As the Marxist-Leninist nature of the new government emerged and it linked its future to the Soviet Union, there would be no foreign investment for urban renewal. Cuba could no longer even import cars from the U.S. These would come to be blessings for Leal, who became a regime favorite despite eschewing Marxism and continuing to practice Catholicism.
Castro at first ignored Havana, emphasizing the agrarian nature of his revolution, but Leal saw a chance and passed the entrance exam for the University of Havana, which was now free. He got a master’s degree, and then a doctorate, in history. He supervised renovations in the old city’s Plaza de Armas, and founded the city museum. For journalists visiting the island who wanted to escape Cold War politics, the urbane Leal was the person to see.
Leal came to the attention of Castro’s close confidante, Celia Sánchez, who pressed the dictator for support. In 1982, UNESCO designated the entire old city a cultural World Heritage site, but money for renovations was still hard to find, especially because the regime viewed tourism as a form of capitalist exploitation. When the Soviet Union, Cuba’s patron, collapsed, people began to go hungry.
In 1993, Leal convinced Castro that capitalism was needed to save Old Havana. Under Leal’s plan, new hotels, restaurants and museums would bring hard currency from tourists that could be used to fund restoration as well as amenities for Cuban city dwellers. Castro gave Leal $1 million in seed money, possibly the least Marxist thing he ever did. Leal declared himself, not a Marxist but a Fidelist. He built restaurants and hotels, including the charmingly refurbished Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway lived while writing “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” By 2011, his company, Habaguanex, had $119 million in revenue with a $23 million profit and was restoring Havana’s seaside avenue, the Malecón. Leal married several younger women, serially, became a deputy in the National Assembly and had his own TV and radio programs, called “Walk Havana.”
The death of Castro, the election of President Trump the same month and a new freeze in U.S.-Cuban relations posed challenges to capitalism, communism, preservation and history. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” Leal told a journalist in 2018. “But I know that each era brings its own challenges. All we can do is prepare ourselves intellectually, emotionally, ethically, for what is to come.”
Leal died Friday, after a bout with cancer, aged 77. He used to delight in showing visitors an elaborate scale model of historic Havana. His heaven may not top that.