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Landscapes of Memory: History, Culture, and Historic Preservation in Cuba

Story and photos by Jessica Edens (unless otherwise labeled)

For two weeks in May of 2011, Richard Laub, Director of the Heritage Preservation Program, and a group of twenty-seven students and professionals traveled around Cuba, taking in a number of its most notable cities. The Heritage Preservation Program, which operates within the Department of History at Georgia State University, takes a study abroad trip each year, and this was the first time the group was able to visit Cuba since 2002. The study abroad, Landscapes of Memory: History, Culture, and Historic Preservation in Cuba, began in Havana, the nation's capital, where the group spent eight days visiting some of the most significant historical sites, as well as meeting with city workers from the Office of the Historian to discuss and learn about the preservation efforts within Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and beyond. From there, the group took to Cuba's singular highway, heading towards Cienfuegos on the southern coast, and Trinidad, which lies slightly east along the coast, for two days of culture and history in each of those cities. After a night's stopover in Camaguey and lunch in Bayamo, the group arrived to spend the last two days of the trip in Santiago de Cuba, the location of the well-known attack on the Moncada Barracks, in 1953, when a group of young revolutionaries put their mark on history when they invaded it, and were gunned down. (The Barracks are a museum and school today.) The group flew back to Miami via Santiago de Cuba, exhausted but exhilarated from the two weeks spent in this most interesting of Caribbean locales.


We spent eight days touring all around Havana, including Havana Vieja (where Hotel Telegrafo, our hotel, was located), Miramar, Vedado, Nuevo Vedado, and the Malecón along the Bay of Havana. While on a bus tour of Modern Havana and Miramar, we visited the scale model of Havana, which is maintained as an excellent visualization of the growth of the capital city over time. We visited the Museum of the Revolution, well known for its subject matter and its location in the former Presidential Palace. We toured the two fortresses that lie on the Bay of Havana, Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro and Castillo San Carlos de la Cabaña, and also visited one evening for the weekly cañonazo ceremony, in which cannon fire is demonstrated and shot into the bay. La Cabaña had a temporary exhibit on the life of Che Guevara, located in the room in the fortress that had been his office for the first six months after the 1959 Revolution. We toured the Cuban collection of art at the Museo de la Bellas Artes, which had a grand collection spanning the ages of Cuban art, from early Spanish-influenced to revolutionary and present-day artists. We also went across the bay to the Regla, a part of town that has historically been less well off, and which also houses the Church of the Black Virgin. While there, we went to the Museum of the City of Regla, which told the history of Regla during the Cuban Revolution, and also a bit about the Santería Afro-Cuban religion.

Learning about the Maqueta of Havana (a scale model map made out of cardboard) and its developments from Miguel, a city planner. Inside the Che Guevara exhibit in Castillo San Carlos de la Cabaña. Visiting the city of Regla, a smaller part of Havana that lies across the Bay.

Over the course of the week, we strolled through a number of the historic squares throughout Havana, including the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis (which houses the Chapel of San Francisco de Asis), Plaza de Armes and Plaza Vieja. We were also able to visit Revolution Square and the José Martí Memorial Plaza and museum, which had an excellent interpretative exhibit on José Martí as a man and Cuban hero. Other notable and beautiful points of interest included the Colón Cemeter, the Hotel Habana Libre and the Hotel Nacional, Havana's tiny Chinatown (for a lunch stop and stroll), and the Ernest Hemingway House, which is operated as a house museum where guests can peek in through windows and doors, but nothing more (so as to maintain the aesthetic and ensure items and home are not damaged). We also trekked out to the neighborhood that houses José Fuster, an eclectic ceramics artist and painter, whose entire home and neighborhood are filled (or more accurately, covered) with his art.

Listening to our tour guide Norberto while on a walking tour through the historic squares in Havana. The José Martí Memorial Plaza towers over Revolution Square, and houses an impressive exhibit on Martí, one of Cuba's national heroes. In the Vedado, an outer section of Havana, private homes stand as examples of modern design and aesthetic.

Our week in Havana was given some preservation perspective by spending time with Alina Achoa, one of the historians and conservators in the Office of the Historian, who was able to give us a bus tour of outer areas, including Vedado, as well as a walking tour of the core of Havana. She also provided us with much background information on her office's practices and programs in the past thirty or so years, and where they hope to take their programs moving forward.

The exterior of Havana's Office of the Historian, where we visited and heard about the past, present, and future state of its preservation efforts. Inside the Office of the Historian, as Alina Achoa tells us about preservation in the city. Alina Achoa talks to us about historical elements of Revolution Square and the José Martí Memorial.


In Cienfuegos, we were guided around the main Plaza by a few members of the Office of the Conservator or the City, who shared several historical buildings, including the cathedral, the Teatro Tomás Terry, and the Casa de Cultural Benjamin Duarte. The entire group toured the Necrópolis Tomás Acea, one of the city's two historical cemeteries. We also drove out to the beach, Punta Gorda, to see the coast and the homes along the shoreline. We twice visited the Palacio del Valle, an extravagant home influenced by many architectural styles (including Mudejar, Byzantine, Gothic, and Baroque), once to learn of its history, and a second time to eat dinner at the restaurant that operates in its main hall.

The Main Plaza in Cienfuegos. Group participants listening to the tour guide
at the Necrópolis Tomás Acea,
an historic cemetery in Cienfuegos.

The Palacio de Valle, which is overwhelming in its architectural detail and also happens to be a restaurant during dinner hours.
We toured during the day, and had our meal there that evening.
The second photo shows some of the interior detail.
Cubans cool off at Punta Gorda, a beach that stands at the edge of the city's watery coast.


Our next stop was Trinidad, which lies farther east along the southern coast. Victor Hechenagusia, one of the city's historians and conservators, led us around Plaza Mayor and the cobbled streets of the colonial city, pointing out many of the various architectural intricacies of Old Trinidad. One of these features was the painting technique that made exteriors appear carved. We arrived in the afternoon and caught a glimpse of the Museo de Arquitectura Trinitaria, from the outside. Early the next morning Victor took us on a guided tour of the exhibit and interior of the museum. From there we explored the sites of three different haciendas in what is known as the Valley of the Sugar Mills. The first was being restored and will eventually be made into an exhibit and museum on the history of Cuba's haciendas and sugar plantations. The second was a fully restored structure and is now a functioning restaurant. The third, and final stop, is an archaeological dig site that is currently being excavated; conservators of this site wish to keep the hacienda in its current deteriorating condition as an example of their natural decay. After that we had the afternoon to explore the city or head out to the beach.

Trinidad's Plaza Mayor The group listens to Victor Hechenagusia, a conservator and historian for the city of Trinidad, in the city's architecture museum.
We visited three haciendas, former plantation homes,
to learn about the kinds of restorative projects the city of Trinidad is working on with them.
The first hacienda is being restored, slowly but surely, and they hope to eventually build an exhibit on sugar plantations and haciendas in Cuban history inside the structure. (photo: Richard Laub) A dilapidated hacienda that is being preserved as-is, to show natural deterioration; it is currently an archaeological site, off-limits to the regular public and tourists. We were able to visit this special site.


Our next stop was in the inland city of Camaguey, which was originally planned as simply a stop over on our way to Santiago de Cuba. However our contacts in Cuba arranged for us to meet with the local historians and conservators for a brief afternoon tour of the heart of the city. The main feature of the tour was the Plaza San Juan de Dios, and after that we got a special invitation to visit their Maqueta. This was a treat because Camaguey is known for being a winding city whose roads were planned for the purpose of confusing visitors.

The winding streets of Camaguey, which were designed purposely to confuse visitors to the city. We were able to visit the Maqueta of Camaguey as well, during a brief but comprehensive afternoon tour. Meeting with the historians of the city, who toured us around the centermost part of Camaguey and gave us some history of the place.

Santiago de Cuba

The final stop on our trip was Santiago de Cuba, and although we were only there for a day and a half of touring, we managed to visit quite a few spots. We first met with members of the Office of the Historian, who gave us a report on preservation and community enrichment efforts they were working on. Next we visited the Diego Velazquez House which is widely known to be the oldest residence in Cuba; it is known for its architectural detail as well as its colonial history and Mudejar style. The museum at the former Moncada Barracks was arguably the best historical interpretation we had seen thus far during our trip. We happen to be in Santiago for the anniversary of the death of José Martí, which meant that the Sanata Ifigenia Cemetery was crowded with Cubans and other tourists to see his memorial and tomb. We were able to learn about all the symbolism that shrouds the memorial as well as gain more insight into Martí's role in the Cuban culture and psyche. We also witnessed the changing of the guard ceremony in front of the tomb and got a tour of other significant gravestones. After that we stopped at Plaza de la Revolución to see the monuments there. We rounded out the day at the Castillo del Morro, out along the city's watery edge. Finally we capped off the trip with a farewell dinner at the hotel where we showered our tour guide Norberto, and our bus driver, Leo, with praise and gifts.

Our group listens to a presentation on the current and future plans and projects on preservation and cultural conservation taking place in Santiago de Cuba. Political signage in Santiago de Cuba.
We received an excellent tour through the museum inside the Moncada Barracks, which are quite significant in the modern history of Cuba and its Revolution. Group photo taken with Richard's camera, at the Plaza de la Revolución in Santiago de Cuba.

We had an excellent group for our travels and were very fortunate to be able to visit Cuba under an academic permit. Given the delicate relations between Cuba and the United States, Richard does not know whether or not he will be able to take a group again next year - but he is investigating it seriously at this time.

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