Iván García, 9 August 2016 — The sun illuminates the Plaza Vieja, and a humid heat transforms the place into an open-air sauna. When you set foot on the cobblestones, the sensation you have is one of walking on burning embers.
At the entrance of the planetarium, dozens of kids accompanied by their parents get in line to see this piece of Havana geography from a black-box camera.
The tourists, as always, relaxed and absent-minded, are drinking beer or taking photos of the Plaza Vieja, dressed in bermuda shorts and leather sandals, always accompanied by a bottle of mineral water.
In this tropical inferno, seated in an uncomfortable plastic chair, I chatted with José (name changed), the manager of the Habaguanex chain warehouse*. “Now everything is fucked up. They broke Habaguanex into pieces. Last weekend there was a meeting, and they removed Eusebio Leal as the head of the firm. You could see that coming. It was a methodical and studied escalation. At the end what they wanted was to control a business that earns hundreds of millions of dollars. Those soldiers are predators. They aren’t satisfied with what they have.”
Probably the best-informed person about the business of Eusebio Leal, the Historian of the City, who created an authentic empire with the intention of renovating buildings that are emblematic of Old Havana, is Juan Juan Almeida García, residing today in Miami.
This past June 13, he wrote a note on the website of Martí Noticias, “The Military Conquest of Eusebio Leal’s Empire,” where he detailed the strategies of the olive-green business group, GAESA, directed by Brigadier General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, the ex-son-in-law of President Raúl Castro. [See Also: The Military’s Coup d’état…]
Juan Juan pointed out: “Continuing a very well-plotted plan that includes taking advantage of Dr. Eusebio Leal’s illness to strengthen, even more, the dominion in the chain of commercial and business supremacy in every corner of the island, next October 30, Habaguanex, the tourist company that once belonged to the Historic Center of Old Havana, will be completely in the hands of the greatest of the Cuban predators, the Business Administrative Group of the Armed Forces.”
Much has been leaked about the audit done by the General Comptroller and the Council of State of the business that bears the name of the first Havana cacique**. Even today, missing millionaires and presumptive cases of corruption in the central warehouses are being revealed.
“It’s common practice among corrupt officials to revise, write-off and sell outside Cuba the new equipment recently installed in hotels, hostels, properties, shops, restaurants and cafeterias of the business; but to make Habaguanex dependent on Gaviota is one of the most audacious and malicious measures that this military corporation, directed by Rodríguez López-Callejas, has taken,” according to a source of Almeida’s close to the publicized inspection.
Idania, an architect on Eusebio Leal’s project, visibly disgusted, considers the administrative transfer to be an error. “They told me in the Saturday meeting that Military Counter-intelligence applied security measures so that nothing would be leaked. They prohibited mobile phones, and those who aren’t discreet, in addition to being separated definitively from their work posts, can receive penal sanction. The soldiers are like an elephant in a toy store. I can tell you that it’s not going to work. The armed forces control a sector of tourism and ETECSA [Cuba’s tele-communications company], and that hasn’t brought a better performance. On the contrary.”
Many workers think that their salaries will be affected. “We have a special salary regulation designed by Eusebio himself. We earn higher salaries in our jobs than in the rest of the country. If now the guards start applying Resolution 17 [which stipulates that company profits be linked to wages], our salaries can be reduced by half. I was earning a monthly salary of 2,000 Cuban pesos and almost 100 convertible pesos. If this is lowered with the new administration, hundreds of workers will lose their leave,” says Osvaldo, a mason who works on the restoration of the Capitolio Nacional.
The offensive of the military entrepreneurs isn’t new. In September of last year, a scrapping brigade, in a little more than two hours, dismantled the aluminum pipes and awnings of three open-air bars on the Avenida del Puerto, where hundreds of habaneros and tourists were drinking beer or eating fried chicken among ambling musicians and prostitutes on the hunt for clients. In one blow, it put a halt to two dozen workers, and others had to relocate, causing important salary losses.
But the real interests are elsewhere. Let’s call him “Mario,” a bureaucrat of the Habaguanex corporation. He tells us that “the businesses adjacent to the port are already controlled by military companies, from the rent and liens on the old warehouse of San José, now converted into a crafts market, up to hostels, cafés, restaurants and shops. There’s a master plan to convert the port into a tourist plaza that offers recreation and services for cruise excursions.”
Nicolás, an accountant at Habaguanex, recognizes that “as in all the sectors of the country, corruption in business was brutal. There were warehouses where the entrance and exit of commodities didn’t comply with the loading cards. But the work of restoration of Old Havana and other historic sites is, perhaps, the one thing that works well in Cuba. No other State institution has been able to save or maintain the old buildings in the city.”
In the last months, there’s been a withdrawal of the Government to avoid facing new economic reforms. The most conservative sector of the Party is at the front of the country’s direction. Among the recent changes in the “furniture” are the replacements of the Minister of Culture and the czar of reforms, Marino Murillo, who was at the front of the economic portfolio.
According to what can be known, General Leonardo Andollo Valdés, the father of the swimmer and diving instructor, Deborah Andollo, will be the head of Habaguanex.
It’s not known what new functions Eusebio Leal Spengler will perform. Will he act exclusively as the Historian of Havana or will he pass to the “pajama plan” [i.e. forced retirement]? In an autocracy of command and control, anything is possible.
*The Habaguanex Tourist Company, a Cuban corporation, belongs to the Office of the Historian of Havana City, directed by Eusebio Leal. It owns hotels, shopping and cultural services. Its sustainable development generates income that is used to restore the Historic Center and to improve living conditions for the local population.
**Habaguanex was the chieftain who ruled the area where Havana is located today, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
Translated by Regina Anavy