In Cuba, the legacy lives on

In 2021, the appointment of architect Lazar Eloundu Assomo as Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Center made headlines. He was the fifth specialist to hold this position, but the first time this was done by an African, a native of Cameroon, an architect who graduated from the school of Grenoble, France.

The opportunity to graduate in the Gallic nation did not separate Elounda from her origins. After completing his transfer to university in 1996, he devoted himself to research at the Land Construction Center, a traditional way of building on his continent. Nelson Mandela, a symbol of the struggle against apartheid, then praised his active commitment to society.

In 2003, Lazar joined UNESCO to work on the implementation of the African World Heritage Fund and the Earthen Architecture Program. Assigned to Mali, he worked in Bamako to rebuild mausoleums destroyed by al-Qaeda in Timbuktu before taking over the organization’s Culture and Emergency Department in 2018.

Eloundu arrived in Havana in May this year to attend the International Heritage Congress. He captivated the participants with his modesty, charisma and lofty vocation for the protection of heritage as an integrating concept of a transcultural nature based on an inclusive, participatory and anti-colonial approach.

In the historic center of Havana, we enjoy its boundless curiosity. Its harmony with restorative discourse
Eusebio Leal Spengler, who oversaw the conservation of this historic site and its colonial fortifications, inscribed 40 years ago on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

It seemed that the Historian came to meet him to share bold approaches, such as: “Any development project that does without culture will only lead to decline”, as well as positions against cultural trivialization:
“(…) that they don’t see us as just a country of beaches, maracas and palm trees, because behind this idyllic image of a noble and beautiful Island is a powerful accumulated culture.”

The short but helpful dialogue we had during a stop along the way took place on the same marble bench inside the former Palace of the Captains-General where Leal rested and meditated. He was there with us… I told Elound that Leal continued to walk these streets and accompanied us daily with his teaching:

“I am very touched,” he confessed to me, “to discover such a great personality as Eusebio Leal, who applied all his professional knowledge, because humanity continues to appreciate the importance of its heritage. What has been done to the Historic Center of Havana since its inscription on the World Heritage List in 1982 is a great demonstration of what World Heritage can transform in communities. Havana is a living city. Havana has its own people. And this World Heritage should continue to contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of its inhabitants.

Eloundu enjoyed examples of the work of restorers and talents trained in workshop schools and the University College of San Jeronimo de la Gabana, founded by Leal. Photo: Lazaro Darias Becerra

“I encourage them to continue the work they are doing because this is a way to demonstrate even to UNESCO itself that, based on best practices, World Heritage should be preserved.”

— How do you explain the protection of the UNESCO heritage not only as its cultural value, but also as a starting point for the future?

– For a very simple reason, it is the property of mankind. And what could be better than a legacy than to contribute to the development of the inhabitants of the city, the nation, and youth. That is why it remains very important to defend the vision that motivated countries to sign the World Heritage Convention and to stimulate international cooperation to preserve it.

“There are many expressions of heritage, but there is one very important one: the intangible value that represents and identifies us. Do you agree that sometimes it is not appreciated properly?

— There has been an evolution in the understanding and consideration of World Heritage. At first, only its monumental value, material, built, was valued. However, we have recognized that heritage loses its essence and meaning if we do not emphasize its transcultural quality, its potential to preserve traditions and ways of life.

“Intangible heritage provides a very strong dimension, a necessary body for giving meaning to World Heritage. It is for this reason that, decades after the adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2003. And that is why we, on the part of UNESCO, are making great efforts to ensure that they work in synergy. This is the only way to answer the question of what is the contribution of heritage to memory and its relationship to history and identity.

“Cuba is a small archipelago, but it has fought hard for its heritage and has managed to inscribe nine sites and expressions on the World Heritage List. It is the Caribbean island country with the most designations. How do you evaluate this work even in the midst of adversity?

“We are very pleased because the World Heritage Conventions have been ratified by all UNESCO Member States. And, of course, the protection of heritage is not an easy task. We have a lot of problems. All countries do not have the same technical capacity and experience or the same financial ability to pay, but they are interested in sharing what they have learned, in exchanging information about their actions and methods of heritage conservation.

“During my visit, I discovered that Cuba shares with other countries, which is very important when we think about the preservation of world heritage. Cuba has contributed and shared its experience with other countries. Cuba is an exceptional case in the context of the Caribbean and can bring its own example and experience when these nine sites are included in the World Heritage List.

We intend to continue to accompany the small island developing States so that heritage continues to be recognized, identified and offered to add to this list. The experience of Cuba, its serious and dedicated professionals, is a significant strength on which UNESCO relies.

– At the end of your conference at the International Congress of Cultural Heritage, you said: “Cuba is a culture; culture is Cuba.” Because?

“I had the opportunity to live it here, and the true meaning of a legacy is when you live it. In Cuba, the legacy lives on. And a living heritage can be preserved and easily passed on to future generations.

Source: Juventud Rebelde


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