The next morning, crews came to do the work — and Leal lay in front of the trucks to save the street.
“The mayor had to come to persuade me,” Leal recalls in his deep voice, through an official interpreter. “I didn’t get up until he guaranteed that we could complete our work. He kept his word. It was a very tense moment. Then they started saying I was a madman — but in that kind of aspect in which being a madman is a good thing.”
All these years later, at 69, Leal’s mad passion has made him a beloved figure in Cuba and a globally admired hero of the historic preservation movement. With the unlikely title of city historian, he has rescued hundreds of landmark buildings in Old Havana — Habana Vieja — the colonial section of the city founded in 1519. He devised a mechanism to use tourist dollars to fund preservation, making the city more attractive to visitors — thus begetting more tourist dollars and more preservation.
He did it while taking a stand against gentrification, and against the theme-parking of history, by insisting that real people must continue to live, work, study and retire amid the historic plazas, palaces, museums and boutique hotels.
Leal filled lecture halls in the District and New York last week, sharing the human drama and professional secrets of his work with kindred spirits for whom standing in front of demolition bulldozers is utterly sane.
“He had a vision, and he made it happen,” says Richard Moe, former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, introducing a talk by Leal at the trust. “The restored Plaza Vieja [Old Plaza] . . . is now one of the great public spaces not just in Cuba, not just in this hemisphere, but in the world.”
One reason the licensed cultural tours to Cuba by groups such as the trust and National Geographic are all the rage among the cosmopolitan set is they offer a glimpse of Leal’s work. The U.S. government permits few other opportunities to visit the island.
Back home, Leal likes to walk the streets of Old Havana. He started a radio and television show called “Andar la Habana” (“Walking Havana”).
“I’ve walked with him in Havana, and people come up to him to ask him favors, and, more than favors, people come to him to thank him,” says Gustavo Araoz, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. “He has immense popular support.”