Eusebio Leal, Havana’s city historian, has rescued hundreds of landmark buildings in Old Havana, the colonial section of the Cuban city founded in 1519. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)

Eusebio Leal, a diminutive, silver-haired man in a dark suit, sips sweet Cuban coffee in an elegant salon of the Cuban Interests Section mansion on 16th Street NW and recalls the day they began calling him crazy in Havana.

The year was 1967, in a country not known for rewarding dissent, and Leal, then 25, was relatively new on the job as a city preservationist. He was leading a project to skin the asphalt off a historic street, revealing the original wooden surface, and he had a special load of vintage wood to restore the centuries-old grandeur. But government officials told him the street would have to be paved over immediately so it could be used for an important diplomatic visit.

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.”

Leal’s quiet pride in his accomplishments is tinged with melancholy at how much is yet to be done. Landmark structures are collapsing before he can get to them. He has always said restoring Old Havana, and the rest of the city, would take more than one lifetime, and now, it is late in his career.

“To some extent we have succeeded,” Leal says. “I wish I had been more successful.”

First big assignment

Even before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Old Havana was ailing. The nearly four square kilometers had been abandoned by well-to-do residents in favor of tonier neighborhoods. After the revolution, the government focused on developing the countryside. Preserving the old city was not a priority, according to American preservationists who watched from afar.

“There was what we think was a purposeful abandonment of Havana by the revolution, and it was through the will of people who refused to let this happen in Cuba that they actually forced the conservation movement to be accepted. So it’s truly heroic,” says Araoz, whose family left Cuba when he was a boy in 1960. “Eusebio is probably the most emblematic.”

The day Leal lay in front of the pavers, he had just been given his first big restoration assignment — the Palace of the Captains General. The work took 11 years, and in the late 1970s, the palace became the City Museum, with Leal as the first director. By 1981, he had won Castro’s support, and the work began in earnest with a master plan and $11 million to renovate 30 buildings. Leal hired dozens, then hundreds of architects, archaeologists, preservationists, craftspeople and laborers.

But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba hit an economic crisis. Fixing buildings seemed less important when people were going hungry.

“During the very hard period of the [early] 1990s, he made sure all his workers had enough food,” Araoz says. “He just figured out where to find it. He has performed miracles.”

One night in 1993, during a meeting about Old Havana, Castro asked Leal, “What can we do?” Leal recalls.

Leal proposed that his office be given unprecedented authority to generate its own revenue. Castro liked the idea.

Starting with a budget from the state of just $1 million, “we bet on rescuing a small hotel . . . three small restaurants and a set of houses in ruins,” Leal says.

The hotel happened to be the Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway is said to have written part of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Since then, Leal’s operation has grown to operating 16 hotels, a tour company, restaurants, museums, a radio station and more. Last year, revenues were $119 million, profits $23 million.

Leal reinvests half of the profits in new preservation work and half in social programs, such as establishing health clinics, schools and senior living centers in the old city.

“What he did was, he laid out in state cultural policy a compelling rationale for a full development of the old city, and it had to have a policy framework in the context of the Cuban revolution,” says James Early, director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which Leal visited last week.

Leal is a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and a deputy in the Cuban National Assembly. He also is a Christian who has defended the right of people of all faiths to be active in the party.

Preserving people and buildings

About 74,000 people live in Old Havana, and the border between the restored and the ruined is starkly visible. On the ruined side remains “a complex problem of housing, water, sanitation, communication, promiscuity,” Leal says. “What people criticize sometimes is that renovation doesn’t get to them quickly enough.”

When a historic dwelling sheltering six families in slum conditions is properly restored, there might only be room for one or two families. Leal is building new housing in Old Havana, but some families are given new housing outside the area. Leal says most who leave prefer modern construction. But, over the years, foreign correspondents have been able to find former Old Havana residents who echo Carmen Garcia, quoted in the Boston Globe in 2001: “Yes, it’s a nice home we have and better than all four of us living in one room with one lightbulb. But I miss Old Havana.”

He is keenly aware of a paradox at the center of his life’s work: The tourism that is saving Old Havana could destroy it. A familiar pattern in tourist meccas around the world is for waves of comparatively rich visitors to overwhelm and distort local culture.

Leal’s solution is to preserve people as much as buildings; he is trying to create an infrastructure for daily life to continue.

“It would be easier to make a movie set,” he says. “The city must live essentially around its people. The restoration is not only a historiographical project but a project trying to recover quality of life. . . . Tourists will overwhelm the place. That’s why it’s important for people to work there and live there, to create spaces of silence where there aren’t tourist installations but are real neighborhoods. And even in the most visited places, put schools, little hospitals. We are trying to put up curtains in the path of the wave.”

American preservationists marvel at Leal’s evident political and bureaucratic skills to have pursued his professional passion so successfully within the Cuban system. Maybe he is crazy like a fox.

“In my country,” he says, “there is a first act of forgiveness for madness, when it is accompanied by these other words: ‘He’s a madman, but he’s a very hard worker.’ ”