HAVANA – The people of Havana have been celebrating the Cuban capital’s fifth centenary all week, but the festivities crescendoed on Saturday with the grand reopening of the city’s Capitol building after almost a decade of restoration work.
The imposing Capitolio, built between 1927-1929 in the image of the White House in Washington, was illuminated for a spectacular fireworks show in the presence of 5,000 people.
Its facade came alive with video projections and a light show telling the story of the city, whose old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982.
Politics was largely put aside during the festivities and the rumored visit by Venezuela’s incumbent Nicolas Maduro did not go ahead.
In the afternoon, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel officially declared the Capitol building reopen for business a month after the public unveiling of its new gold dome, which was funded by Russia.
The Statue of the Republic, the third largest indoor statue in the world, had also been turned gold.
Diaz-Canel welcomed several foreign representatives to the gala, including former French president François Hollande, the head of Russia’s Senate Valentina Matviyenko and Spain’s culture minister Jose Guirao.
The official reception took place the Hall of Lost Steps, one of the Capitol building’s jewels.
“Havana is a city of science, dance, cinema, literature, sporting events and an example of resistance to neoliberalism. It is also the city of dignity as a bastion of resistance against the unfair blockade,” the president said.
“Thank you for joining us in celebrating half a millennium of the city.”
Before the official event, Diaz-Canel and former president Raul Castro – brother of late Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro – presided over a ceremony at the Great Theater of Havana, where they paid tribute to Eusebio Leal, a historian and architect behind the rebirth of the historic city center.
Leal, 77, who continues to lead the restoration of Old Havana but his absence from the celebrations in the city – the last of the seven first settlements in Cuba to turn 500 – sparked concerns about his health.
The one-party communist government on the island has spared no resources for the festivities. It has spent years working to improve the face of Havana, which has been damaged by the passing of time and the country’s economic crisis.
“No effort is too much when the prize is to see Havana renewed in its 500th year,” Diaz-Canel wrote on Twitter.
The visit earlier in the week by Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia added to the pomp and ceremony of the celebrations.
Authorities this week also inaugurated the Mercado de Cuatro Caminos and Chinatown, one of the most important in all of Latin America throughout the 20th century.