Protection and management of underwater and coastal cultural heritage

On July 3 1898, Admiral Pascual Cervera Topete was ordered to confront the U.S. fleet that was blocking his way out of the bay of the city of Santiago de Cuba. In broad daylight, the Spanish squadron, composed of four armoured cruisers and two destroyers, was mercilessly shelled and pursued. Once defeated, the ships hugged the coast trying to save as many crew members as possible.

Over a century later, the armoured cruisers Infanta María Teresa (flagship), Vizcaya, Almirante Oquendo and Cristóbal Colón, and the destroyers Furor and Plutón lie in the shallow waters of the bay of Santiago de Cuba and make up, along with the natural environment around them, the Batalla Naval de 1898 Underwater Archaeological Park. The Castillo del Morro San Pedro de la Roca, a complex network of fortresses, magazines, strongholds and batteries, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997 as the most comprehensive and best preserved example of Spanish military engineering in the Americas, watches over the shipwrecks from high ground.

The UNESCO Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean, based in Havana, together with the National Cultural Heritage Council of Cuba and the Government of Santiago de Cuba, with the support of the National Commission for UNESCO, the Technical Coordination Office of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) in Cuba and the Defence Attaché of the Spanish Embassy in the country, has launched the project Protection and management of underwater and coastal cultural heritage for job creation in Santiago de Cuba.

The initiative seeks to strengthen national and local capacities to effectively manage underwater and coastal cultural resources, formulate a national strategy for the protection and management of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH), and contribute to the establishment of a centre for this heritage. Moreover, the updating of the Management Plan of the Castillo del Morro San Pedro de la Roca, which aims to include the management and conservation of the remains of the fleet and focus on preventing illicit traffic in archaeological remains, would allow an articulated implementation of the UNESCO conventions of 1970 (prevention of illicit traffic), 1972 (World Cultural and National Heritage), and 2001 (Underwater Cultural Heritage).

The Caribbean Sea, particularly the Cuban waters, is home to one of the main world shipwreck and archaeological reserves in the world. Treasure hunters, collectors and amateur or self-taught archaeologists have had varied access to this heritage, which has often been detrimental to its protection and preservation and has sadly ended with the irreversible destruction of valuable historical and archaeological information. The entry into force of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage has represented an achievement in the field of submerged archaeological site safeguarding. It has already been ratified by 50 countries (including 17 of Latin America and the Caribbean), and many other States are considering its ratification. There is a need, however, to continue building capacities for the effective implementation of this international instrument and urging the countries that have not ratified it yet to do so as early as possible and join those that are protecting, conserving and managing their UCH. Santiago de Cuba will mark the 500th anniversary of the foundation of the city in 2015, bearing very much in mind that an integral part of its history and identity lies under the waters of its bay.

Fernando Brugman

Officer in charge and Coordinator of the Culture Sector, UNESCO Regional Office for Culture in Latin América and the Caribbean