By Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Eusebio Leal, a historian and orator who befriended Fidel Castro and led the reconstruction of the crumbling historic center of Havana, died on Friday morning from a "painful illness," Cuban official media said. He was 77.
Calling himself a "Fidelist" rather than a Marxist, Leal was a member of the ruling Cuban Communist Party's elite Central Committee and came to be seen as an elder statesman of Cuba.
Inside Cuba, he earned recognition as an articulate historian, originally a self-taught student who through intellect and hard work passed the university entrance exam without a formal education.
He would go on to earn a doctorate in history and become a member of Cuba's National Assembly.
Outside Cuba, he was best known as leader of the project to rebuild Old Havana, the historic center built by Spanish colonists which had been deteriorating from age, neglect and the damaging effects of seawater on the buildings along Havana's famous boardwalk.
The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) named Old Havana a World Heritage site. With financial help from Spain and under the direction of Leal, Cuba rebuilt dozens of colonial-era buildings, contrasting sharply with the many that continued to crumble.
The campaign helped make Old Havana a tourist attraction that was an alternative to the country's popular beach resorts.
Leal was a close friend of Castro as well as his younger brother Raul Castro, who officially took over the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party in 2011, though he shied away from overtly political gestures, concentrating on academia and rebuilding the historic center.
"More than a Marxist, I was a Fidelist," Leal told a meeting of artists and writers in April 2014. He added, referring to Fidel Castro, "His thinking was more inclusive and comprehensive than the dogmatic canons or doctrine."
"Fidel was the only one capable of uniting this country after the revolution, in the face of so many discordant ideas," he said.
Leal said he built his appreciation for restoring old buildings on his early dedication to the Roman Catholic Church, which fell out of favor in the early days of the communist government but later regained stature with the Castro brothers and other aging revolutionaries.
"My cultural education was formed through the discipline of the church," he said in a 2010 interview with Cuban state television. "It was difficult to make religion and revolution compatible. People didn't understand, and there were some difficult moments, but for me they were never incompatible."
Leal also embraced the market-oriented economic reforms implemented under Raul Castro, saying the country must produce economically in order to progress.
"Bread is just as important as thinking. One must have bread in order to think," Leal said. "Think about it. Bread comes before philosophy."
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana; Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Matthew Lewis)