FOUR years after the Cuban government started its ambitious effort to restore the cathedrals, colonial mansions, and plazas of Old Havana, the historic district is showing signs of its old glory. The plaza of the Cathedral of St. Christopher, whose 17th and 18th century buildings once served as a religious center of Cuban life, is almost fully restored, with museums of colonial art taking up lower floors. The once deteriorated buildings alongside the landmark Plaza de Armas have been transformed into a complex of quaint shops that sell the medicinal herbs, meats, mineral water, and sweets they sold long ago.
The restoration of one of Latin America's most important historic areas was started by the Cuban government in 1981 with an $11 million project to renovate more than 30 buildings. The next phase will be a $30 million project to restore another 44 buildings.
The project represents a shift in emphasis for Cuba's communist government, which during the first years after the 1959 revolution, focused on developing the countryside. It also comes in the midst of a strong effort to increase foreign revenues by expanding the tourist industry.
Joining other more renowned historic cities, such as Athens, Rome, and Venice, Old Havana has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization as a ``patrimony of humanity.'' UNESCO is supplying some funds and technical assistance to the renovation process.
``There is everything here: castles, convents, forts,'' said Havana's official historian Eusebio Leal. He called the restoration of the city a ``vital necessity'' for the ``salvation of the national identity.''
Mr. Leal and other historians describe the district's architecture as eclectic. The architecture incorporates a mixture of styles including Baroque and neo-classical, drawn mostly from 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century Western Europe, particularly from Spain.
The city's most impressive buildings are the 408-year-old Castillo de la Fuerza, one of the oldest buildings in Latin America, and the Morro Castle. These massive structures, built for defense, stretch along Havana's port. Hemingway favorites
The city's more recent history includes the wayfaring days of author Ernest Hemingway. During the 1930s, his home was the modest and now run-down ``Ambos Mundos'' Hotel in Old Havana. His favorite hangouts include two of Old Havana's most popular restaurants, the Floridita and the Bodeguita del Medio, now being renovated.
While the restored buildings have regained their old form, the sprawling district still has many deteriorating tenements. Their crumbling balconies and grimy wrought iron only suggest their former beauty. Some landmark buildings have been lost. The church of Santo Domingo, built in the 17th century, was torn down to build a heliport during the prerevolutionary Batista era. ``It was barbarously destroyed,'' said Leal.
The restoration is directed in part at tourists. Camera-laden foreigners, many of them Canadian and European, daily parade through the district's narrow, winding streets. Old Havana restaurants are frequently filled with foreign visitors.
Within the last year, Cuba has strengthened its effort to increase tourism, which brings in badly needed dollars. One plan calls for doubling hotel capacity by 1990, mostly by adding rooms in Havana, the Varadero beach resort, and Cayo Largo off Cuba's the southern coast. Cuba is also discussing several joint tourist development projects with other countries. Dollar appreciation
Dollar-bearing foreigners are given royal treatment. Workers at some restaurants told reporters that they allowed people with dollars to cut in front of waiting lines. The best hotels and resorts are filled mainly with foreigners, not Cubans. One tourism official said that one of the more luxurious resorts, the Hemingway Marina, is off limits to Cubans unless they arrive with a foreigner.
In an effort to attract wealthier tourists, the government is trying to improve what it admits are inferior services. Phone lines out of hotels are frequently poor. And finding transportation is always difficult, because Cuba has imported few cars since the 1959 revolution.
``The hotels are not high standard . . . and many people are used to where you push a button and get a cup of coffee,'' says In'es Girona, director of the North American promotion department of the National Institute of Tourism. ``We have to improve services,'' she added.
Ms. Girona says that most of the tourists are now attracted by the prospect of a Carribbean vacation at relatively low prices. Some of the tourists, especially those from Latin America, come to see firsthand the Cuban revolution, she said. Home sweet home
But those involved in the restoration say they are making sure that Old Havana does not become just a tourist attraction.
Although residents are being relocated while repairs are being made, the residents will be allowed to return after the restoration is completed. They say that the restored shops will remain functional, selling their traditional products to local residents.
Some of the residents interviewed were enthusiastic about the restoration of what has long been considered one of Havana's poorest districts. They pointed out the placards describing local history and in some cases added their own historical anecdotes.
But others seemed worried that the project might force them out. One resident, 77-year-old Maria Nectalina Delgado, said she prefers staying in her one-room apartment even if she is offered a better place.
``I have lived here 23 years,'' she said. ``This is my home.''
One man, carrying a sack of fish into the dark corrider of his crumbling building, said he was not confident the government would allow him to return.
``It's going to be a museum,'' he said.