Like Yangon, Havana needs a clean-up
ON a street-corner in Vedado, Havana’s most affluent suburb, pedestrians have had to manoeuvre around a metre-wide hole in the pavement on Calle 10 for months. Smashed concrete spills on to the road, encircling what has since turned into a pit of rubbish – a pockmark on the face of Havana’s fading grandeur.
This is, according to residents, “the way things are” in the Cuban capital. As the city, its people and its architecture has aged, so too have its public services. While on the face of it, the city is getting a new lift through the easing of Cuban-US relations, municipal support structures are failing badly in many parts of the city. As residents get tired of these inefficiencies, they’re expressing their anger – and pointing to the breakdown of Cuban socialism.
“When Obama came [in March] they cleaned the whole street; they put the beggars and homeless in a special asylum,” says Hamlet Lavastida, a 33-yearold artist who lives in Havana. “They made new roads, they painted many buildings, just in the areas where Obama was going to be. People joked that now we’re going to have to wait another 50 years for the next US president to come, to make another new road...”
These may just be lighthearted jokes for now, but Lavastida suggests there is a growing discontent among Cubans about the state of public services: the dirty streets, the broken infrastructure.
“Sometimes the telephone company – of course, controlled by the state – digs a hole to put in the wires and cables of the telephone, but they never cover the hole. They leave it like that for months,” she says.
Water leaks flow regularly across the streets of Havana’s barrios without being fixed. Waste can overflow public bins for weeks, with residents having no idea when it will be collected. When referring to the lack of cohesion between the various government-run, centralised organisations – the communications company, the water company, the rubbish collectors (communales) – Lavastida uses the word “anarchy”.
Walking through the city centre with three writers from Havana Times – an Englishlanguage blog that describes itself as “open-minded writing from Cuba” – the conversation quickly turns to Havana’s streets. “We have serious environmental problems in the city. Problems with garbage collection, sewage overflowing pits, air pollution,” they say.
Such issues are obvious as you walk through the small backstreets just a few blocks away from El Capitolio, the old seat of government and one of the city’s grandest buildings. Instead of overpowering petrol fumes from Havana’s ageing cars, you smell sewage and dust compounding in the muggy air. We turn a corner and rubbish falls from a flowing dustbin. Stagnant water from a leaking drain sits along a pavement. Above it, a building with cracks in the wall is held up by wooden scaffolding.
“The trash is all over the place,” says Luis Miguel Bahia, who lives in Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest municipalities. “I walk and when I turn the next corner hoping for some fresh air, there is the smell of this trash that’s all over the road, and I think, ‘Where am I? Why did this place become like this?’”
Unsurprisingly, the outer neighbourhoods and poorer communities are more neglected. Will Aurelievich also lives in Cerro; he tells me that around his home their sewage system broke, and residents were having to avoid walking on “actual human shit”, as he describes it, for six months before it was fixed. He was planning on making a documentary about the problem, but coincidentally as soon as he started the project the state services came to fix it.
Residents of Alamar, another neglected district, have often written in Havana Times about the inefficiencies in rubbish collection in their neighbourhood – one of the posts is entitled “Cuba: till the shit do us part”. The communales apparently receives the biggest state budget but is said to be “one of the most inefficient sectors in the country”.
One of the problems, it seems, is the high level of bureaucracy. The city administration is theoretically answerable to the national assembly of people’s power, but they don’t have budgetary control – that is in the hands of central government. A channel of complaint from the population can only lead to an advisory department, rather than the funding source, according to Stephen Wilkinson at the International Institute for the Study of Cuba.
But above all, Cuba has limited resources. It’s a trade-dependent country living with a 56-year US embargo. Helen Yaffe, an LSE fellow who specialises in the Cuban economy and has spent years living in Havana, says, “You have to start with the blockade [which has prevented trade and investment from the US since 1960], although you don’t want to always sound defensive. But the authorities here have very limited budget. They have to prioritise what they do with their hard currency.”
As Yaffe points out, Cuba is a country of contradictions. You might have to swerve a hole in the pavement on a daily basis, but the government does provide free universal healthcare and education (Raul Castro used these services as a defence when questioned about the government’s record of human rights violations during Obama’s visit). Indeed, Yaffe recalls a time when her two-year-old daughter was struck with pneumonia when they were staying in Havana. “Inside a hospital, the level of care was phenomenal. Yet we were in a room without hot running water; in fact, there wasn’t even water all the time.”