Like Yan­gon, Ha­vana needs a clean-up

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

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.”

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