Havana’s dirty truths: rubbish-strewn streets spark anger at city’s failings
Amid all the stories of Cuba’s new prosperity, residents of its capital
are growing frustrated by the daily reality of uncollected rubbish,
overflowing sewage and water leaks – and asking: ‘Why did Havana become
Naomi Larsson in Havana
Monday 5 September 2016 07.30 BST Last modified on Monday 5 September
2016 10.29 BST
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-year-old 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 –
dig 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 English-language 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 (rubbish collection) 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 here.
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 in water; in
fact, there wasn’t even water all the time.
“This shows the contradictions that Cuba’s had to face in terms of its
development. Infrastructurally, they’re really struggling.”
Lavastida, who recently moved back to his home country after living
abroad for five years, acknowledges the lack of resources, but he
suggests the disintegration of the city’s infrastructure and public
services goes much deeper. He believes people care less about their
local community, reflecting the breakdown in Cuban socialist values.
“There’s a lack of public interest in what is happening in the street.
This is somehow also part of the change; that Cubans are becoming
individualistic,” he says. He sees this apathy as a “passive dissidence”.
“I remember when I was a kid there was something called Domingo Rojo
(‘Red Sunday’) and everybody in the neighbourhood decided we were going
to clean the streets, like a communal voluntary service, and it was
great. But nobody believes in the voluntary thing now, in communism.
There is incredible hostility between government and citizens … every day.”
Bahia agrees. He has also noticed a feeling of apathy in Cuban society:
“In the long term people react to the the impositions [by the
government] of solidarity, the community and so on. Those kinds of
things must not be imposed because it creates the opposite effect. For
example, with the trash on the street, I told a neighbour about it, and
he said to me to take another route to avoid this trash. No one cares.”
As more foreign money enters Havana, it seems individualism and the gap
between rich and poor will only increase. The number of Cubans working
in the private sector has reached nearly half a million – three times
the number in 2008, and there is a new generation of nuevos ricos (new
rich) who isolate those left on government wages. Habaneros worry that
privatisation is slipping into the public sector: apparently if you hand
the communales some money, they’ll take your rubbish straight away.
In the last Community Party Congress in April, Raul Castro released new
documents outlining the meaning of Cuban socialism. Yaffe says this was
hugely significant, and “the need for improvement is very much a focus
of the plan document”; but only time will tell if it will change the way
Cubans feel about their communities.
Walking back through Vedado, I see a machine grabbing some of the
rubbish in Calle 10, engulfed in a cloud of dust. The machine stops, and
the workmen expose the crater in the ground. Maybe it will be fixed
soon, or maybe not.
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