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 like this?’
Naomi Larsson in Havana
L’altra faccia dell’Havana – quella che molto spesso non viene raccontata – una città al limite. Occorre uno sforzo per vederla, togliersi il velo dell’orgoglioso mito cubano, della città dalle belle case coloniali, della sua popolazione meravigliosa che proprio per questa sua attitudine è riuscita a sopravvivere. Ogni luogo ha una sua storia, le sue bugie e le sue verità e, dieci giorni che siano in un villaggio organizzato o in un hotel prenotato a prezzi stracciati sul web, non bastano. In pochi giorni porterete a casa la vostra rinnovata vitalità. Viverci, ascoltare, non lasciarsi influenzare è tutta un altra cosa. Aprirsi e vivere alla pari, questo differenzia lo svagarsi dal comprendere l’anima di un luogo. Articolo del Guardian sulla situazione attuale all’Havana. Chi ha colpa? Che cosa è successo? Chi ci guadagna? Chi ci perde?.
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 defencewhen 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.