Collapse in Havana Leaves More Than 600 People on the Street / Agusto Cesar San Martin and Pablo Mendez

Building in danger of total collapse — photo Augusto Cesar San Martin

HAVANA, Cuba. — Since the afternoon of last Thursday the 27th, the residents of the building located at 308 Oquendo, between San Rafael and San Miguel, Centro Havana remain on the street.

The partial collapse of the upper floors put in danger the structure of the five story building of 120 apartments.

From the first concrete crashes, the more than 600 residents began to abandon the property, transferring their belongings to the street.  Facing the imminence of total collapse, the local authorities ordered an evacuation.

The residents keep doors, bathroom tiles, toilets, electric appliances, beds and all kinds of belongings on the street.  These people have not been evacuated.

At 7:00 pm on Saturday the police ordered the electricity cut off and prohibited entry into the building until Sunday morning.  The order caused a disruption for the residents who have not finished gathering their belongings.

On Friday, local government officials met with some of those affected.  According to one of the victims, they made assurances that they would evacuate everyone gradually.

One of the building’s residents who did not want to be identified told the independent press said:

“We don’t know where to go.  Yesterday nine buses came by here in order to take us to shelters, and they were empty. . .  We want homes, not shelter.”

It is also known that some affected families were installed in apartments of buidlings located in Santa Fe, Playa township.  The provision of dwellings is prioritized by the composition of nuclear families with children.

The building constructed in 1928 was declared in danger of collapse in 1988.  All the victims consulted agree on the reiteration of the government alerts about the deterioration of the building.

Photo gallery of collapse in Centro Havana, sent by Augusto Cesar San Martin and Pablo Mendez

1 El-derrube-en-los-pisos-superiores-puso-en-peligro-la-edificacion-420x5052 Edificio-desalojado.-2.3-53 Edificio-desalojado.-2.3-1 4 Derrumbe-1-feb-2014-5-400x505Cubanet, March 3, 2014, Augusto Cesar San Martin and Pablo Mendez

Translated by mlk.

Round-up of “Indigents” Begins Prior to CELAC Summit / Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña

One of the old "camel" buses in Cuba.
One of the old “camel” buses in Cuba.

Given that there are only a few days left before the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) is going to be held in Havana, as is usual in these cases, they are rounding up the indigents.

The sites where the largest concentrations of homeless people spend the night in the capital are in the areas near the waiting room of the interprovincial bus terminal, located on the Avenida del Puerto, opposite La Coubre pier (formerly the Calvary pier), and behind the segment of the wall at Egido and Leonor Pérez Streets, adjacent to the main railway terminal.

Luis Alberto Blanco, 49, a resident of Henequén Viejo neighborhood, in the municipality of Mariel in Artemisa province, said that from the beginning of the year they had an orientation for the municipal Communist Party for the appropriate agencies for the “evacuation” of the destitute before 28 January, given that it is expected that the leaders participating in the summit area with visit the port development zone that the Government is building on the bay.

According to testimony from the victims themselves, for the nights they are forced to board a bus known as “The Colony,” a nickname derived from the name of the property to which they are transferred, located in the municipality of Boyeros, 15 kilometers south of the capital.

They say that is they resist the transfer, the repressors turn off the lights in the bus and beat them.

The bus is identifiable by body structure, similar to the old “camels” that circulated during the so-called Special Period, although a little smaller.

“The Colony is the terror of the homeless,” said one of the victims in an interview months ago.

The Summit of CELAC’s, an organization currently chair by Raúl Castro, will be held on 28 and 29 January.

Booby-trapped Roofs / Pablo Pascual Mendez Pina

It was the evening of November 29, it was still raining in Havana and Rebollar Augustine, a retired 71-year-old resident of Vedado, stood crestfallen covering his face with his hands so no one would see him cry.

His mattress, appliances, clothing, furniture were all wet and to worsen his mood, his neighbor below started to shout insults when her roof also started to leak.

At an impasse in the downpour, Rebollar looked at the sky with the hope that the storm clouds would disappear, but the downpour increased and he furiously began stomping on the floor and yelling obscenities to let off steam.

Manuala, Olimpia, and Barbarita — neighbors of Rebollar — suffered under similar storms, and after the collapse of a connecting wall of their apartment, the police drove them to a shelter in the town of Boyeros, where they remain permanently evacuated.

Unfortunately, Fidel Vega and Pastora Góngora, residents of 619 Campanario Street in the municipality of Central Havana, died after being suddenly crushed when their dwelling collapsed. Continue reading “Booby-trapped Roofs / Pablo Pascual Mendez Pina”

There were countless victims and more than 2,000 evacuated due to the intense rains after the arrival of the fourth cold front of the current season.

In 72 hours the precipitation reached 300 millimeters (11.8 inches) in the northern municipalities of the capital, causing a catastrophic 227 collapses, 201 of which were partial and 26 of which total, according to government figures.

“Our ceilings are booby-trapped,” warned some of the capital’s residents in reference to the possibility that the downpours could cause their roofs to cave in. “Havana is like a sick old man,” noted others, meaning that the city recovers from one slump only to suffer from another.

In the prologue to the most recent edition of The City of Columns by Alejo Carpentier, Dr. Eusebio Leal portrays it as: “The city of the unfinished, the lame, the asymmetrical, the abandoned.”

In an study by María del Carmen Ramón entitled “Havana Is Expensive But It’s Worth It,” published in the online magazine Cuba Now, the architect Mario Coyula, the city’s director of architecture and urbanism, presented a more realistic and frightening image the capital’s future:

“Havana could end up being a Dante-esque vision, a great ring of piled-up trash or an empty crater where a city once was.”

 The solution is the problem

Coyula points out that, if we look at the scale model of Havana, we will notice that the color yellow predominates. This color coding is used to designate areas of urbanization from the first sixty years of the 20th century.

We can therefore surmise that, since then, the socio-economic development of the capital, judging from housing construction, has been poor.

In hindsight, we can see that only Alamar, San Agustín and some areas developed by micro-brigades have been added. The population density increased, however, and with it has come overcrowding, especially in Central Havana, which has about 1,000 inhabitants per hectare*. If we take into account the area’s many low-rise buildings, this suggests that people are practically living on top of each other, like canned sardines.

Coyula notes that Havana still has the same infrastructure it had early in twentieth century, as exemplified by the case of the aqueduct. Now a hundred years old, much of it has collapsed. Its pipes were providing service to 300,000, though it was designed for twice that capacity.

Today the city is home to over two million people and requires heavy investment if it hopes to curtail the sewage spills running through its streets.

Coyula recalled that in a very interesting meeting with a development group in the capital many years ago a specialist from the Ministry of Construction said, “It will cost $3 billion to fix Havana.”

“But the cost is much greater,” claims Coyula. Havana is expensive but worth it and the only way to solve its repair problem is to find a way it can generate money for itself, as Eusebio Leal did with his Historic Center project.**

For 50 years the Ministry of Construction (MICONS) ignored building maintenance of the housing stock. Although the National Housing Institute (INV) created companies to deal with this, its efforts did not meet demand and instead it began shoring up housing in poor condition as a solution to the problem. This solution, however, proved inadequate, confirming that the approach to the problem was misdirected.

“Current home construction is only intended to replace those dwellings that have collapsed,” Coyula points out, “but government cannot be the only sector responsible for solving these problems. People cannot just wait passively for the paternalistic state to fix their house or build a new one.

“Similarly, the new law which legalizes the sale of houses could have a positive effect. It could encourage people to take care of their properties, not just their roofs, because it is an asset that at some point in time could be monetized.”

Coyula’s views are not shared by everyone. Fermín Álvarez, a 52-year-old economist, questions the feasibility of generating more than three billion dollars to fix the city’s problems given the failure of the current economic model and a monetary system made up of two weak currencies, factors which inhibit interest from foreign investors.

Similarly, Alvarez points out that the regime seems more preoccupied with squelching the self-employment sector, which represents a mere 2% of Cuba’s GDP according to official estimates, rather than encouraging individual initiative and development of the non-state sector, which could generate revenues for public services.

An ex-director from the former Ministry of the Materials and Construction Industry (MIMC), who requested anonymity, describes the law legalizing the sale of residences as a subterfuge by the regime to free itself of responsibility.

“For more than 50 years the government was the real owner of all homes, preventing the ’inhabitants who use them’ from selling to other individuals. They could only sell them to the state, which shamelessly took it upon itself determine their value,” he says.

“This situation caused many buildings to deteriorate, especially multi-family homes. After all, if the state was the owner, then it was also responsible for the upkeep.”

The shortages and high prices of construction material in Cuba are a consequence of a decision by the government to set aside most of these products for export and as aid to regional trading blocks while giving lower priority to the domestic market.

A 42 kg bag of cement costs 6.60 CUC (or dollars), the equivalent of half the average Cuban’s monthly salary of 15 CUC. How many people who depend on a salary can make such an investment and still be able to eat?

In addition, there is the purchase of other materials. But the most expensive is the skilled labor to undertake the repairs. “It would be delusional to believe that with the weak credit offered to the most vulnerable people reconstruction costs would be covered, after over 50 years of mistakes and stupid prohibitions by the government,” says the former director of MIMC .


Ninety percent of those affected by the weather event  that occurred on the 28th, 29th and 30th November, say they were surprised by the rains.

They note that the Institute of Meteorology offered a softer forecast, and nothing alerted the public about the possibility of heavy rains, with over 300 mm (12 inches) in the northern municipalities, which would resemble a “bombing” as those regions present the greatest construction problems in the capital. Nor were there any special announcements to keep the population informed.

Nor did the Civil Defense agencies — given their vertical structure — alert anyone nor offer information to support the victims. Hence, 95% of those consulted said there was indolence that caused unnecessary risks and loss of life.

I said “good-bye”

Agustín Rebollar said that on this occasion the downpours never let up so that he could climb to the roofs and sweep our the drains, as he usually does in such cases. He said that to waterproof the roof he’d applied cement aggregates to plug the leaks, but he didn’t know whether or not he did it right.

“If at least they’d show something on educational television to teach us how to do it,” he said, “I myself would do it, despite my 71 years, because with the 270 Cuban pesos (11 CUC), they pay me as a pension, I can’t afford to pay a mason.”

Inside his home, Rebollar shows a beamed and tiled ceiling, arched and covered in slurry for the dampness, which hasn’t come down thanks to a shoring up with wood logs.

“The next time, if there is a next time,” resolves Rebollar, “I will be forced to do what the deceased Álvarez Guedes recommended: Give myself a kiss on the ass and say good-bye.”

Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña | Havana | December 16, 2013

From Diario de Cuba

Translator’s notes:

*According to Wikipedia, Havana overall has a population density of approximately 7,500 people per square mile; Old Havana has a population density of 63,500 per square mile. This is higher than that of Kolkata (Calcutta) India. The density for Central Havana reported here is about 260,000 per square mile; Wikipedia reports the density for this area (possibly for different boundaries encompassing a larger area) as 102,400 per square mile; even at this lower number, of all the cities in the world only Manila has a higher density on a city-wide basis.

** In 1982 the historic center of Havana was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and became eligible for funding for its preservation. Tourist taxes are also dedicated to this purpose.

16 December 2013

War-Time Opportunists / Pablo Pascual Mendez Pina

Raúl Castro.

In Cuba the practice of wasting time is a daily phenomenon. It evaporates in conversations on the street corner, in workplaces, while waiting for buses, resolving bureaucratic problems, reading the newspaper Granma, looking for bargains in the farmers’ markets and “building socialism,” which is like a long road from one form of capitalism to another.

Ninety percent of those questioned on this topic agree that the island’s biggest waste of time and resources has been preparing to confront “Yankee imperialism,” which has been threatening us with invasion for fifty-four years.

Because of this “imminent threat” the Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR) and its General Staff maintains a headquarters with 500 offices housing more than 4,000 officials and civilian workers, an illusory comfort obtained through exorbitant expenditures of energy and fuel.

According to anonymous sources the Sierra Maestra Building, formerly the Havana City Hall or INRA Building, contains three dining halls as well as coffee shops, a gymnasium, stores, a logistical center, a medical clinic and a restaurant-bar reserved for high-ranking officials. At least 400 employees provide service and maintenance, among them an elite battalion in charge of security.

Inside one will find the Universal Hall of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) — a smaller scale replica of a similar room in the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses —which is used for official celebrations. There are also vast areas set aside for parking lots, repair shops, corps of engineers, a firefighting brigade and a sizable fleet of cars and buses used to ferry officials from the General Staff offices to their housing compounds.

It is worth noting that all of the Castro brothers’ highest ranking officers live in mansions that once belonged to Cuba’s former upper-class, all of which are located in affluent residential districts: Nuevo Vedado, Kholy, Miramar and Biltmore. There is even a special brigade in charge of maintaining and remodeling them.

Throughout the length and breadth of the island, MINFAR maintains an endless number of underground military units, clubs, hospitals, weapon repair facilities, hangars, airfields, naval bases, ammunition supplies, spare parts stores, fuel, food and and underground command centers. A high percentage of these rely on obsolete WWII-era equipment, while the rest of the technology dates from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Engineers have had to modify much of the military’s machinery because it is now difficult to get supplies of spare parts from Russia and Ukraine.

Military employees are the island’s least productive workers and paradoxically its best paid. Their pay scales are based on military rank, years of service, awards, security clearance, educational level, scientific knowledge and other factors.

They also also receive free clothing and uniforms, cigarettes, housing, and vacations at holiday resorts reserved exclusively for the FAR. They may also purchase home appliances and other consumer items sold at hard currency stores (known in Cuba by the English word “shoppings”), except that for MINFAR personel Cuba’s dual currency system does not exist. In the fiefdom of Raul Castro the CUC (convertible peso) and CUP (Cuban peso) have the same value.*

To finance the expenditures of this military behemoth, the general-president created the MINFAR Business Administration Group (Grupo Administrativo Empresarial or GAE), a conglomerate that absorbed the state phone monopoly ETECSA, the import-export company CIMEX, the retail chain TRD Caribe, the now-defunct CUBALSE, the hotel chains Gaviota and and Horizontes as well as other state-run corporations.

In his report to the First Communist Party Congress, Fidel Castro acknowledged, “As long as imperialism exists, the party, the state and the people will give the defense services its maximum attention. We will never neglect the revolutionary guard.”

General Raul Castro, however, justified MINFAR’s resistance to change and the economic burdens it imposes when he said at the conclusion of the Bastion-2013 military maneuvers on November 24, 2013, “To avoid rivers of blood, rivers of resources are needed.”

In contrast, 95% of those interviewed believed that, in spite of all the exhortations, political speeches, military exercises and multi-million dollar expenditures, Cuba’s defenses remain vulnerable to an American attack.

They’re coming or they’re not coming

Reinaldo Rodriguez, a 58-year-old electrician, alleges that, when Castro was building up his forces in the Sierra Maestra, he plotted a confrontation with an enemy giant like the United States to parody the legend of David and Goliath and to engineer worldwide anti-imperialist solidarity.

“Castro used us,” says Rodríguez. “I was taking classes at a technological institute in the 1970s and year after year we were required to train for forty-five days as anti-aircraft artillery gunners. The cold, the hunger and the rough times that they put us through in the trenches were pointless. And still our generation had to put up with the same harangues about an invasion that never came.”

Javier, a 40-year-old resident of Vedado and bread store employee said that in 2007 the Military Committee called him up for mobilizations on numerous occasions and even threatened him with arrest if he did not show up.

They were taken to a unit in the vicinity of Artemis, where they were given uniforms and boots. They were left there for fifteen day with nothing to do. He recalls that at the end they were given diplomas while a colonel — drunk as a skunk — gave a speech to conclude their training.

An engineering student at the José Antonio Echeverría Polytechnic Institute (ISPJAE) says, “According to military instructors at ISPJAE, in the event of a confrontation, Cuba would be invaded and occupied by the ’Yumas.’”

“Then the ’war of all the people’ would begin,” he says. “A model of terrorist resistance in which every Cuban would have access to an explosive or any weapon necessary to massacre a Yankee soldier. A quota drawn up by the top leadership of the Communist Party would require one invader a week to be killed in every town for a total of 168 murders a day.”

He and one of his classmates ask themselves, “If MINFAR is not capable of deterring an invasion and we are the ones who are supposed to kill the Yankees, then what devils are they painting?”

Paco Echemendía, a 52-year-old accountant, spent his military service in a mechanized troop unit and participated in several maneuvers at Jejenes in Pinar del Rio province. He noted that, in the years in which he participated, fuel costs were in multi-million dollar figures.

“How is it possible,” asks Paco, that they demand more and more sacrifice in public service ads only to spend all the savings on military exercises? Listen, those amphibious tanks drink gas like crazy.”

Chicho, a 72-year-old retiree from Cerro, says, “At this point and with all things the public needs, it is inconceivable that people are still acting stupid and running around with rifles made of straw… For 54 years MINFAR has been the presidential headquarters of both Fidel and Raul Castro and, as long as they are alive, those fat asses in the army will still be the biggest opportunists on the island.”

Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña

From Diario de Cuba, December 3, 2013

*Translator’s note: Cuba has two currencies: the convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). The CUC is pegged at roughly one-to-one to the US dollar. Most wages in Cuba, however, are paid in CUP, which amounts to an average monthly salary of US $20. By treating CUC prices as though they were CUP prices (in reality 1 CUC equals 26.5 CUP), hard currency stores offer military personnel a huge discount on consumer purchases.

ETECSA, A Bankrupt Monopoly / Pablo Pascual Mendez Pina

DSC07931That we are in a state of ruin is something that no Cuban in his or her right mind really questions, though we have become all too accustomed to the cynicism of the architects of this disaster, who continue to blame the “Yankee blockade” for all the misery afflicting people.

As though this were not enough, it is appalling to see Havana overrun with billboards and posters touting utopian slogans such as “Let us fight for a prosperous and sustainable socialism.” And “Revolution means never lying or violating ethical principles.” Or “Banish the fear of looking for problems in fulfilling our duties.” One cannot walk even a few kilometers to refill a mobile phone account, to wait in line in hopes of resolving some bureaucratic issue or to file a complaint without coming across a marquee announcing, “ETECSA, on line with the world.”

What is obvious is that the state telecommunications monopoly, commonly known as ETECSA, is no longer a public-private partnership with financial backing from the multi-national telecommunications firm Telecom, whose employees wore uniforms, drove a fleet of vehicles and had access to spare parts in order to respond to the needs of its customers.

Some 85% of workers questioned believe that, ever since ETECSA fell into the hands of GAE – a business arm of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) – it has become a kind of Cinderella. Innumerable questionnaires indicate that it has also become known for its inefficiency.

Rolando Chapotín, a 70-year-old retiree from Vedado, describes how an ETESCA employee fit together various bits of cable to fix a problem with his landline. “It was obvious he did not have the parts he needed,” says Chapotín, “but he worked hard to resolve the problem until fortunately it was fixed. That young man made me forget about all the waiting in line and arguments with bureaucrats. Now I would like to know where the hell all the money that GAE takes in is going.”

To the question “Why does it take so long for ETECSA to resolve problems that have been reported?,” a technician replies, “We don’t have the vehicles, we don’t have the materials, we are short-staffed, wiring is no longer well-sealed and whenever there is a downpour, the problems multiply. There’s also a significant number of customers who have spent three months waiting for their landlines to be repaired.” The technician summed it up by saying, “ETESCA might be on line with the world, but not so much with Cuba.”

From Moron to “Cuba Says”

The government sponsored website Cubadebate reported that this past October a meeting of company directors from the eight eastern provinces was held in the town of Morón. It was chaired by Mayra Arevich, an engineer and the current chief executive of ETECSA. The goal was to prioritize the handling of complaints from the public and to analyze problems associated with mobile phones and landlines, services to which only three million customers currently have access.

Hilda Arias, ETECSA’s head of mobile phone services, told those present that there would be an increase in capacity of 270,000 just this year, resulting in a growth of two million mobile phone lines, or the equivalent of 18% of Cuba’s population.

According to anonymous sources a significant part of this increased capacity is destined for use by the Revolutionary Armed Forces Ministry (MINFAR), the Council of State, the Council of Ministers, the offices of the Communist Party and other governmental organizations. These are services to be paid for indirectly by private customers.

A recent installment Cuba Dice (Cuba Says) — an ongoing series broadcast by Star Television News (NTV) in which official journalists solicit opinions on pertinent topics from people on the street — raised the issue of problems with telecommunication services.

As might be expected, 90% of respondents complained of punitive fees on mobile phone and internet services, and the ludicrous 5 CUC mandatory monthly charge for maintaining cell phone service.*

Other complaints involved overcharging to refill pre-paid cell phone accounts, long lines at branch offices and retail outlets, and the inability of local customers to take advantage of double-airtime offers available to overseas customers.

However, the most pointed criticisms involved the refusal by officials to increase the number of landlines and pay phones, restrictions which impact the poor, who cannot afford the cost of mobile phone service.

In interviews company directors distanced themselves from the serious financial problems facing ETECSA and its inability to made new investments in infrastructure. They say that most of its income, which is in the form of convertible pesos (CUCs), is spent just on subsidizing local phone service.

“Mobile phone service in Cuba costs 2.50 dollars a month,” says Hilda Arias, the aforementioned director of ETECSA’s cell phone services. According to Arias the company is obliged to offer double-airtime minutes to attract overseas customers due to the need for “fresh sources of hard currency.”

Sniffing around

A former ETECSA director, who requested anonymity, stated that in the 1990s a Telecom vice-president informed his Cuban partners that his company was willing to make the investments necessary to provide a landline to any Cuban who asked for one.

“At the time international calls were the principal source of ETECSA’s revenue and it was clear that increasing the number of domestic customers would increase profits,” he says.

“The company’s Cuban partners, however, were strongly opposed and agreed to only a modest expansion, with priority given to workers in healthcare and education. Assigning the remaining increase in capacity was left to the mercy of Revolutionary communities and organizations.

“Up till now,” says the former director, “Cuba has not even been able to double the capacity it had in 1959, when there were eight landlines for every hundred residents and it ranked 14th in the world in terms of telephone coverage.”

In contrast the former director points to the case of neighboring Haiti, which had a rate of phone coverage lower than that of Cuba. But because landlines and pay phones were considered obsolete, it successfully extended mobile phone service to nearly 85% of the population in a very short period of time.

Asking not to be identified, a former MININT official stated, “One of the justifications for slowing the growth of phone service in Cuba is that there is a requirement that any increase in private telephone coverage be augmented by an equivalent increase in the monitoring capabilities of the CIN, MININT’s counter-intelligence branch. The systems for telephone surveillance, known as K1 and K2, must have a capability of 100%, as was the case in the former East Germany.”

According to this source, internet use is also under surveillance. Monitoring, however, is not clandestine. State Security actually likes citizens to feel they are being watched.

“ETECSA has become a military organization,” says an anonymous worker. He is referring to the change in administrative structure under the aegis of GAE. “Now the old branches are called divisions and other department have been reclassified with names like Strategic Projects and Logistics.”

In spite of these changes, some ETECSA directors and workers are still dipping their hands in the till. As is the case in any given part of Cuba, corruption thrives in the absence of other financial incentives. Sources indicate that one distinctive feature of ETECSA is that it is the employees who previously worked at MINFAR and MININT who have proven to be the most corrupt.

Some ETECSA workers admit to having been shocked when Miamir Mesa, an engineer and former head of the company, was given a promotion and put in charge of the Ministry of Communications after a notorious corruption scandal which came to light in July 2010 involving Cubacell as well as Logistica, a firm with ties to foreign companies.

During his tenure at ETECSA he used and abused “means of collateral responsibility” for which company directors were called to account for irregularities and misdeeds by their subordinates.

The client is never right 

At the end of the October 25th broadcast of Cuba Says on NTV, a constituent from the Carmelo people’s council in Havana’s Vedado district — a man nicknamed “el Master” in reference to his level of college education — made a statement.

“No one has yet explained to me why Cubans complain so much,” he said. “A mobile phone contract costs 120 CUC but they have reduced it to 30. A nation’s mobile phone system is not some trinket meant to be sold on a street corner. ETECSA serves society and a society must work with the resources at its disposal. Let’s be clear. Mobile phone and internet fees are high but no one is taking money out of anyone’s pocket. We might pay 4.50 CUC for one hour of internet time but we might also get a surgical procedure for free that would cost $20,000 in the US.”

He added, “We Revolutionaries have not seen the need for an election in fifty-four years. To those non-conformists who have left for other parts, well, let them stay there.”

Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña

Diario de Cuba, November 18, 2013

*Translator’s note: The fee, roughly equal to five US dollars, is equivalent to 25% of the average monthly salary in Cuba.

The Era Is Giving Birth to a Bicycle / Pablo Pascual Mendez Pina

DSC06967Faced with the debacle of urban transport, the Government will implement an emergency plan that includes the use of bicycles as an alternative for personal mobility, a measure that dusts off the bloody years of the “Special Period.”

In the Council of Ministers meeting held on Saturday June 29 in the MINFAR (Ministry of the Armed Forces), Vice President Marino Murillo Jorge analyzed the deterioration of the technical condition of the equipment and described the reordering of urban transport in the Havana as “unstable, insufficient and poor quality,” while recognizing “fare evasion on the part of the passengers, and stealing — with impunity — part of the fares collected by the transport workers.”

The Raul’s regime economic czar assessed as “poor” the efforts of the bus companies, including the boats that cross Havana Bay and the limited railroad employment, noting that the main inputs for this work — fuel and spare parts pp are acquired on the black market and the state system itself serves as its main supplier.

The members of the Council of Ministers, along with its president, proposed to redesign incentive systems with bonuses, tax exemptions and even subsidies to avoid price increases in transportation.

The meeting took place less than fifteen feet from a parking lot car crowded with the cars of the latest generation, intended for use by members of the presidential cabinet of Raul Castro.

Look at the street

In the capital, the vehicles are not in such great shape, modern Chinese-made Yutong buses, imported during the years 2005 and 2006, and parts of their bodies exhibit scorched by the rust while their exhaust systems give off black smoke from poor combustion.

The private vehicles used for passenger transport have been in use for more than thirty years. Many have been re-powered to use diesel fuel in order to travel more kilometers per liter, and in the case of the “almendrones” (cars from the first half of the twentieth century), most of their bodies have lost their lines as a result of adjustments to increase the number of seats.

The buses on the routes “P”, which provide better service in the state-owned “Metrobus,”can be up to 40 minutes late at the stops, while for others such as the routes 8 and 34 the delay can exceed an hour.

Requesting anonymity, a former official of the Ministry of Transport claims that the Government acquired more than 900 buses in the markets of China and Ukraine, whose wholesale prices were negotiated for the trifling amount of $30,000 each, despite their cost on the world market being about $100,000.

The Cuban side began defaulting on payments and the supply of spare parts was cut off by creditors. “Thus began the urban transport problems,” said the former official.

An example is that at interprovincial transport base Augusto Cesar Sandino, located at 20 de Mayo and Patria streets in the Havana municipality of Cerro, vehicles began to be idled for petty faults, such as oil filter exchange.

Soon the process of “cannibalism” began (extracting parts or pieces to repair other equipment) which ended up severely spoiling more than 70% of the fleet without it having fulfilled its useful life. “The paradox,” the source added, “is that Cuba has not yet paid for those buses.”

Glimpse into the past

Buenaventura Martinez is 86 years old and lives in Cerro municipality and was one of the drivers who worked for the Allied Bus Cooperative (COA) before it was nationalized.

He treasures a package of a yellowish papers with data from the company, which came to pay annually more than 20 million pesos to its approximately 12,000 employees.

He says the company was perfectly organized. Its leadership team created workshops for body and engine repair, and the transport sector contributions were destined solely to the Ministry of Public Works for the improvement of roads, as these ensured the maintenance of equipment.

In the 50s, the company renewed its fleet with the acquisition of more than 600 buses General Motors brand. According to experts, this generation of buses was the most modern and efficient that American industry had built. 600 bus in front of the 900 acquired more recently acquired, and Havana by then had a population of about 800 000 inhabitants, less than a third of today.

For a prosperous and sustainable bike-socialism

For Felix Chamizo, 57, an industrial electrician, who put down his pliers and screwdrivers to get behind a counter and sell churros on his own, the collapse of public transport and the proposed use bicycles as an alternative, means “the second part of the Special Period horror film will start shooting soon.”

He says that in 1992 they sold him a Chinese bicycle at his workplace and since then he’s used it to get around the city. However, it seems a mockery to him to make an aging population ride bikes again; 60% of Cubans are over 40.

Felix avoids the buses and rides his bike only now and again, as he’s already showing signs of prostrate inflammation. He suggests it’s necessary to eat well to have the energy required to pedal, which is a problem in Cuba given the scarcities and high prices of food.

And when informed that, according to studies by British scientists, the food deficit and excessive exercise Cuban population suffered during the bloody years of the “special period” decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease and overall health benefited population, Felix replied, “These scientists are sons of p …”.

From Diario de Cuba

13 July 2013