14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, October 15, 2018 — Havana is many cities in one. Tourists see it as a theme park of the past, with old cars and “beautiful” ruins; those who were born here more than five decades ago recall its endless nights and lament its deterioration; while young people consider it like a jungle where one must survive or flee.
The city, at the point of turning 500 years old, doesn’t leave anyone indifferent. Its wide coastal avenue, with the emblematic Wall of Malecón, is one of the great attractions of a metropolis that the sea breeze refreshes from time to time. For the majority of foreign visitors, the city is reduced to Old Havana, Central Havana, and Plaza of the Revolution. Few venture farther out, to shining Cerro, the old and stately La Víbora, or the deteriorated San Miguel del Padrón.
However, for those who live in this old town founded in 1519, the neighborhoods of the city are like pieces of a badly-fit-together kaleidoscope that reveals social differences, the greater or lesser attention of the authorities, and even the racial composition of its inhabitants. All of them long to see an improvement in “the capital of all Cubans.”
“In this city they’ve hardly built any new roads, beltways, tunnels, or bridges in 60 years,” notes Niurka Peraza, a graduate in civil engineering who has been self-employed for the last six years as an interior designer. “And notice that I say ’hardly’ but I could be more categorical and say ’nothing at all.’”
The tunnel of Havana Bay, its two close cousins that cross to the other side of the Almendares River, and the “elevated” bridges of Calle 100 are part of a past glory of construction that has not been repeated again. The avenues and roads are still the same that Havanans have walked for the last half century.
For the young architect “that lack of expansion and evolution in the roads and infrastructure directed at improving traffic affects the life of all Havanans, even in the smallest details. It’s seen in the dangerous traffic circles, where there are continuous accidents, in the collapse of transport when one of the tunnels from the Republican era fills with water. And new alternatives haven’t been created,” she explains.
Peraza thinks that Havana “needs an urgent investment in roads because now the problem isn’t seen as so serious because the car volume is relatively small in comparison with other cities, but we could be arriving at a rupture point, a crisis point.”
The well-known actor Luis Alberto García exploded last week on Facebook about the situation of the roads. “Why? Why do the citizens of this country, pedestrians, passengers, and drivers have to be exposed to these dangers on the highways and streets that are in such poor shape, without the slightest safety conditions for our lives?” he demanded. The performer from Clandestinos and the saga of Nicanor O’Donnell seemed indignant because resources keep being directed at building hotels rather than repairing the streets.
Nieves Suárez, resident of Cayo Hueso in Central Havana, is one of the many who view as a “major problem the collection of trash and the lack of hygiene” and says that she feels ashamed when she travels around other cities in the country and finds them cleaner and better cared for. “Meanwhile, this looks like a pigsty,” she protests.
Havana generates 20,000 cubic meters (m3) of solid waste each day, classified as 15,000 of urban waste, 3,000 of debris, and 2,000 in tree prunings, in addition to other types of trash. Although the quantity isn’t very high for a city of two million inhabitants, a good part of the waste ends up on the pavement, in abandoned lots, or on the sidewalk.
Despite those problems, Suárez doesn’t want to move to another area of the Island. “The best opportunities are here, because this is a very centralized country, if you’re not in Havana you miss almost everything.” One of her children recently emigrated, “thanks to a tourist he met at the Malecón. Can you imagine that in Aguada de Pasajeros?” she reflects.
The problem of the trash is directly connected with that of the water supply. Havana has suffered for decades from instability of water access in homes. Residents have developed mechanisms that range from the popular wheeled carts with which they move tanks of water from one neighborhood to another, to learning to bathe with the minimum amound of liquid.
“If it wasn’t for that problem I would feel very good here, because the area has been restored and honestly there are buildings that have remained very pretty,” confesses Esperanza González, resident of Calle Cuba, in Old Havana. “We’ve had to put more tanks inside the house and washing with the water from the sink is a luxury because it uses a lot. You have to do it by little jugfuls.”
From González’s window you can see part of the bay, an area that once saw the hustle and bustle of cargo ships coming and going. Now, there are only mainly cruise ships and small fishing boats. “They say that they’re going to turn it into a big recreation zone, but as long as we Cubans are unable [i.e. forbidden] to go on yacht trips and get to know our coast, that will be very difficult,” the Havanan believes.
Traveling by sea is a fantasy that seems unreachable and that few think about when they need to catch a bus at rush hour.
Starting in 2016 the Government undertook a reordering of the routes and frequencies of passenger transport inside the city, but two years later Havanans are exasperated in face of the small progress and the lack of improvements.
In that time, the number of buses fell. While in 2016 the capital had 858 buses in circulation, 339 of those articulated, currently there are only 792, 260 articulated. The result is long lines at stops and the irritation of the population, which sees itself forced to turn to private shared fixed-route taxis, which have disproportionate fares in relation to salaries.
For the 500th anniversary of the city’s founding, which will be celebrated in November of 2019, a broad program of repairs and cultural activities is expected, but Havanans are skeptical. “They’ll stay in the same places as always, Old Havana, the most touristy streets, and the avenues where foreign visitors walk,” laments Nieves Suárez.
“Something will touch us, but it might only be music and fanfare, because I don’t believe that the problem of leaks and the bad state of the plumbing is going to be fixed in a year when it has had decades of deterioration,” predicts Suárez.
For the architect Niurka Peraza, the date is “an opportunity. For a city, celebrating 500 years is a great challenge, and this can help the authorities as well as the inhabitants value more what we have. In the case of the Government that translates into more investments, and in the case of the citizens, into more care.”
Translated by: Sheilagh Carey
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