14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, May 18, 2021 — Some months ago the place was alive with construction activity. Now, however, there are no bricklayers or engineers anywhere in sight, and the din of building tools is nowhere to be heard. Construction of nine houses for senior executives of the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución district has halted because the workers building the project have not been paid.
The site is located on Almendares Street, between Bruzón and Lugareño, in front of La Pera Park. The houses being built here are notable for their spacious layouts, large cisterns and multi-vehicle covered parking.
“Back when they were paying the workers good wages, everything here ran like clockwork,” a watchman at the site told 14ymedio. But after months of not being paid, the original building crew quit. “Like everything else here, it started well but ended badly.”
Gone are the days when the crew put up walls (at an unusually fast pace for a Cuban building project), poured reinforced concrete roofs and installed wood flooring. Now, the two-storey complex has hit a roadblock and no one can say how long it will take to be resolved.
Unable to pay the the workers’ high-wage salaries, the Mariel Specialized Services and Integrated Project Management Company (ESEDIP), which overseas the project, hired a much cheaper crew, which ended in disaster. “The workers would come, spend all day looking around for supplies they could sell, then sit on the park benches and drink rum,” says the watchman.
Non-payment of wages to state-sector employees has become common in recent months. It began when the government decided to do away with the country’s dual currency system, which has forced state-owned companies to try to get their internal finances in order. Since then, employees from various sectors have reported loss of income and delays in getting paid.
“The pandemic took a big bite out of our projected earnings for this year and last,” says an ESEDIP accountant who prefers to remain anonymous. “We’re trying to adjust the numbers so we can restart some projects that are currently on hold but we still don’t know when we’ll be able to do that.”
ZEDM’s earnings were below expectations and its commercial activity was 7.9% lower than in 2018 according to a report by the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Commission. Though data is not available yet, it is widely believed that the Covid-19 crisis has led to an even steeper decline.
Between January 2014 and October 2020 the port facility moved only two million TEUs (a maritime unit of measurement based on the volume of one twenty-foot long metal shipping container). Though company officials describe it as “a new milestone,” it pales in comparison to ports in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, which processed the same amount of cargo traffic in two years rather than seven.
Among the projects sidelined by the crisis are the nine units being built to house senior executives of ZEDM. Few here understand the reason for locating the project in this neighborhood, 36 miles from the port of Mariel. “Why are they being built here, an hour’s drive away? Isn’t gasoline going to be a huge expense?” asks Alfredo, a neighbor who lives a few yards from the site.
He is concerned that, given their size, the four cisterns on the site will affect the water supply to other houses in the area. “Once they start filling them up, the neighborhood will be without water,” he worries
The project remains stalled as ESEDIP tries to dig itself out of its financial hole. Meanwhile, vandalism and theft of materials threaten to further delay its completion. The growing demand for building materials also means the project (the Ministry of Construction issued building permit 130/2019 for it) must be under round-the-clock surveillance.
“They were selling me cement that I needed to finish my house but I haven’t been able to get it done,” one neighbor says. His source dried up out after security cameras were installed on the site to prevent the ongoing pilfering that consumed huge piles of sand and other aggregates before they could be used for their intended purpose.
The country has seen a huge increase in the cost of P-350 cement, a key material in Cuban building construction. In February the price of a bag rose to over 1,000 pesos on the black market and it has virtually disappeared from the shelves of state-owned stores, where the official price is 165 pesos a bag. Though construction of tourist hotels has not been affected, the shortage has led to many building projects being put on hold.
Meanwhile, progress on a building located near the ZEDM houses, which is destined to be the tallest in Havana, continues apace. Unofficially known as “López-Calleja Tower” in reference to the general in charge of military-run companies in Cuba, “it has not had any delays or labor and material shortages” reports Marcial.
“Hotels are the high priority now. Mariel is old news. Not even the official press talks about the port anymore,” he adds.
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