What Was the Havana Metro? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)
Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)

Conceived 30 years ago, it would have been the largest civil engineering project in Cuba, but it sank after Perestroika.

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana | June 17, 2014

It’s morning rush hour at the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor bus stop, a busy node in the city of Havana. Thousands of people rush to work, school, the office, or run errands. New bus routes, as well as signaling changes on the existing road network, have tried to relieve the headaches involved in mass transit in our country.

Thirty years ago, when the island was a satellite of the USSR, and other foreign capital was virtually nonexistent, an ambitious rapid transit project was conceived for the Cuban capital with a metro  system as the centerpiece. The civil engineer Felix C., today employed by a Cuban-Foreign construction equipment company, related his experiences working for the City of Havana Executive Group (GEMCH), the company then in charge of what was called “the work of the century.”

“I came here after I graduated, in the mid-eighties,” he said. “GEMCH already existed at the beginning of the decade and several projects for the metro came out of CUJAE (Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio Echeverria) — the technical branch of the University of Havana. Several of us were even sent to Eastern European countries to study and participate in works of this type already being implemented.

During those years, in fact, everything seemed to be in place to build the metro in Havana. A series of articles published in the magazine Technical Youth in August, September and October of 1982, expounded in a straightforward way not only on the necessity, but also on the possibility that Havana could count on this type of transport. Enthusiasm was great. At that time relations with the USSR looked stronger than ever, and it was considered significant that the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere would have its own metro system.

In those years, public opinion about transit in Cuba was already very negative, although Soviet subsidies of oil allowed an average of 30,000 daily bus trips and a number of routes greatly superior to today, some arriving less than a minute apart, according to reports from a former Transport Ministry official. “If with all this service they couldn’t cope, the obvious solution was a metro,” he said.

It was considered significant that the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere would have its own metro

So a huge work team was put together and it started the engineering-geological studies that would confirm the technical viability of the project. The project objectives were developed, including those of the preliminary design phase, which would include stations such as Central Park, “which would be the deepest, because there the line would cross the bay to the east side of the city,” the engineer Felix C. remembers.

Stations were planned for several points in the city, one of them near the hill of the University in Vededo, and a line running to the south, under Rancho Boyeros Avenue. Today, it all is part of an almost forgotten myth. “Nobody remembers anything about this project,” says Felix. The authority charged with administering the Havana Metro was located in an enormous building which would also serve as a station, which was never built, on the land where the EJT Market is on Tulipan Street.

“I was working for GEMCH between 1984 and 1988,” said the old engineer. “In those tunnels was where I got my lung disease, and so I had to leave. Although by the time I left my job it was all over, all that remained of the initially planned lines were the bus routes.” He is referring to the infamous “camels” which emerged as a response to the severe crisis that begin with the collapse of the USSR, when all projects, great and small, failed.

Felix has done relatively well. In 2012, Ana A. Alpizar filmed a short, “Without Metro,” a reunion of many of the workers on that project who remembered how they had to reorient their professional plans with the end of those construction plans. Not all of them were lucky enough to find new positions.

Perhaps the old specialist is right to forget a project of such magnitude. The subway tunnels, in any case, remain buried in the past. The oldest professors in the Civil Engineering Department of Havana Technical University say this is true: the plans have been lost and the theses disappeared.

Today, nobody remembers this great project that would have solved the transport problem in the capital. The government’s priorities have changed and no foreign power is willing to invest in an extremely costly work in a country as impoverished as Cuba.