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Reports from Cuba: Havana, Between Filth and Social Indiscipline

By Ivan Garcia:

Havana, Between Filth and Social Indiscipline

My beautiful picture

Although a sputtering Russian-made truck and its crew passed through the Sevillano neighborhood picking up trash and garbage in the streets the night before, debris had once again accumulated on the street corners by morning.

“It never ends. At dawn every morning we go through areas of Diez de Octubre picking up trash. We take tons of waste to the dump, but a little later the street corners are overflowing with junk again,” says Orlando, a 35-year-old sanitation worker.

Directly facing the Plaza Roja in the heart of the Havana neighborhood of La Víbora, there is an unoccupied building where neighbors dump significant quantities of trash. Every so often large dump trucks and a bulldozer carry off the piles of debris. A few days later the building is once again filled with refuse and discarded objects.

The garbage trucks cannot always make their rounds. The drivers do what they can with the aging fleet. Many of the vehicles remain idle due to a lack of spare parts. Widespread indifference leads some people to steal the wheels off the trash containers to make pushcarts. Or for fun, gangs of youths turn trashcans over into the streets.

Public health and epidemiological officials launch media campaigns in an effort to stem the illegal dumping, but they have little effect.

“Havana as a city is extremely vulnerable to diseases associated with a lack of cleanliness. Unhealthy conditions as well as rats, mice, mosquitoes as well as poor water treatment can lead to skin infections, cholera and dengue fever,” says a specialist.

In spite of some outbreaks of dengue fever and cholera, Havana has not seen large-scale epidemics — at least not yet — even though dengue fever has reached almost epidemic proportions.

Because potable water is not available 24 hours a day, a large segment of the population is forced to store water in containers, and not always in the most hygienic or careful way. As a result mosquito larvae carrying hemorrhagic dengue fever can be difficult to eliminate.

“Ending the the cycle of the dengue epidemic has so far proved to be impossible. As long as current living conditions in Cuba persist, trying to eradicate dengue is like tilting at windmills,” says the head of a brigade which fumigates houses in an attempt to prevent the illness.

A shortage of trash bins means pedestrians often throw peanut wrappers, beer cans and other pieces of trash into the street. Because there are fewer public restrooms — especially in bars, cafes and nightclubs — at night many people urinate or defecate in public thoroughfares, on street corners or in building stairways.

Public apathy and societal discontent among certain segments of the population manifest themselves in acts of petty vandalism towards public telephones, automatic teller machines and city buses.

The filth and stench has turned the capital into the dirtiest city on the island. A shortage of trashcans and public idleness have caused the streets to overflow with refuse and debris.

“If the accumulation of dirt and poor water treatment continue, an epidemic of huge proportions could be unleashed in Havana in the near future,” warns an epidemiologist.

Iván García

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