The Shipwreck of Havana
One hour before noon, the bus stops on Calzada 10 de Octubre are flooded with irritated people who want to transfer to other neighborhoods in the capital.
Hundreds of old cars reconverted into collective taxis full of passengers roll in the direction of Vedado or Centro Habana. The autumn heat and sense of urgency cause those waiting to despair.
Public transport continues to be a popular subject in a magical and flirtatious city, which, in spite of its grime and ruins, will be 496 years old on November 16.
Orestes, a bus inspector, receives a spout of critical resentment from citizens who are disgusted with the precarious urban transport.
“I’m the one who has to take the ass-kicking. The directors travel in cars. But I’m on the street having to put up with people’s complaints. The worst part isn’t the poor management of the transport, it’s that you can’t see a short- or long-term solution,” he says.
In a city of two and a half million people, where only one percent own a private auto, there is no Metro and the suburban trains barely function, public bus service is vitally important.
Yoel, an employ of the sector, says that “the demand is double the number of passengers transported every day. The ideal would be to have an allotment of 1,700 to 2,000 buses. But there are barely 670 in circulation. There is a master plan out to 2020 to improve service, but I don’t think it will solve very much. In addition to the deficit in buses, there is the problem of the poor state of the streets and avenues, which cause breakdowns in the city bus service. And the vandalism of Havanans who shred the buses, destroy the seats or break the windows with stones. Ninety-eight buses were out of service because of acts of vandalism.”
Traveling at rush hour on a bus in the capital is an Indiana Jones adventure. Fights, pickpockets and deranged sexual advances. People with their nerves on the point of exploding at the least touch.
Some day they’ll have to erect a monument to the old cars that serve as taxis in the city. For the average worker, making a round trip by taxi costs one day’s wages.
But the cyclical crisis of urban transport has converted the taxis into a remedy. They carry 200,000 people daily, although not always under good conditions. Of the more than 12,000 private cars for rent in Havana, half of them don’t have the required technical specifications.
“The owners put them to work even without painting them or covering the roof. With what they earn they improve them,” says Renán, who owns an old 1955 Ford.
And yes, they all have disk players that they keep on high volume, which assault the passengers with timba or reggaeton music.
But the talkative Cubanos convert them into a permanent chronicle and a rostrum where people unload their disappointment at the state of things and the appalling government management.
Transportation is only one among many problems suffered by Havanans. The list of things that cause stress is long, and solutions are nowhere to be seen. There is a clamorous need for housing.
Just ask Zaida. She’s 23 years old and lives in a state hostel in the department of Miraflores, at the south of the city. “My house fell down after a hurricane. I lost count of the letters and futile steps I took to have access to housing. Everything remained only as promises and lies on the part of the State agencies. Staying in a hostel means living at the limit; it’s like a prison. They give you a rough time for anything. Here a simple discussion can become a matter of blood.”
In Havana, more than 3,000 nuclear families live in propped up buildings in danger of collapse. According to figures from the last Census of Population and Housing, more than 40,000 domiciles in the province are evaluated as being in grave condition. Seventy percent of these houses require total demolition.
Add to this the precarious living situation in more than 10,000 tenements of different types, the existence of 109 “transient communities” — that is, homeless shelters — where 3,285 nuclear families who have lost their homes or fear a collapse are sheltering, as well as 20,644 housing units in unhealthy neighborhoods and precarious places.
Before Fidel Castro came to power, there were two unhealthy neighborhoods in the capital: Las Yaguas y Llega y Pon. [ed. note: notorious shantytowns in Havana]. Now there are around 60. To maintain and repair housing in the capital, the Government dedicates only 86 million pesos ($3.5 million US).
This figure contrasts with the more than one billion dollars that is being invested in the construction of eight golf courses.
While a large segment of people must live under the same roof with three and even four different generations, more than 50 percent of the potable water is lost through breaks in the hydraulic system.
The Regime only refurbishes or constructs buildings in the tourist sector or the State institutions. Like the repairs of the Theater of Havana and the National Capitol: according to engineers in charge of the works, the cost will exceed 200 million dollars.
In the ancient Chamber, where the political representatives of the Republic debate, the monotone Communist parliament is expected to begin its session at the end of 2016, if it is ready on time.
Visually, some 90 percent of Havana has an architectural platform similar to the one of 1959. Only older and more neglected. It’s not hard to figure out who’s guilty.
Translated by Regina Anavy