For a Car Free Havana

Erasmo Calzadilla

illustration by Manuel Herrera

HAVANA TIMES — At the beginning of this year, Cuba took another important step towards “normality.” Cubans can now approach a State dealership and buy a car with nothing other than a wad of bills. The problem now is the prohibitive prices.

People were very upset about this – some because they had actually hoped to be able to buy a car, others out of sheer class sympathies.

I had expected people who identify with capitalism or the Right to protest. What surprised me was the reaction of the Left.

My honest father, a retired military officer, loyal to the revolution and its leaders, my dear grandmother, a woman from the countryside who never leaves her neighborhood, my mother, a working-class woman fully identified with the system, all of them were outraged. They believe some SOB is responsible for the decision that’s made everyone so upset.

But it wasn’t just common folk. I also saw intellectuals from the Left opposition fairly ticked off.

Automobiles are already causing severe damage around the world: we have acid rains which hasten desertification processes, tons of scrap metal and nowhere to put it, heavy metals harmful to life, ozone-depleting substances, a whole carnival of greenhouse gases, carcinogenic particles spewed into the atmosphere by millions of exhaust pipes, oil contamination of lands and aquifers, the exhaustion of non-renewable resources, the consumption of enormous quantities of oxygen and water, high noise levels, etc., etc.

What’s more, automobiles are slowly devouring the world we live in (1), (2). In its unstoppable advance, paved roads cover up green areas, sidewalks and gardens. Distances are growing and traffic jams becoming more frequent. The air is becoming harder to breathe, accidents are more and more common and the cultural lives of entire neighborhoods are languishing or dying.

Back to Havana

The use of automobiles in Cuba has doubled since Venezuelan oil began to be imported into the country. We don’t need another batch of cars to come into circulation: what we have is disagreeable enough for me.

The avenues I once enjoyed strolling across, like the legendary 23rd St., constantly smell of burnt fuel these days. Neptuno, lined with so many shops, has become a disgusting, congested thoroughfare. Infanta is a disaster.

A study about Havana’s air quality has confirmed what our noses were already telling us: the city’s atmospheric contamination levels are sky-high and reach extreme values in neighborhoods near the city center.

As a result of this, the pH of rainwater has been gradually decreasing, and there are places where values below 5 are the norm (3).

Traffic accidents are now the fifth cause of death in the country (4). Last year alone, around 500 hundred people lost their lives on the road. It is logical to assume that “number” will grow when more vehicles come into circulation.

Automobiles can also prove deadly in subtler ways. Cancer is sending more and more Cubans to the cemetery. The number of cancer-related deaths is increasing every year (5). ¿Could this have anything to do with the increase in automobile use brought about by Cuba’s good relations with Venezuela?

I don’t know of any study that makes this connection. What has been proven is that these toxic emissions that abound in any avenue in Havana, in addition to being harmful to our lungs, contain known carcinogens (1).

But let us stay on the trail of the killer crab: a recent study conducted at urban organic farms in Cuba’s central region revealed that vegetables contained high concentrations of heavy metals, above or close to the limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

All heavy metals are toxic and some are powerful carcinogens. Their presence in the soil and water is closely linked to automobile use (6). We can expect urban farms in the capital to be faring much worse.

If the automobile invasion finally takes place, if everyone who’s gone to work abroad, sportspeople who compete in international events, businesspeople who’ve amassed fortunes, if anyone able to put together a few thousand dollars were to buy a car, then, as the saying goes, we’ll be going from bad to worse.

We’ll be seeing more smog, more acid rain, fewer green areas, more related diseases, more accidents, heaps of car batteries spilling lead and acid on street corners, the dump on 100th avenue transformed into a huge pile of scrap metal and tires (supposing they will not be left in open fields, as is the case now).

The city would then have to invest a good part of the resources it lacks trying to fix the extremely serious problems brought about by a minority (2).

Because of all this, I want to sincerely congratulate the intelligent and daring person who set such prohibitive car prices. I only hope that, whoever they are, they don’t own a car themselves.

  1. El automóvil devora la ciudad, Jose Santamarta, Director of World Watch, Ambiente y Sociedad journal.

  1. La ideología social del automóvil, Andre Gorz.

  1. Data on Havana’s critical air quality can be found in the report drawn up by Geocuba: Evaluación del medio ambiente cubano; Chapter 2. Pg. 35.

  1. Cuba: 1.5 daily deaths caused by traffick accidents during the summer, Cafe Fuerte, September 18, 2013.

  1. El cáncer es la mayor causa de muerte en Cuba (“Cancer is the Number One Cause of Death in Cuba”), Cafe Fuerte, 6 junio, 2013.

  1. For more information about heavy metals in urban farms, see: Contribución a la Gestión ambiental en el contexto de las producciones agrícolas urbanas en la ciudad de Santa Clara (“On Environmental Management for Urban Farms in Santa Clara”)  For some strange reason, this important study hasn’t been conducted in other provinces, or it has been conducted and its results have not been published.

3 thoughts on “For a Car Free Havana

  • Cars kill. Ecologists who are opposed to private cars are not opposed do ambulances.

    Cars are death. They also mean fewer people cycling and walking.

  • Rising acidity of rain in Havana is not caused by cars. Rain forms high in the sky, miles away. The largest source of air pollution in Cuba is the burning of heavy Cuban oil to generate electricity. These ancient Russian built plants have no pollution controls. They pour tonnes of sulphur dioxides high into the air.

  • Should you or a loved one, God forbid, need to be rushed to a hospital for a medical emergency, you will be glad for cars and paved roads. Part of the problem in Havana is 90% of the cars are clunkers that burn oil and smoke like chimneys. It is not as bad as you think, Erasmo.

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