Are Public Services in Cuba Quasi Private?

by Fernando Ravsberg

Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — President Raul Castro has called on citizens to maintain cities clean in order to avoid the spread of diseases transmitted by mosquitos. He suggested increased discipline and drastic measures against those who do not comply with the established norms.

“This can’t be just another campaign,” he said. It’s a commendable proposal, but it is very hard to implement. Garbage collection services and many other State entities are greatly responsible for the sanitary mess that cities and towns are in.

In a Cuban television program, garbage collection authorities in Havana reported that they have the capacity to pick up garbage every 72 hours, but viewers called in and insisted that, in their place of residence, garbage is sometimes picked up as irregularly as every 15 days.

Garbage collection services receive the largest State budget after public health and education. Despite this, it is one of the most inefficient sectors in the country. One of the reasons for this is the degree of corruption that systematically undermines it.

We previously published the video of the interrogations conducted with several officials who embezzled US $ 1.5 million, pocketing the salaries of inexistent garbage units. The more common practice, however, is to leave garbage uncollected in order to sell the excess fuel.

People are forced to live alongside cockroaches, rats and mosquitos owing to the poor practices of garbage collection entities that offer public services. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

In a neighborhood at the outskirts of Havana, a self-employed man tells me that “I pay the truck people a monthly quota so that they’ll come pick up the garbage regularly and keep the corner my business clean.” What of those who aren’t able to pay? They quite simply have to wait 15 days.

They’re not the only ones charging for public services. The water and sewage companies specialize in the “run-around,” mutually passing on the responsibility for certain jobs until users give up and decide to pay. When this happens, they immediately sort out their differences, the trucks become available and the work gets done.

They behave as though the means and equipment at their disposal were privately owned by the workers and their bosses. There are two tariffs: the official one, in Cuban pesos, and the real one, in Cuban Convertible Pesos. The latter is like a master key that opens the floodgates of the water bureaucracy.

Broken pipes out on the street, however, have no one to look after them and pay the fee, so they continue to flourish and multiply. Half of the water pumped around Havana is lost thanks to these urban wellsprings, which also become the perfect place for mosquitos to reproduce.

Half of the water pumped around Havana is lost because of the city’s chaotic public services. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Granma, Cuba’s major official newspaper, reported that “in connection with drinking water leaks, 76.2 % of the 9,012 reported have been fixed. Of the 4,647 sewage leaks reported, 3,477 have been fixed.”

It’s likely these figures are blown out of proportion so as to “pull the wool” over the eyes of those above, as is often done. If they were true, however, it would be even more irritating, for it would demonstrate that they have the capacity to solve problems and that these are only fixed during government “campaigns.”

Public services are so thoroughly inefficient that it took over a week to fix a gas leak, despite the obvious dangers that entailed. “We only have two trucks for the city and one of them is broken,” one worker explained.

Nothing gets done by public services in Havana today without money changing hands “under the table.” Employing more inspectors isn’t the solution, as these, like mobsters, extort citizens, offering them “protection” from a shower of fines.

It is next to impossible to get a truck to come empty or unclog a drain without paying something under the table. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

On Friday, two men from the electrical company came to my house to check the meter. I let them in and they asked to go up to the roof. I let them do that. Then, they asked to see my receipts for the last two years, to finally tell me they had to inspect my bedroom.

I told them not to waste time because I don’t do anything illegal and that they wouldn’t be able to get a cent out of me. They became irritated and threatened to cut my power, so I kicked them out and complained at the electrical company.

In order for the campaign against the Zika virus not to fizzle out over the next 3 months, as other campaigns have done, many things in Cuba’s public services would have to be changed, particularly in the way they are organized, and, most importantly, in terms of control, which can only be effective if it is exercised by citizens themselves.

Unfortunately, many People’s Power representatives do not behave like the members of a local government but as mere “messengers.” Every time people approach them in search of answers to the community’s problems, they make their heads spin with stories about the “objective and subjective difficulties” faced by the country.

Sewage water flows among homes in some neighborhoods because of a lack of public sewage services. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

This doesn’t happen everywhere, however. Adela, the transsexual elected local representative in Caibarien, tells us they “have had a fair degree of success, considering we presented seven issues to State entities and all have had positive replies.”

She tells us she is the only representative that high officials see, because they fear her. “They know I’m willing to take things to any level,” she tells us, adding, with a smile, that “I’ll do it the easy or the hard way.”