Do All Roads lead to Havana?

By Daniel Valero   (Progreso Semanal)

Cuba’s Central Highway

HAVANA TIMES — Entering or leaving San Serapio in the province of Camaguey is so difficult that sometimes it seems like there are more than 4 kms between this town and the highway. Up until the day she put together her savings and bought a cell phone, Yuneixi Horta was one of the many people here who had to put up with this reality with stoic resignation when she visited her mother and sick grandmother.

In spite of this town having over three thousand inhabitants, when it comes to investment for infrastructure, San Serapio is a community in a disadvantageous position when compared to other urban areas. This is a reality which has determined its almost inexistent telephone coverage, for example. “At one of the most recent accountability meetings with local representatives, the following was said: San Serapio has never been given priority for installing new services nor did it feature in future plans. Even mobile phone coverage is bad, no matter the fact that it is less than 30 kms away from the provincial capital city of Camaguey.

The same country, but…

In Cuba, any investment goes through a complicated process, from the lowest levels of the state apparatus to its inclusion into the national economic plan.

“Even though large scale projects exist which respond to national strategies (such as the Mariel Special Development Zone), a lot of what is being planned needs to stem from the Cuban people’s concerns and needs. One of the main objectives of state accountability meetings is precisely to collect the public’s general opinion and to try and give a response. These responses become complicated a lot of the the time because they depend on investment,” explains the manager of Camaguey’s Provincial Board of Planning and Economy (DPEP).

The country’s lack of resources is one of the main reasons behind this gap between needs and reality, but it isn’t the only one. This same official also believes that there is “an excessive degree of centralization [in Cuba], which converts provinces and municipalities into simple implementers for decisions which have already been made at a central level.” This situation has opened up the doors to privileges which favor some regions at the expense of others.

The facts speak for themselves. Havana is not “the capital of all Cubans”, as living there is prohibited to the majority of citizens on the island by a decree law that was passed in 1997. It was also the direct beneficiary of almost half of the new investments and building projects undertaken in Cuba between 2006 and 2015.

During the aforementioned period, every resident in Havana received four times more the quantity assigned to the rest of their countrymen according to this measure. If this analysis also includes the consignments assigned to Artemisa and Mayabeque, these figures go even further: nearly 60% of the funds for new investments are concentrated in this western area which covers 8,400 km2, which is home to nearly a quarter of the country’s total population.

There are no official stands on this subject, in spite of the fact that the National Assembly of the People’s Power has representatives from all over the country and that these same representatives should be looking out so that resources are distributed in a more rational way.

Bothered by the current state of things, a representative from the Vertientes municipality, in Camaguey, once demanded that several officials from the province travel to the communities from where [on paper] they was elected. Once there, they should have to explain to the residents why the road that communicates them with the nearest town continues in ill repair, even though it is a region which makes large contributions to the economy in rice, sugar cane and other crops. The response didn’t surprise him: “what is obtained from these economic activities goes to the only account in the country, which will then determine its fate.”

For decades, events have taken it upon themselves to reaffirm the old cliche that “Havana is Cuba, and the rest pasture.”

Every region has to undertake an annual delivery plan which includes food to building materials and work force. Therefore, it isn’t strange that the inhabitants living in the place where the factory of a specific product is produced, don’t have the right to consume it.

However, deliveries do need to be met and sent to the capital or any other “priority” place, in following a distribution policy which is often quite arbitrary. For example, Camaguey assigned 30,000 liters of milk per day to different provinces. Two of them, Granma and Holguin, use this milk to make ice cream and other products which are also hard to get a hold of in Camaguey. Something similar happened with the beer and meat deliveries which were sent to Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

Even though the constitutional amendment of 1992 defined the legal status of provinces and municipalities, and the fact that people are standing up for greater autonomy ever since the 6th Cuban Communist party congress (2011), the truth is that in reality this process has come to a standstill or even reversed.

“Just like it has created obstacles for long-term development, centralized planning has failed when it has tried to draw up short term annual plans for all of the country’s territories and every economic activity, down to a neighbor cafe or kiosk,” pointed out analyst Ariel Terrero last March. Attempts to find an alternative to this reality haven’t born results because nobody is sure what path they need to take.

“The pilot decentralization process: the managerial model implemented in Artemisa and Mayabeque provinces, hasn’t even managed “to take off” and it is prolonged year after year, without extending it to the rest of the country. The same thing has happened with the updating  of managerial operations, which has only led to the shutting down of numerous State companies or their conversion into core business units which are subordinated to national offices. Local authorities have no voice or vote throughout this entire process,” the DPEP manager explained. The most worrying aspect of this problem is the fact that state companies are disappearing or undergoing changes to its administrative structure are directly affecting revenue obtained via the Local Contribution.

Yuneixi says it doesn’t really matter who’s responsible. In her case, discontent has a first and last name: phone service so she can communicate with her family in San Serapio, or a bus that lets you travel there without too many problems, or both. However, she knows that none of these dreams lie in her district representative’s hands.

“I’m sure if I lived in Havana, everything would be different,” she speculates. In her case she might be right.



One thought on “Do All Roads lead to Havana?

  • This is a very interesting contribution. I happen to have visited the city of Artemisa fairly recently which is now a provincial capital. Daniel Valero when writing of Mayabeque and Artemisa writes that:
    “nearly 60% of the funds for new investments are concentrated in this western area”
    He doesn’t say whether he is including the much promoted development at Mariel – which was funded with 5 billion dollars of Brazilian money under the ‘Lulu’ administration and opened jointly by Raul Castro Ruz and Dilma Rouseff and is in the Province of Artemisa.
    However to describe what I observed in Artemisa. Upon entering the city from the east, there is an avenue of massive square concrete blocks each decorated individually in memory of those from Artemisa who participated in the Moncado Barracks failed raid of July 26, 1953. The Carreterra Central then divides with the original road serving the eastbound traffic and another parallel road serving the westbound traffic through the length of the city. In the fork between the two there is a new very substantial housing development of several dozen units. This is not for the citizens of Artemisa, but for MININT employees as there is now a very substantial MININT centre in the city operated I was told by people carefully selected from Santiago de Cuba, not by staff selected locally.
    Downtown, the main south-north road has been blocked off for four blocks and converted into a pedestrian precinct. The formerly decrepit buildings have all been restored and up-graded with lots of shops of new shops and individual cafes for coffee, chocolate and milk products. This development is now designated as the boulevard – the police are in evidence. But whereas the usual price for a coffee in the two local El Rapido cafes was 25 pesos, they mysteriously ceased supplying coffee and the new cafeteria charged 40 pesos – but with a small bob-bon on the saucer.
    As the new posh frontage shops are only selling the same stuff (or less) as before the development, the actual benefits to the people of the city are dubious, but a lot of money has been spent.

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