By Carlos Cabrera Perez (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — The return of former Cuban government spy Fernando Gonzalez Llort and the crisis in Venezuela and the Ukraine have eclipsed the tragic news of the partial building collapse that took place at Havana’s central bus terminal, injuring two women (one of whom suffered a cranial fracture and is currently in serious condition).
In September and November of last year, three people died in Havana as a result of the collapse of their homes caused by intense rains. One of the victims lived in the former premises of the Pedro Maria Rodriguez primary school, located in the neighborhood of La Vibora, while the other two lived in Centro Habana.
This past Monday, we heard news of the partial collapse of a building located on 308 Oquendo Street, Centro Habana, an incident which left more than 600 tenants homeless. The building had been declared in dangerous condition in 1988.
The structural collapse which took place at the bus terminal confirms the ruinous state of Havana’s buildings, including those housing vital public service providers. The city’s main bus terminal, an example of modernist architecture, was opened in 1951.
Signs of Modernity
The Cuban republic so derided by the Castro regime was capable of building not only a central, nationwide highway in a mere four years at the close of the 1920s but also the National Bus Terminal, which was considered the second one of its type in the world, second only to the one in Washington, DC.
Such facts confirm Cuba’s former vocation for modernity and its socio-cultural identification with the United States, no matter how much it pains Cuban folk musician Silvio Rodriguez to accept this.
The deplorable condition of most of Havana’s building today makes any stroll around the city a chilling experience. There are ruins among old as well as modern residences: the neighborhood of Alamar, to the east of the city, today resembles the old town owing to leaks in most of its buildings caused by structural defects. Around 97 thousand people live in this neighborhood.
The lack of proper and regular maintenance, the modification of the homes’ internal structures (carried out to house additional tenants), the transformation of the buildings’ supportive structures and the government’s indifference towards the state of Havana’s residences do not paint a very promising picture of the city’s future.
If the Cuban government had devoted 5 percent of what it invested effectively in new constructions to maintain and conserve Havana’s buildings, the situation would not be as serious. This problem is no longer limited to the capital – it is generalized and provincial governments do not have the resources needed to undertake the repairs demanded by the properties.
Backs Turned On Havana
If we go over the records, we’ll see that Fidel Castro’s first plans for developing tourism excluded Havana and prioritized destinations at beaches and keys, in search of superficial tourists who content themselves with sunny beaches. This was also aimed at avoiding the potential “ideological contamination” of Cubans, who were denied access to the hotels and beaches of their own county until Raul Castro did away with that absurd apartheid recently.
It was only when tourists began to show an interest in visiting Havana and touring its once magical places, such as the Tropicana cabaret, the Floridita, Bodeguita del Medio and Sloppy Joe bars and others, that authorities reacted and wholeheartedly supported the restoration efforts of city historian Eusebio Leal and his team – which were few and far between until that point.
At that point, however, it was very difficult to find good masons, welders, carpenters and other tradespeople skilled in the construction and restoration of buildings (activities that thrive and enjoy much social recognition around the world).
In fact, if any Cuban or visitor approaches the buildings in the residential neighborhood of Miramar, today being sold by real estate agencies to anyone who can afford their prices (prohibitive for Cuban workers), they will see the repair work is shoddy and that much has to be spent in maintaining and/or improving these properties.
Most of Havana’s recently-built hotels, such as the 5th Avenue Hotel and the Melia Cohiba, experience problems stemming from poor construction work and the use of cheap insulation, doors and windows. In the case of the first hotel, terraces and the underground parking lot floods every time there are intense rains.
All of these poor investments have been possible thanks to the sacrifices made by the Cuban people, without ever consulting citizens on such questions as whether they agreed that the coast in Miramar, for instance, should have been besmirched by that glass abomination known as the Hotel Panorama, whose air-conditioning expenses are most likely secret.
Many things about pre-revolutionary Havana can be criticized, but its architecture has been praised around the world by experts and impartial visitors who, on discovering such sites as the pillar less roof of the old Club Nautico, the Galician Cultural Center, the city Zoo and 5th Avenue, commend the architects and politicians responsible for these urban treasures.
What made Havana lose this impulse? The political imposition of a strategy based on the distribution of poverty, disguised with a vacuous and sterile spiel, which damaged the Cuban capital and its residents beyond imagination.
Bringing young peasants to Havana so they could pursue studies there was a just measure, but there was really no need to lodge them in homes in Miramar, which were destroyed by this generous scholarship program.
Perversion and Madness
Taking in Chileans who were fleeing Pinochet’s dictatorship was a just decision, but they should not have been allowed to destroy part of the FOCSA Hotel and the Sierra Maestra buildings in Miramar.
Bringing Venezuelans to Havana to perform operations on them for cataracts and other conditions was a means of buying votes for Chavez’ movement, but these patients should not have been allowed to tear apart the Las Praderas Hotel and other facilities.
The people of Havana would have many reasons to feel moderately proud of their city. The culture of poverty imposed by the Castro regime not only deprived them of a better life; it also condemned them to live in a city that has deteriorated in the course of years to such a degree that the director of Conducta (“Conduct”), the latest Cuban film hit, did not even have to worry about set design.
The state of Havana today is such that no adjectives could describe it. One need only set up a camera at any street corner to capture the daily horrors of a city that, instead of being young and full of energy (like the women who suffered an accident at the bus terminal), is a picture of the perversion and madness of the Cuban government, set on razing it to the ground.