Fabian Flores (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — Hundreds of National Revolutionary Policy (PNR) Police officers were mobilized with brooms and dustpans to clean up the garbage and rubble-strewn streets of the capital, in response to the prolonged garbage collection crisis the city has been facing.
The overall-clad law and order officials, shoveling and transporting refuse in the capital, was a truly unusual New Year’s eve spectacle worthy of a film, as the great Rolando Laserie might have said.
The work was carried out this past December 31 in the neighborhood of Centro Habana (one of the most critical areas in terms of accumulated garbage and collapsed buildings) and involved officers and superiors from police units of Havana’s 15 municipalities, as well as workers and students under PNR headquarters.
The operation also saw the participation of representatives of Havana’s dysfunctional Garbage Collection Service and neighborhood residents. According to the provincial press, it was conducted from 7 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon down Dragones, Aguila, Neptune, Consulado and Industria streets, as well as in the neighborhoods of Cayo Hueso and Los Sitios.
Rolling Up Sleeves
“They rolled up their sleeves and went after the garbage,” the enthusiastic article published by the provincial newspaper Tribuna de la Habana reported, telling us that 4,200 square meters of streets, 14 parks and fields were cleaned up and 163 cubic meters of solid waste collected.
This is a modest contribution to the environmental cleanliness of a city that produces around 17 thousand cubic meters of garbage (between 1 and 2 thousand per municipality, on average) every day.
Though the initiative was officially presented as way of celebrating the 56th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and the founding of the PNR in a “different manner,” the truth is that it was a military response to one of the most pressing problems facing the country today.
The problem is exacerbated by rampant corruption and the frequent misappropriation of State resources that take place within Havana’s Garbage Collection Services, practices that have caused millions in losses and resulted in criminal proceedings against 60 managers and employees responsible for collecting garbage around the capital.
This was identified as a serious problem during sessions of the National Assembly of the People’s Power this past December. The urgent need to collect garbage efficiently, parliamentary members concluded, is no longer exclusively Havana’s problem. Numerous cities in the interior also have hygiene issues and are seeing the proliferation of small garbage dumps, the arbitrary handling of waste, inadequate infrastructure and unstable garbage collection services.
Lack of Direction
The debacle facing Havana’s Garbage Collection Services have left the State institution practically without qualified leadership.
At the beginning of December, in the midst of this crisis, Jose Luis Toledo Alvarez, Vice-Chair of Havana’s Provincial Administrative Council, declared that a process aimed at hiring capable personnel for the sector was underway.
The process involves interviews with former officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and Ministry of the Interior (MININT) who are being considered for management and other positions in the sector.
The workforce deficit has also been addressed through the hiring of prison inmates, some of whom are permitted to work at night. According to Toledo, there are in fact 40 prison inmates collecting waste in the municipality of Centro Habana on a permanent basis.
Other logistical shortcomings add to the problem. Of the 62 garbage collection trucks the city has, only 48 belong to the Hygiene Unit. Of these, 15 are currently out of circulation and the 33 remaining vehicles offer an unreliable service owing to flats, broken headlights and other damage.
The situation reached such an alarming extreme that the management of Garbage Collection Services was forced to rent out means of transportation from other companies and entities in the province and use these in the sanitation of streets and neighbors (a process involving shovels and plastic containers), in the night and early morning.
It is no accident the PNR chose Centro Habana for its “clean-up initiative.” With over 163,700 inhabitants living in an area of five square kilometers, the municipality is the most densely populated area in Havana.
The problems caused by this high population density, housing issues and high levels of delinquency are exacerbated by the rapid deterioration of the area’s buildings, which add to the heaps of rubble seen throughout the municipality.
According to official figures, Centro Habana comprises 46,277 homes, 22,712 of which are in poor condition and 4,198 are reported to be in critical state. A total of 230 buildings collapse every year within the municipality.