Cleaning Old Havana’s Streets is Honest Work

Por Ivett de las Mercedes

Alejandro Vazquez on a coffee break.

HAVANA TIMES – Solid waste is a serious problem in Cuba because of its direct impact on hygiene in the area. This situation is getting worse in Havana as it is the country’s most heavily populated province.

Scarce resources: tanks, garbage containers, fuel, collection trucks, combined with a lack of civic awareness make our capital a dump. Alejandro Vazquez, 47, has been working as a street cleaner in Old Havana for six years, a profession that not everyone is brave enough to take on.

HT: The Communal Services Company is responsible for different things, including garbage collection, sweeping streets, disinfecting and thoroughly cleaning the city. How did you begin working in this field?

Alejandro Vazquez: I used to work as a builder beforehand. I had to stop because the cement was hurting my hands. A friend told me that they were looking for street cleaners and I didn’t think twice. I went straight to the Old Havana Communal Services office and passed the probation period. I was hired straight after. There are twelve of us cleaners, some find it really hard to bear this work, it’s very demanding. I could have asked to move to another municipality, there are always shortages of staff, but I live just a few blocks away from where I clean so that’s a great advantage for me. 

HT: Do you believe that Old Havana residents have bad hygiene habits?

AV: This job has taught me to be patient. There are many times that I finish cleaning an area and then someone throws a piece of paper or a soda can onto the street, or someone throws a whole bag of garbage from their balcony which bursts when it hits the ground. It would be great if everyone were aware that keeping the city clean is everyone’s duty. Some people are educated and aware, but then there are others who aren’t.  The fact that our young people today are more educated is relative, many of them aren’t interested in keeping our streets clean or not. The elderly are the most aware and they normally throw garbage away in bins.

The majority of the residents around here know me already. Sometimes, when the garbage collection truck doesn’t come, some of them give me their bags of garbage, which I don’t agree with because it isn’t my job to collect this kind of garbage, but I do them the favor anyway because at the end of the day I do everything I can to make sure flies don’t invade our streets. The same thing happens with animal feces. If I don’t pick them up then flies sit on them and so begins a vicious cycle of illness.

HT: Did you ever imagine that you would be cleaning the streets as your job?

AV: No, never. I used to sometimes walk by the Cathedral and I would watch the sweepers, I felt sorry for them. But, need makes you do anything, I have a family to support. You don’t always find the job that you want, this is one of the most exhausting, not only because of the physical effort it requires but also because you have to argue with people, sometimes you can run into trouble, people are very violent and they don’t care about causing a scene. 

HT: How did you feel the first days you held a broom in your hand?

AV: Honestly, I was really sad because society has a lot of prejudice against cleaning and hygiene workers in general. I asked myself what my children or friends would say if they saw me.  I tried to go out in the early morning, I had cleaned most of the streets by 6 AM, but me rushing meant that I left bits of garbage behind and sometimes my supervisor had to call me and call me out, so I decided to accept the fact that my job is just like any other, I earn an honest living. My children are very proud of me, as is my wife.

Garbage collection in a rural area.

HT: How much do you earn a month?

AV: Set areas have their price. I have to clean seven streets every day. If somebody is sick, I can cover their area and earn a little extra, but I end up very tired and it isn’t worth it to make a few more pesos. In the afternoon, you have to always go over streets you’ve already cleaned, people have nearly always left more garbage behind. I only have one day off a week, Tuesdays. I earn 580 or 590 pesos per month [around 23 USD). It’s not very much for everything we expose ourselves to, there are lots of health risks for us if we don’t take safety precautions.

HT: Are you given work materials?

AV: We are given one overall, it has to last us a good while because it’s very hard to get hold of another one, the same thing goes for boots and gloves. We get a personal hygiene basket every five or six months, it’s normally just some soap, not much else really. The cart I use to collect garbage is my own, nobody else touches it. If my broom breaks or the cart, I have to get them fixed. I try not to eat anything at cafes, until I get home and can wash my hands properly. We don’t get lunch.

HT: Have you come across anything interesting while you were sweeping?

AV: Well, I found $20 dollars once, some watches which I took to get repaired and sold afterwards. I also sell plastic water or soft drinks bottles. I take beer bottles to a friend who pays me for them.

HT: What is the hardest thing about sweeping the streets in your opinion?

AV: The early mornings, I have to leave really early to avoid getting caught in the sun, which exhausts me even more.

HT: Are you happy with what you do?

AV: I feel useful. I have an honest job.

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6 thoughts on “Cleaning Old Havana’s Streets is Honest Work

  • Obviously “Cuban” Clyde didn’t visit Mariela or La Lisa or look at the various rivers. If he had visited the Russian planned Alamar, he would have found lots of garbage littering the streets, on the other hand Siboney the district which includes the Castro compound (Google Earth 5 ta D Havana) is kept spotless. Whereas the tourist beaches of Varadero are maintained, the public playas lying to the west of Havana are littered with garbage and indeed the swimming pool at Playa Baracoa is more than half full of garbage.

  • Havana before 59! A beautiful, clean, elegant city, now it’s just a pig’s pen! Gracias Fidel.

  • We recently traveled to Cuba (from Florida) . The area of Havana was fairly clean. Yes , there was some animal feces but it is to be expected as the Cuban people have their pets. The side streets were in disrepair but the main thoroughfares were well kept.
    The streets near the port where the cruise ships are located were very clean. The area is always busy and the bars / shops that we frequented were amazingly well kept.
    We wish to thank everyone for their hospitality and would highly recommend visiting Cuba with the intention of helping the Cuban people.
    We brought toiletries , school supplies and toys which we gave as gifts. When one travels , be an ambassador of your country. The Cuban people are warm and welcoming. Respect their country and do your best to help keep it clean.

  • Havana is such a dirty mess that is unbelievable. I return after few years and I was in shock, everything is falling apart and it seems like nobody cares.
    I have seen before my eyes the destruction of a beautiful city I remember the Havana of the 70’s and it feels like it was another city.
    Shame on this comunist people.

  • Congratulations Alejandro on doing a good honest job which benefits everyone.

  • I think that Cuba is not spending enough on public works and on repairs of streets and sewers it used to be such a clean city and all its neighborhoods proud and looking good seems since the revolution took over nobody gives a damn whst happens anymore but there are some that do why can’t the government put all those people to work paying them a wage they can feel they are working for something worthwhile they need to have the people on the good side not against them

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