Cuba’s Technocrats Are Looking North

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Looking North. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, April 6 — Scientists have taken note of a world problem: the unequal development of geographical space.  It is a historical characteristic of capitalism, but accentuated over the last 30 years by the marked capacity demonstrated by flows of capital to favor or exclude territories and societies.

The result is that the capacity of a person to end up having a decent life depends not only on their location in classist, gender-structured or ethnic hierarchies, but also on the geographical place where they were born and developed.

Geographers represent this as a sequence of bright and dark areas.  This being the case, when applied to the island of Cuba — currently— it would reveal a large dark space sprinkled with small luminous dots that make up a few dozen active tourism centers and some mining areas.  In its northern area, one would find a sort of elongated incandescent bulb whose filaments located in Havana.

Coastal Strip Pegged for Development

This involves the coastal strip of higher real estate values that begins at the port town of Mariel and ends at the Varadero tourist resort.  Within this area is concentrated the nation’s principal industrial and service establishments, the most sophisticated research centers, the most qualified human resources, the best universities, more than half of all tourism received by the island and incomparable environmental wealth.

Of course this area also contains a city that, despite its deterioration, continues to be the most elegant and historically dense city in the Caribbean, and which is unquestionably one of the leaders on the continent.

The Mariel-Havana-Varadero strip has another peculiarity: it is the closest zone to the southern United States, the region that increasing controls economic ties with Latin America and the Caribbean.  Though its promoters deny it, they will attempt to insert into that dynamic when the restrictions contained in the entangled and counterproductive embargo/blockade disappear.

It’s evident that the strip is experiencing accelerated investment processes that inevitably look towards the north.  Along a nearly 125 mile long strip, contemplated is the building of several hotels or commercial real estate complexes (in Monte Barreto, Tarará, Jibacoa, Carboneras), some ten marinas and a similar number of golf courses.

For example, Jibacoa — from the mythical Peñon del Fraile to the Arroyo Bermejo seashore — will become a beach resort with a marina and a golf course that will surround the Via Blanca highway in that point – all under a Canadian consortium.

Photo: Caridad

Meanwhile a Dutch consortium is determined to return the seaside village of Tarara into an exclusively residential district, quite distinct from its previous social uses as a school and a convalescence center.

Port of Mariel to Play Major Role

The other emblematic investment is the rehabilitation of the famous port of Mariel as a deep water installation with a system of warehouses, a base for containers and its own road system.  This has been announced as an $800 million (USD) development, $300 million of which has been provided by Brazil.

According to various interpretations — which always contain a significant dose of speculation given the lack of transparency on the part of those executing the plans — this port is being geared up to be a logistical base for oil exploitation in the Cuban portion of the Gulf of Mexico as well as a complement to the port system in the southern United States (limited by stricter environmental regulations).

Some analysts have suggested the probable opening of a strip of second and third generation maquiladoras from Artemisa to Mariel, a plan for the exploitation of the area’s cheap and well-educated workforce.  I might point out in passing that this is already contemplated in the economic strategy suggested in the reform “Guidelines” for the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party to be held later this month.

The port of Mariel will be one of the destinies of “dirty” activities now in the port of Havana.  Like five centuries ago, the port of Havana has returned as the basis for “building” the city, though now as a port of call for cruise ships that would be part of a triangle having Tampa and Miami as its two other vertexes.

Such activity is currently incompatible with Havana Bay’s still high levels of pollution and with the traffic of goods at the level that exist today.  The same can be said for the city’s ancient thermoelectric plant, whose functions will be transferred to the second city on the strip, Matanzas (and even farther, with Havana’s foul-smelling and emblematic oil refinery to be replaced by the new plant in Cienfuegos).

Havana “A” and Havana “B”

Old Havana St. Photo: Irina Echarry

Of course all this implies new challenges to the city of Havana itself, for example the deepening of its traditional fragmentation between “City A” and another “City B.”  The first one is a dynamic strip — no more than one mile off the coast — beginning in Old Havana and ending in Santa Fe.  Here is concentrated the most important economic activities, the country’s political and economic command centers, the most educated population and a formidable landscape (this is the Havana of museums, hotels, restaurants and the monumental promenades of Forestier).

It is very different from the other Havana, the one of polluting industries and the blocks of mediocre housing – places where no one goes for a walk and that the tourist rarely visits.  It is a Havana that continues to swallow the negative externalities of City A (similar to the country’s unequal regional development) being at the front door and with many migrants from other provinces who have begun to build marginal communities.  These are the same communities that official Cuban sociology describes using the amicable adjective of “unhealthy.”

Another challenge, probably even more significant, is that the city — in terms of it being the center of the provision of goods and services for the whole strip in its new relationship with the world capitalist market — will be required to come closer together with its intimate competitors (particularly Miami), which have dominant positions in the regional scenario.  Under such conditions, this rapprochement will be translated into subordination within complex urban cross-borders.

An issue that deserves separate discussion due to its importance and weight, but which I am bringing up now only to note, is that when one speaks of border relationships of this nature, one is equally speaking of opportunities and problems.  The only good plan is the one that maximizes the first ones and diminishes the second ones.  To ignore this dilemma is never a good alternative.

It is in this way that Cuban managerial technocracy — civil and military — is preparing their entry into the world of big business.  Configuring a “Cuba A” at the service of an economic order that is no longer in the east as with the extinct COMECON, nor in the south as with ALBA, which no one seriously believes in except when it involves participating in Venezuelan oil surpluses.

It is as if history wanted to charge the price for a non-consensual transgression…as if the new insular strategists in their shameful bourgeois conversion wanted to reincarnate in the image of Madame Isabel de Bobadilla, whose form is sculpted into the Giraldilla (weather vane) as our capital’s symbol.  They, like her, look to the north – eagerly awaiting the return of a long-absent and scornful lover.


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