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From the Ground Up, Cuba Is Crumbling

Physical decay worsens by the day. For many, theft is their Mr. Fix-It.

September 19, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

HAVANA — At the intersection of Marina and Jovellar streets, more than 50 people wait along a potholed sidewalk and broken curb for a bus that wheezes up to the stop already full.

Somehow, a dozen or so manage to squeeze into the windowless contraption that dates to the days when Moscow provided much of the means to keep the Cuban economy moving. Today, the buses barely keep Cubans moving. Many people spend as much as two hours each night getting home from their jobs in the center of Havana.

Their homes are also in a sad state, with at least 500 buildings in the capital collapsing each year, by the government's own count. Their utilities are decrepit too: Water and power distribution systems are corroded patchworks predating the 1959 revolution, and olfactory evidence of the state of the sewer system wafts throughout the city.

Cuba is falling apart -- literally.

Even as its economy booms thanks to a thriving tourism industry, brisk nickel exports and cheap oil from ideologically aligned Venezuela, the social benefits are difficult to see at street level. Except for a few high-profile historical restoration projects such as the Art Deco buildings of Old Havana, the country's structural decay seems to worsen with each month.

"It's not a question of repairing anymore. Everything needs to be rebuilt," says Julio, a construction worker who spends more time as an unlicensed cabdriver than on state building sites. "There is no material and no money to buy it, so nothing has been maintained."

Some blame the decrepitude on the U.S. economic embargo that has blocked travel and the flow of goods to the island for nearly 45 years in an effort -- through nine U.S. administrations -- to starve Cuba into abandoning what Washington sees as a ruinous adherence to communism.

Few Cubans will talk openly about what might be wrong with a political and economic system that even in boom times can't keep the wheels of public transportation turning or the lights on -- especially since President Fidel Castro turned over power to his brother six weeks ago for surgery deemed a state secret. But they complain quietly that there is more to their urban squalor than the embargo or the loss of Soviet aid 15 years ago can explain.

"The problem is that the government owns everything, and people only take care of what is their own," says another moonlighting cabdriver, Arturo, who buzzes his plastic-encased motorbike around basketball-sized craters in the asphalt where the Malecon seaside promenade meets 23rd Street. "Cubans are very clever and improvisational. We can fix anything. But there isn't the will to do it unless it is to improve your own conditions."

In self-improvement mode, city dwellers resort to pilferage to "resolve" their problems.

Resolver, Spanish for "to resolve," has long been a euphemism for getting around the system, be it a restaurant cook setting aside a few frozen French fries to take home from each tourist's order, or the filching of park bench planks to patch a gap in the deteriorating walls of an apartment.

The lack of available or affordable parts, tools and building materials has had a cancerous effect on the alreadydegraded infrastructure. Doorknobs disappear from public buildings, screws from wall-mounted shelves and dispensers. Along the Malecon, not a single storm-drain cover survives to prevent rubbish from clogging the sewers, the square metal grates apparently useful to screen windows.

Rampant theft has engendered more bureaucracy, with office workers having to lock their doors when they go for coffee out of fear someone will snatch the wastebasket, stapler, lightbulbs, pens and paper. Inventory lists are posted in government offices, a hedge against the contents disappearing.

But it is the buildings themselves, as well as vehicles and farm equipment, that are at risk of collapse from the pilfering. A tow-truck driver describes how the vehicles he pulls tend to lose their spark plugs, air filters, lug nuts and rear-view mirrors from the point of collection to delivery. Because most cars and trucks are state property, they are seen as fair game by Cubans hoping to make a few dollars by selling the purloined parts.

Even the tourism industry cash cow is vulnerable to widespread theft and minimal investment. Ancient air conditioners blow the smell of mold into "five-star" hotel rooms where renovations have been limited to the lobbies.

Rail tracks link most major cities, offering an affordable means of transportation, but the lines are rusted, engine breakdowns frequent and passenger service so primitive most travelers prefer to hitchhike.

Hope for repair of Cuba's housing, roads, transportation and utilities has risen with the multibillion-dollar investments made by Venezuela in the last few years, including a deal signed this year for Venezuelan engineers to complete the Cienfuegos oil refinery abandoned by the Soviets in the early 1990s.

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