Havana Residents Face Risk of Cave-Ins
By Dalia Acosta
Official reports state that 39 percent of Havana's 2.2 million residents live in structures that are in a mediocre or poor state of repair.
HAVANA, (Tierramérica).- Half of the homes in the Cuban capital are in a mediocre or poor state of repair, and there are plenty of owners of homes the authorities have categorized as "good" who are also demanding urgent fixes for construction problems.
Walls lacking paint, jerry-rigged supports for crumbling balconies, leaking pipes, cracks in walls and ceilings and iron supports eroded by time and the sea air, are just the symptoms of a serious problem created by decades of neglect.
"When it begins to rain, my life stops. The water dampens the walls, and when the sun comes out, things begin to crumble," says Violeta García, 43, a resident of Havana's historic center since childhood.
"My building dates to the early 19th century, and years ago it was declared uninhabitable. But we don't have anywhere else to go and the government hasn't distributed the materials we need to renovate it," states García, who makes her living selling handicrafts.
She decided last year to spend 500 dollars of her own money on repairs for her apartment, located on the fourth floor. The cement, sand and other necessary items came from the "black market" because the government controls the sales of building materials, and the products available on the dollar market are sold at much higher prices.
Now García faces the possibility of being slapped with a fine for "illegal construction", but that is not the worst of it. "After I saw the repairs on my home, I thought: this is going to collapse anyway," she said.
Just blocks away, in the San Isidro neighborhood, home to more than 3,000 people, a rehabilitation program is under way that covers all necessary repairs. Similar projects are taking place in other districts of the capital, but efforts still lag far behind the need.
Old Havana, which since 1983 has been included on the World Heritage list of the United Nations, is the section of the city where there is greatest impetus for restoration, but it is also the area with most serious construction problems.
Following the triumph of the socialist revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959, government investment was focused away from the capital, placing priority on the less developed areas of the country.
As a result, Havana suffered a costly deterioration in the maintenance of its buildings, says a report published by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in 2000.
According to government reports, 42 percent of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants live in 1.4 million constructions technically considered mediocre or poor - and require urgent intervention.
Of Havana's 2.2 million residents, 39 percent live under such conditions. The problem is most acute in Old Havana, where 75 percent of the 22,516 buildings are in dire need of repair.
A census conducted in 1996 in the city's historic center found that more than 40 percent of the homes had structural problems affecting the roofs and walls, and more than 50 percent suffered leaky pipes.
The Integral Development Group for the Cuban Capital, a governmental institution, warned in 1994 that if urgent action were not taken to restore buildings, by the year 2000 Havana would have approximately 100,000 "unrecoverable" homes.
A year later, the local government recognized that housing was the capital's leading social problem. "Each year there are more homes that are destroyed than are repaired or built," acknowledged Havana Mayor Conrado Martínez.
Investments aimed at reversing that trend, however, were limited by the effects of the economic crisis that has thrashed this Caribbean island since 1990. In 2000, reconstruction works covered just 4.9 percent of the national need, and 9.8 percent of Havana's.
The government does not publish updated figures on the buildings declared uninhabitable, how many people live in state-provided housing, or the number of illegal occupations of buildings.
The decision to remain in an "uninhabitable" building is quite common. But it can lead to tragedy. Five people lost their lives last Dec 7 when a five-story building collapsed in Havana. The site had been declared unfit for occupancy in September.
"The rescue team pulled several people from the rubble. The cave-in occurred at one o'clock in the morning, when everyone was asleep," said one of the building's former residents, who had moved to the home of a friend "for fear that something like this would happen."
* Dalia Acosta is an IPS correspondent.