Habana Vieja: a microcosm of challenges facing third world cities

Ron Hayley

I recently attended a conference in Havana, Cuba. Most of my time was spent in Habana Vieja, the old colonial district of the city largely occupied by low-income Cubans. It typifies many aspects of the human condition, particularly in so-called 'developing countries': huge challenges, tremendous resourcefulness and spirit, widespread poverty, and a strong local culture - side-by-side with a creeping global consumerism.

Havana exhibits a dual economy - one based on Cuban pesos and government subsidized products and food rations, and one on U.S. dollars, which are the principal currency in stores that sell consumer goods. I was told that the average Cuban worker earns the equivalent of $10 to 14 U.S. a month (paid in pesos). Although I heard stories of hunger, no one I saw appeared visibly malnourished. But what was shocking was how well-dressed everyone one was! Many of these clothes bore brand and designer names. How did they purchase these on such limited incomes?

In general, it seems that increased tourism and contact with the outside world has resulted in a tremendous demand for goods associated with the global economy. This requires having access to dollars. Consequently, there has also been an explosion in black market activities aimed at procuring dollars, including prostitution, illegal taxi services, the sale of stolen cigars, and even drugs. Pilferage of state property is apparently at an all-time high.

Based on my limited observations in Havana, and conversations with conference participants, I came away feeling that 'Third World' countries are faced with an inescapable dilemma: lack of sufficient development capital. Without concerted global action, each country faces the challenge of 'primitive accumulation,' and confronts two equally undesirable alternatives: make a pact with the devil (global finance capital) in hopes that some of the wealth 'trickles down,' or try and 'go it alone.'

To the extent a nation allows in a flow of foreign capital, it seems that corruption becomes the norm - on the part of those who regulate the channels of investment - regardless of the stated ideology of the elite. This is contributing to the emergence of a global airliner with three classes of people: those in first class (the corporate and financial elite from the North, along with extravagant Third World parasites); the second class (comprised of moderately well-to-do and middle class people from all countries, with a similar access to consumer goods), and the majority of the world's people in the baggage compartment.

While corruption and extremes of wealth have been largely avoided in Cuba, I sensed that, even there, the intelligentsia and Party establishment live a life more in keeping with the northern middle class than with the majority of their own compatriots. I know of only one Southern country which has avoided dependence and corruption altogether - Eritrea which, as an independent state, is only a few years old.

The lack of development capital is reflected in Havana. While the government has done a splendid job of providing education and health care, the housing stock is in a deplorable state, and there simply isn't the money to fix it up. The government has been dealing with its need for capital by pursuing joint tourism ventures.

These bring in money, but at a cost of impacting on the ecology of the island - particularly, coastal ecosystems and coral reefs - and on the culture of the people, who become more attracted to the global monoculture. While ostensibly tourist and other commercial ventures in Habana Vieja have as their goal the creation of funds for the rehabilitation of the building stock and other purposes, in practice it seems these firms attract and keep the lion's share of state budgetary funds and little 'trickles down.'

One possible way out of this dilemma is to identify the areas where local people potentially have the capacity to provide for their own needs in a self-reliant fashion. In the context of Habana Vieja, these could be represented as triads of closely clustered issues: ·food, water, sanitation; ·shelter, energy, and transportation, and ·health care, education, and culture.

Following the identification of the relevant areas, the challenge would be:

  • ·to conduct an assessment of assets and liabilities to determine what can be built upon and where strategic interventions are required;
  • ·to try to foster local self-reliance as much as possible in these critical areas, and to allow the global economy to provide consumer goods since these are essentially luxuries and can't be produced competitively;
  • ·to direct strategic interventions (capital, skills training) to assist in this process by draining off financial resources from the global economic circuit, by means of taxes, expropriation (in some cases), and foreign exchange;
  • ·to promote synergies between the triads and their respective aspects - for instance, promoting the composting of organics for use in food production, the recycling of materials for cultural or transportation-related production; educating/ training people to renovate buildings, plant fruit trees to provide food and shade, and using local cultural richness and expertise gained to earn foreign revenue; and·promoting simple and appropriate technological solutions wherever possible.

The challenges facing Havana and Cuba are daunting, but already the innovations borne of necessity - such as organic agriculture and non-motorized transportation - are attracting worldwide attention. Cuba could someday become a net 'exporter' of intellectual and technological capital in the field of urban sustainability, as it already is in the field of health care.