Havana… An impossible equation…?

“Changing the terms of the Havana equation can no longer be postponed. With the resources assigned to its rehabilitation continually insufficient, when local governments keep being weak, when an active citizen participation is not being promoted or stimulated, we cannot expect the other side of the equation to be anything but our old, broken, and tired city….”

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

(Published in Catalejo, October 2014)

This article is part of the La Habana de las columnas y los 200 barrios collection [The Havana of the columns and its 200 neighborhoods.

El Vedado—the zone located along the privileged coastal boundary that some urbanists have called the heart of “the great white city”, and well-known for its indisputable merits and tourist centers, is not, however, the epitome of Havana. Although important sites of memorials, architectural values and prominent happenings are located there—in addition to the primary seats of the central government—the city and its problems spill over beyond this neighborhood, which is characterized, now and before, and together with others in the boroughs of Plaza and Playa, by its superior status. With its fifteen boroughs, where two million plus “habaneros” live, from La Lisa on the southwest to East Havana, from Guanabacoa to Marianao, passing through San Miguel del Padrón, Arroyo Naranjo, 10 de Octubre, Cerro, Central Havana—which the Cuban film, Suite Habana (2003) portrayed like no one else—the great culture and the unknown history of the city now has its seat, and grows, in the middle of an urban setting characterized by shared difficulties, which differ in their intensity.

Catalejo is retrieving two essays by well-known urbanists (one an architect, and the other a sociologist), frequent collaborators and members of the Advisory Committee of the journal Temas, both texts still valid although published several years ago, and which thoroughly illuminate this indissoluble—and multi-colored—urban problem.



In October of 2004, Temas published the article titled “Havana in 2050” by Carlos García Pleyán. Ten years later, the author returns to the topic in order to analyze how much the problem has changed—or not—in a decade, and proposes solutions and strategies. With this issue, Catalejo opens a pathway that aims to celebrate the twenty years of Temas with texts that update topics treated in the pages of the magazine during these years.

Is the city of Havana part of an impossible equation, a problem without a solution, a muddle without remedy? I am using the controversial title of one of the last books published by Jordi Borja, La ciudad, una ecuación imposible  [1] [The city, an impossible equation], to emphasize the dramatic situation in which the formerly called Key to the New World finds itself. An affirmative response to this question would be morally, politically and historically inacceptable. Nothing can justify the apathy before the growing needs of its residents, or the ignorance and the disdain facing the most important centers of culture, productivity and knowledge in the country.

Changing the terms of the Havana equation can no longer be postponed. With the resources assigned to its rehabilitation continually insufficient, when local governments keep being weak, when an active citizen participation is not being promoted or stimulated, we cannot expect the other side of the equation to be anything but our old, broken, and tired city.

The built city and its social framework, are among the most complex and valuable cultural products of any country’s history. The topic of the relations between the city and its society has animated the central debate of urban sociology from its beginnings. It is generally accepted that, with the city being a social construct (since a collective history is readable in its morphology and functioning), it is also true that this constructed environment—dense and diverse—has a strong impact on social conduct (in terms of personal liberty, varying options, capacity for innovation…).

Thus, cities are not only historical products that are built, but also collective processes in development. Many entities—governments, businesses, families, social groups—make a city by their actions or their omissions, putting in or taking away stones, legitimizing or censuring behaviors and values. In certain ways, building a city is defining the limits between the legitimate and the illegitimate, the legal and the illegal, the formal and the informal. And it is a continuous process of creating and recreating. There are times in which majority consensuses are reached and settled, and there are times of crisis and change. In Havana we now find ourselves in one of the latter. The rules of the game are not clear. The weight of the informal city is great in the economy, in construction, labor, transportation, language and in values. The impact of the Special Period has disassembled a social project and covenant, whose re-articulation is now a work in progress.

Which are the essential characteristics of the current society of Havana?

In order to overcome the current situation, I will attempt a brief portrait and propose some ideas about the elements that need to be changed in the terms of the equation.

One of the essential components that characterizes today’s society of the Capital is that about half its residents were not even ten years of age in 1990 [2], so half the population has lived its mature life in the peak of the Special Period. One in two habaneros not only did not live during the capitalist era, but they also were not conscious about the radical social improvements that were obtained during the first thirty years of the Revolution. For many, living in Cuba is associated with economic difficulties, the disintegration of social harmony, the discrediting of values such as labor, solidarity, honesty. The structure and the behavior of this social group is the result both of the crisis and of the measures adopted to overcome it: self-employment, dual currencies, the introduction of market relations…. All of this has shaped a new social and demographic structure of income and values, as well as new movements of social upward and downward mobility, and new patterns of inequality.

Demographic effects

In the first place, there has been a radical change in the demographic trend. In 2014, Havana has the same population as in 1990—almost a quarter of a century later. Not only has the natural growth fallen to zero (every year some 20,000 residents are born and die), but the migratory growth is negative (about 12,000 people from the provinces come in, but about 18,000 leave, so the city loses an average of 6,000 residents annually) [3].

In the second place, there has been a sustained and progressive process of “dehavanization” and ruralizing of the Havana population. The combined effect of the initial emigration of the high bourgeoisie and part of the middle class, as well as the subsequent departure of residents born in the city—today those leaving are mostly young: two-thirds are between 15 and 34 years old, and more than half are of college or university level—and the arrival of groups from other mostly rural provinces and lower educational levels, has caused the urban culture to become infected with customs, behaviors, tastes and cultural models proper to other environments. According to the 2002 Census, residents born in the city counted for less than half the total [4].

In the third place, the demographic aging is alarming. The national tendency is more acute in the Capital where, in 1960, there were seven young people for every senior, while in a few years—2020—it is calculated that there will be two seniors for every young person, with the resulting effects on the needs for health services and specialized assistance, a greater burden on social security, as well as an ever more unfavorable dependency rate.

In the fourth place, and as a corollary to some the previously mentioned phenomena, there is a continued reduction in family size. Between 1970 and 2002, couples with children have decreased from 62% to 45%; couples without children and single person families have increased by 25% to 37%, while monoparental families have tripled from 4% to 12%. The average size of the household in Havana was 4.5 people in 1970, which was reduced to 2.8 by 2012 [5].

Economic effects

The measures taken to emerge from the crisis have unquestionable impacts on the life of the city. The non-state economic expansion has generated a greater diversity in commercial, gastronomic, housing, and transportation offers, but also a concomitant urban degradation with abundant and abusive invasions of public space and attacks on the urban aesthetic.

The increase in the informal networks of the labor market is evident, as well as in the financing methods (for example through remittances) and the commercialization of products and services. Furthermore, the Capital’s economic base has also suffered radical transformation because of strong decapitalization and technological obsolescence of a large part of the industrial, warehousing and transportation base.

Social effects

On the one hand, the freeze on social spending is evident [6]—with a general reduction in the budget and a higher concentration of subsidies to food and housing; on the other, the liberalization of buying and selling (homes, cars), and of travelling abroad, as well as the commercialization of numerous services in the education sector (tutors), in health (dentists), transport (the old American cars), commerce (street vendors), culture (sales of DVDs, 3D films, distribution of audiovisual “packages”), etc. All this promotes a growing heterogeneity and social stratification. About 5% of the Cuban population—more than a million people—constitute the new middle class which goes on beach holidays to Varadero, while about 25% find themselves in vulnerable conditions—which in other countries would be called poverty—in particular those families that depend exclusively on one public-sector salary or on pensions. This frequently coincides with gender patterns (single mothers), or skin color (it is known that the quantity of remittances received by these groups is very low).

Concomitantly, there is an erosion of the representative structures—the local levels of the Poder Popular [government] have very little authority in a centralized and vertical structure, as well as few resources to respond to the needs of the population—a languishing and not very active affiliation in the syndicates and mass organizations, and all this results in decreasing levels of interest in social participation. On the other hand, the polarization of the economic development in tourist zones or special regions like Mariel, tends to increase the migrations towards urbanized centers, which generates increasing demands for housing and social infrastructure.

Physical effects

In the majority of its neighborhoods, the physical aspect of the city is deplorable—with the honorable exception of the Historical Center now being rehabilitated, and some well-maintained areas like Miramar or Siboney. The degradation of the urban infrastructures has passed the permissible limits. The fragility of the city, facing technological risks (energy or communication failures) and natural threats (floods because of deficient or non-existent drainage, collapse of aerial networks because of storms), is ever greater and more exhausting.

The progressive “formalization” of the informal economy towards family or cooperative micro-businesses in different productive sectors—and especially in the services—has produced increases in the diversity of offers, but more frequently has also had an impact on urban aesthetics, with low-quality constructions and designs.

The insufficiency of repairs, rehabilitation and housing construction is dramatic. Even if the city holds 20% of the national population, the State only devotes 11% of the new constructions to it (some 4,000 living spaces for a population of more than two million residents) [7]. Even if some 2,000 residences are freed up by emigration, 1,000 are lost by collapse.

The liberalization of the buying and selling of housing has to some extent made more flexible the rigidity of a market dominated by residential properties, by the lack of state rentals and by the only legal mechanism previously available to balance supply-and-demand (the permuta [swap]). However, this relates to a market segmented by the intrusion of foreign capital (and not only of the Cuban community living outside the Island), which has generated two areas of exchange: one with high prices and high quality real estate, and the other, at lower prices, aimed at local demand. One of the effects of this segmentation is the displacement of the families that occupied quality residences towards housing in bad repair, smaller residences or peripheral neighborhoods, in order to monetize the difference and improve their consumption levels. The state constructions directed towards specific interest groups is generating housing complexes for doctors and military personnel, while the number of people living in shelters after every storm that passes through the city increases [8].

Social and political debate is essential

The extent of the accumulated problems and their interaction in the city demands a major public debate. There are topics in which it will be difficult to find proportions or equilibriums that would be socially acceptable without a public discussion to articulate the social consensus.

It involves points of tension that cannot be seen as contradictions:

  • What are the levels of inequality that Cuban society is willing to tolerate with the introduction of market relations, and what are the expenditures that the country can afford on social programs relating to protection and equity (and therefore, what is the acceptable fiscal pressure)?
  • How can we set an appropriate balance of the levels of centralization in the ministries, with the need to decentralize responsibilities, capacities and resources of regional governments (in particular the capacity to decide on and implement local investment)?
  • What legal and economic responsibilities (levels of savings, investment, spending and salaries…) should be transferred to the autonomous initiative of businesses and which should be state functions of regulation and planning, to be maintained at the central level?
  • What would be the adequate proportion at any moment between the levels of consumption and life improvement of the population, and the levels of accumulation and investment in order to assure the development of the nation?
  • What is the appropriate share of the levels of investment for the city of Havana and for that of the rest of the country—in particular with reference to housing?

These are all issues that involve the present and the future, not only of the Capital but of the whole country, and which deserve the widest political and civic debate.

At the beginning I asked (see the previous article) whether the situation of the city of Havana already presents an equation with an impossible solution. I don’t actually think so. I think that there are feasible answers, but only if the perspective is redefined into multiple topics and if audacious and innovative decisions are taken. Below I will detail which, in my opinion, are these keys to the future, and without which we cannot escape the current predicament.

First: Reclaim the city’s values

In the first years of the Revolution there was an anticapitalist mood among a part of the population that did not reside in Havana—which is understandable because of the excessive imbalances in the inherited standard of living of Havana residents compared to those of the rest of the country, in particular in rural areas. In addition, the tourist and recreation activities of the Capital, which had been moving towards Mafiosi actions—prostitution, administrative and political corruption—justified these anti-Havana feelings. The mostly rural origins of the Rebel Army only increased this aversion towards urban life. Half a century later, this ruralistic outlook, which still conceives of the city as a focus of corruption that lives parasitically off the economy of the rest of the country, does not make any sense. It really is time to definitely get over this feeling which harms the city so badly. Even today there are articles in the official press written by leaders who consider rural life more “reasonable” than urban life [9].

I already mentioned that the concentration and diversity of the material and intellectual resources interacting in the city make it a center of high productivity. It should be seen as the main source of labor, of the production of wealth, of the scientific developments and cultural expression of the country. The city is one of the most complex cultural products—if not the most complex. There are many claims that sustain these affirmations to be dangerous and impractical because the city puts itself into danger through its unquestionable attractions. According to this view, it would be counterproductive to invest in the cities, because the more is invested, the more attractive they become, more immigration comes and more demands for investment arise. This supposed vicious circle is more phantom than reality. On the one hand, some solution must be found when it becomes an irreversible global tendency. On the other, the supposed troubling depopulation of the country-side is in fact not a threat to agricultural production. The current technological levels allow strong agricultural economies to use very small labor contingents devoted to these activities. Uruguay, for example, a country of 3.4 million inhabitants—two million of whom live in the Capital of Montevideo, and which has a rural population of 7%—is a country with such a strong agricultural component that it annually exports six billion dollars’ worth of agricultural products (a sector which has grown 18% annually since the year 2000). In contrast, in Cuba the agricultural sector still represents 20% of the total labor force, but only produces 3% of the GDP, which makes it necessary to import millions of dollars’ worth of goods.  Therefore, the anti-urban economic argument is clearly weak. As a well-known Brazilian mayor and urbanist said: “The city is not the problem; it is the solution!”

Second: Endow the city with a true regional government, with the power to manage the plan

We have reclaimed the role of the planning in managing the present and the future of the city’s activities, but it must be recognized that the plan and the budget that are actually implemented today do not go much beyond a conglomerate of sectorial decisions—not always coherent, both in their temporal sequence and, particularly, from the regional point of view. It is essential to “regionalize” the administration, planning and budgets, to a much higher degree. To achieve that implies proceeding in two directions.

First, it is necessary to update the planning approaches and methods, in order to better connect the strategic plans with the operative ones. The first are still only summaries of ideas and good intentions difficult to realize, and the latter, an aggregate of short-term sectorial decisions. In particular, it is important to insist that the plans should not only define what to do, where, how and when, but also with what and with whom. Not only do the plans suffer from a surprising ignorance regarding the financial and material resources necessary for their executions and are frequently unrelated to the budgets, but in addition they do not create the necessary links with the institutions and businesses—the entities that would realize them. On the other hand, in the making of a decision it is necessary to avoid an administration and resource management detached from the plan. In the case of this absence, the structural responses will continue to be separated from the investment programs.

Second, it is not enough to defend the regionalization of the budget and the coordination of the plan and its implementation. This does not make sense without democratizing this urban management. It is necessary to see urbanism not only as an urban technique, but also, especially, as a public policy, a public service. It is necessary to rethink the relation between the administration and the citizens, and to introduce participative planning and budgeting. It is essential to have citizens’ and democratic control over the decisions related to the city, updating the accountability processes. It is necessary to reflect on the political-administrative organization of an urban agglomeration the size of Havana, which would maintain a metropolitan authority but at the same time would bring the administration and its control closer to the citizens and would study the introduction of districts as a variant that is better articulated with the Consejos Populares [People’s Councils]. It is necessary to take into account that almost all the city’s municipalities exceed 100,000 inhabitants, and three of them exceed 200,000. By the same token, it is necessary to rethink a redistribution of the projects between the public and private sectors, as well as of the rights and responsibilities of governments and businesses. All this necessarily entails a revision and strengthening of the urban regulations and urban rights.

Third: Increase the sources of revenue

It is impossible to face the numerous problems of the city with the level of resources currently dedicated to them. The first thing would be to be able to correctly calculate and know which would be the costs of the reconstruction. The economic idealism that from the beginning characterized the management of the financial resources, together with today’s complexity of any financial calculation due to the double currency and the various exchange rates, make any kind of estimate extremely difficult. In any case, in order to have some idea of the magnitude of the issue, the most recent calculations of the investment needs of the city exceed sixteen billion (more than a quarter of the national GDP), through a fifteen-year perspective (more than a billion per year). And not only is it difficult to calculate the cost of the necessary reforms; in fact, it is almost impossible to evaluate the costs of the construction of a house, due to the instability of the base calculation of its prices.

Faced with this situation, it is essential to open all possible paths of financing, from the local to the international. The small but numerous local resources, community- and family-based, must be activated, whether they come from savings or from foreign transfers. And not only the material and financial resources but also the human and intellectual. In the districts today there are numerous state structures that are de-activated, unoccupied and unused, which can be optimized. They should be reverted back to the municipalities so that these can revitalize them with public or private funds, and leased out for non-state operations. The same thing could be done with parts of the land that are not built up. Finally, the varied and wide tax and regional contributions are as yet almost completely unexploited.

In the second place, it would be of economic interest to increase the transfers from the national budget to that of the region that is the most productive of the country or, at least, try to balance the debt accumulated during half a century with that of the Capital. It is necessary to set up a provincial budget that can be administered by the city’s government. At this time, the city receives more than 3,400 million pesos of the national budget, but only spends 2,300. Hundreds of millions are assigned annually to the provincial budget for investment with a regional focus, but the ministries are investing some two billion in the province, with sectorial criteria that are not always coordinated or organized.

Finally, it is necessary to overcome the apparent incompatibility between foreign investment and national sovereignty. In the first place, it cannot be considered acceptable to promote national resources like nickel, petroleum, tourism, tobacco, rum or sugar, and inacceptable when it is a question of promoting urban resources for the benefit of the country and the city. The rehabilitation of Old Havana is palpable proof of this—although it must be admitted that the country is not sufficiently prepared. The majority of our urbanists know how to plan, design and regulate, but very few are trained to do business, nor do conditions exist for this. There are no clear methods to evaluate land; the registers and cadasters are deficient; fiscal instruments for the recuperation of urban capital gains are practically inexistent. When faced with the real estate business, it is no use to cry foul but rather learn to use it with intelligence, as is being done in other sectors (the most recent example being the special region of Mariel).

The magnitude of the problems of the city and the numerous resources necessary for their solution do not allow any of the sources of revenue to be ignored—not local, not national, not international.

Fourth: Update the economic base

Strengthening the economic base of the city should not need to repeat the patterns that were valid in other times. It is necessary to develop a new economy, passing from the industrial city to the post-industrial city, to the city of knowledge. The level of instruction and creativity reached by the population makes it possible to develop creative economies based on innovation in productive and service sectors, like biology and pharmaceutical products, informatics and applications programming, design in all its modes and specialties, cultural activities in all their artistic manifestations and derived products. This is a question of activities for which the population is already prepared, and which have a clear urban connection, offering employment with less transportation, energy and land demands than traditional industry, and with less contamination.

Naturally, to achieve this it will be necessary to modernize the infrastructure, but it is now not just a question of modernizing electric, gas or train networks, as it was during the industrial revolution, but essentially to improve mobility, both physical and virtual. One of the factors that raises the cost of production and operations of the city is the enormous and useless waste of time. This is one of the greatest efficiency reserves that Havana should have today. The deficiencies—in particular, that of public transport and, though less, of the telephone network—the cumbersome, slow and absurd administrative procedures, as well as the practically non-existence of internet connections, generate dramatic wastes of time, difficult to quantify. Great political will, decisive and manifest, would be necessary to reverse this situation. And it is not only a question of citizens’ rights to information and knowledge, but there is also the fact that connectivity is the foundation of the modern economy. From the large state enterprises to the medium and small private and cooperative businesses, all need this connectivity like oxygen, to allow them access and position in an extremely competitive market. Every day that passes makes it more difficult to conceive a developing society without the development of connectivity.

In addition, the current time spent on the transport of people, merchandise, information and financial securities in the framework of the city are unsustainable, since they are akin to those of the large metropolises of tens of millions of inhabitants and thousands of square kilometers—when Havana is a small and relatively dense city. Either financing is raised to create an efficient system of collective transport, or it will be necessary to initiate some very expensive urban surgery—not only from the financial perspective but, and especially, from the patrimonial—an essential resource of the city—which would open highways, tunnels, road junctions, parking structures, but which, in the end, would not solve the transit problems but will raise them to a higher level, since they will facilitate private transportation which stimulates greater privatization of urban transport.

Fifth: Support the construction of a dense social fabric

To achieve activation of the principal resource of the city—the Havana citizens themselves—will need the stimulation and facilitation of citizens’ associativity from the ground up, through the sector and community neighborhood or through professional, cultural, age interests or other feelings of social belonging. The fact that the city today has a new demographic profile as related to the structures of age, educational level, and family type, while the values and social norms, as well as the social associations and institutions have not evolved at the same rate, must be taken into account. It becomes more urgent every day to revitalize or transform mass organizations that are vertically organized and bureaucratized. Even the growing and sustained migratory drainage of qualified young people is related to the current difficulties of the participation of the new generations in the economic, social and political life. The complexity and creativity of the social urban fabric is what can truly promote the enormous latent reserves of initiatives and innovation.

Sixth: Look inwards; identify areas of opportunity

The city of Havana can be sure of enormous local potentials. The functional loss of large urban installations like railway terminals, port zones, airports, large warehouses, large zones or industrial infrastructures that are obsolete, old military zones, etc., opens the possibility of conceiving and promoting large urban projects which could not only attract capital but which would encourage structural changes within the city. As an example, it suffices to think of the formidable perspectives opened by the deactivation of the port of Havana, and the landscaping, recreational, environmental, cultural, tourist and building opportunities offered by the 18 km of waterfront and its surface area of 1,700 hectares. It would not only allow the return of visual access and use of the bay to the city’s inhabitants, but it would also make possible the financing of a large number of the infrastructure works that Havana urgently needs.

In addition, there are other possibilities of equal importance near the city. The northern coast, along a line of about a hundred km from east to west, includes numerous excellent bays (Mariel, for example), or extensive beaches that constitute an immense economic potential (tourism, transportation, industry, etc.), which is absurd to ignore.

It is also necessary to look inward, with the express purpose of “building a city on top of the city”. It has been amply proven that a widely spread city is costlier in essential expenditures of energy, transportation, water, land, and infrastructure networks than a compact one. The city needs to be developed and modernized, minimizing the costs of occupying new land. On the other hand, we must and can optimize land use, built and unbuilt, through the imposition of taxes on the inadequate or insufficient use of land and buildings. Too many installations are shut and unoccupied today, or have very low numbers of occupants—in particular, those of state administration at all levels (ministries, provincial and municipal governments), too many buildings have improper usage (public services converted into living accommodations and vice versa). If already a tax has been introduced this year for the non-usage of agricultural land, it would be more sensible to have introduced one for the non-usage of buildings and urban land.

Inside the city, a look should be directed in particular towards the most abandoned and forgotten areas. Now that not only the construction, but also the buying and selling of living accommodations has been liberalized, efforts and public resources should concentrate their focus on zones with serious needs. For example, concentrate on urbanizing the southern zones of the city, or on the reconstruction of districts like Central Havana—tasks which cannot be undertaken by personal or family initiative alone, since they demand plans, resources, technologies and equipment that would not be within their technological or financial scope.

Seventh: Look outwards; resituate the city in the region

We must also open our eyes towards the world and specifically towards our region. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Havana was a city of 300,000 inhabitants, while Miami was a village that did not even reach 2,000. With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the two cities became equal in their population, at a million and a half. The twenty-first century finds a Havana with two million inhabitants, and a Miami with more than five. During almost four centuries, the former was “the Key of the New World”. Now, Miami is undoubtedly the dominant city of the region. And one of the contests that Havana must engage in over the next few years is, exactly, that of trying to recuperate its central communications role in the region, snatched away by Miami and Panama City. The new port of Mariel could be a good start.

In order to achieve this, the relation between the cities of Havana and Miami should be revalued, and in particular the links with the Cuban community resident in the State of Florida. Today there are some 700,000 Havana natives residing in Miami—more than half of them arriving after 1990—; 1.2 million Cubans live in Florida and 1.8 in the United States. It is clear that this idea would involve an operation with risks and opportunities, but no less so than previous experiences—see the examples of the overseas communities of China, Korea, Vietnam…—showing that the advantages of being able to use the financial and intellectual capital of these communities has overcome the inherent risks. There are no serious reasons to think that the case for Cuba would be different.

In the last few years, a trans-border space with various types of movements has come into being. The personal exchanges between the Cuban community resident in the United States and those in Cuba is increasing considerably. Lately, more than half a million Cuban-Americans and more than 100,000 North Americans have entered. In 2013, almost 100,000 Cubans visited the United States—there are more than 300 flights per month—and these movements will increase dramatically once the restrictions on North American tourism are lifted. Cuba has been providing young and qualified labor and Miami has begun returning retirees to live their old age in the homeland. The exchange of commercial goods—which is not limited to the hundreds of millions of dollars of governmental imports of food—should be added, as well as an informal circulation of goods that feed the new private businesses and homes, that already surpasses a billion dollars. No less important are the financial flows originating in the United States. Remittances already surpass two billion dollars, and are not only directed towards family consumption but are beginning to be converted into investment capital for small business start-ups; they are also found in the recently opened real estate market through family members or representatives, or constitute funds for the construction or repair of housing. Nor must the flux of information be forgotten, be it in terms of taped cultural products—film, TV, video, series, novels, music, etc.—or even in the field of the imaginary, taking into account the stress accumulated through decades of distancing, conflict, longing and fantasy…. And also to be considered are those occult or furtive currents whose effects could be devastating between two so asymmetrical realities (risk of illness and epidemics, transport of drugs, contraband, trafficking of illegal immigrants….).

Even if Havana offers indisputable comparative advantages for an increasing exchange (urban security, adequate levels of health, rich culture and patrimony, natural beauty, hospitality, etc.), it is also certainly presents a good number of weaknesses. These run from its entryways—insufficiency and inefficiency of the airports, customs, marinas, migratory regulations, transport and internal communications both internal and external—to the normative, administrative and technological weaknesses that would limit or hinder the exchanges—for example, automated financial operations, real estate registers, etc.—all of it aggravated by the absurd laws of the blockade.

In any case, and in spite of the difficulties mentioned, it is easy to forecast the future organization of a northern coastal fringe—which would include bays, ports, marinas and beaches from Bahía Honda, Cabañas, Mariel and Baracoa, up to Havana, Santa María del Mar, Jaruco, Matanzas and Varadero. This would constitute an appropriate regional frame for the urban revitalization. It is a strip of almost 200 km, equivalent to that which goes from Homestead and Kendall to Boca Raton and North Palm Beach in Florida. Converting that into the backbone of this region is an opportunity that Havana should not miss.


The debate that awaits us

Defining and directing the future of the city will not be an easy task, but it does present exciting challenges. There are many issues that will have to be clarified and that merit and demand extensive citizens’ debate. Below are some of them:

  • How to balance public investment between the opportunities offered by the potential attractions on the northern coast that we have just mentioned and the need to clear the large urban debt acquired in the central zones or in the southern periphery of the city?
  • How to accomplish the preservation and rehabilitation of the enormous urban patrimony of the city and make it compatible with the inevitable growth of the public and private urban transport system?
  • How to overcome the existing weaknesses relating to legislation, cadaster, registers, taxation, etc. in order to attract real estate investments that will contribute to the rejuvenation of the urban infrastructures and the patrimonial buildings?
  • How to accomplish the preservation of the quality and diversity of the national culture in all its expressions—artistic, patrimonial, urbanistic, and related to values—facing their possible banalization in an ever greater opening up of tourism, commerce, exchange, and the globalized culture?
  • How to assemble a common trans-border and interdependent space—state and civic—with our neighbors to the north, without it being deformed by excessive asymmetry and instability?

These are some of the challenges that the new generations of those living in Havana will have to face. I hope that these ideas constitute a stimulus for their intervention in the debate and, with this, add myself to the recent exhortation of the architect Mario Coyula in one of his last interviews, when they asked him what we needed to do for Havana: “Cry for her, shout for her, fight for her, although there may not be any hope of victory. Demand profound changes to the causes that have led to its physical, social and moral deterioration.” [10]


Translation by Catharina Vallejo 




[1] Jordi Borja, La ciudad, una ecuación imposible, Ed. Icaria, Barcelona, 2013.

[2] Censo de Población y Vivienda, 2002. See Table II.2.

[3] Figures from the demographic and statistical yearbooks of the ONEI (Oficina Nacional de Estadística e información), 2013. Very probably, this tendency has become more acute since 2013 because of the changes to the migratory legislation.

[4] Censo de Población y Vivienda, 2002. See Table II.14.

[5] This does not presume an improvement in the standard of living, since the livable surface of these dwellings is unknown.

[6]  Between 2008 and 2012, the budget assigned to education, health, living spaces and social assistance decreased by 10%, while the one related to social security had to be increased by 23% because of the aging of the population—and the one relating to defence and internal order by 59%!

[7]In 2013 this was reduced to 2,000.

[8] In 2013 there were 20,000 inhabitants in shelters and 120,000 with shelter consent.

[9]  “The dominant tendency is to reside in the cities, where the creation of employment, transport and basic living conditions demand enormous capital, in detriment to the production of food and other more reasonable forms of living.” See Fidel Castro Ruz, “Mandela has died. Why hide the truth about apartheid?” Granma, Havana, December 19, 2013.

[10] Véase Félix Contreras, “El habanero Mayito”, Remembering Mario Coyula (blog), La Habana, 8 de septiembre de 2014, http://mariocoyula2014.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/el-habanero-mayito-por-felix-contreras/

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