Tag Archives: Havana

Cuba in the 2012 Yale University “Environmental Performance Index Rankings.”

By Arch Ritter

In the recently published Yale University 2012 Environmental Performance Index, Cuba’s ranking is surprisingly strong. Its position in the world is # 50 which looks pretty reasonable in comparative international perspective, though the Yale study classifies Cuba as a “Modest Performer”. (The ranking for Canada is #37 and that for the United States is # 49.) In the Latin American context, Cuba is tied for 8th place with Argentina. Other Latin countries rank higher: Costa Rica at #5; Colombia #24; Brazil #30; Ecuador #31; Nicaragua #35; Panama #39; and Uruguay, # 46.

On a second related index, namely the Trend EPI, or the trend rank based on performance over the last decade, Cuba ranks #101 in the world and #12 in the Latin American and Caribbean region.

The Yale Index now seems to be “the gold standard” in such environmental performance indices. Comprehensive information on the Yale index is available on their web site: Yale University 2012 “Environmental Performance Index Rankings”. The detail of the final results and background studies for the 2012 Report are all available here:  File Downloads.

A pictorial summary of the methodology and indices used to construct the composite index are presented in Chart I below, and Cuba’s performance in the various component indices is pictured in Chart 2.Chart 1

Chart 2:

According to the Yale study, and illustrated in Chart 2, Cuba performed well in the following areas:

  • Environmental impacts on health and the environmental burden of disease;
  • Forest cover and planting (reflecting the conversion of sugar lands to plantation);
  • Protected Areas;
  • Agricultural subsidies.

Cuba’s performance was considered weaker in

  • Air quality;
  • The ecosystem effects of water resources;
  • Fisheries;

Cuba was judged to be more or less “OK” on water resources for human consumption and CO2 emissions.

A second study produced as Appendix 5 of the Republic of Cuba – European Union Country Cuba’s Strategy paper and national indicative programme, 2011-2013, Appendix 5  provides  additional information on Cuba’s environmental performance that is more worrying. Among the environmental performance measures and commentaries that it includes are the following:

  • “Of the flora in Cuba about 48% is in danger, of which around 22% in serious risk. Of the fauna these figures are 30% in danger of which 14% in critical risk.”
  • There is an almost complete lack of infrastructure to manage water pollution. “Of the 2,160 main contaminant sources recognized by UNEP, 1,273 or 59 percent, release their pollution into the Cuban environment without any treatment whatsoever. Another 433, or roughly 20 percent, receive limited but inadequate treatment before being discharged.”
  • “Some 17 or 18 percent of urban sewage receives treatment before discharge into Cuban waterways.”
  • According to UNEP, approximately “341,716 tons per year of organic material are discharged into Cuban waters, equivalent to the pollution generated by a population of over 22.3 million people (almost twice the actual population).”
  •  “….it has been estimated that annually 863.4 billion gallons of contaminated water finds its way into Cuba’s rivers, much of it industrial.”
  • “Salt-affected soil covers 14 percent of the national territory, or approximately 1 million hectares. The cost of recovering these salt-affected soils has been estimated at $1.43 billion. This is one of the main contributors to soil erosion which according to the Cuban government, affects 60 percent of Cuba’s territory, which has given rise to serious concerns about desertification, or extreme topsoil loss.”
  • “Waste is collected efficiently in most parts of the country but dumped in uncontrolled dumpsite for the mayor part. The existing landfills for Havana are full and new two landfills will be constructed, making use of state-of the art technology (ground water protection, leakage and leaching control).”

In addition, as visitors to Havana can attest, air pollution is a serious concern though it seems to have improved somewhat since some of the older Soviet era trucks, buses and the “Camellos” have been taken off the streets. The smoke from the old electricity generation plant and the refineries in Havana also has a major effect when the wind is in the wrong direction. The waste waters of Havana are sent by sewage pipe – clearly visible from the eastern part of the Malecon – one kilometer off-shore where they are swept into the Florida Straits – thankfully missing the beach areas or east Havana, Varadero, Cayo Coco, Guardalavaca etc.

All in all, like virtually all other countries, Cuba has no grounds for environmental complacency.

Smoke from Havana’s Thermal Elecctricity Plant, from the Edificio Fochsa,  Photo by Arch Ritter

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Cuba’s crumbling buildings mean Havana housing shortage

By Sarah Rainsford;  BBC News, Havana

Havana risks seeing its historic city centre reduced to ‘a void’

Havana is beguiling from a distance, especially its old colonial buildings bathed in tropical sunshine. But up close this city is crumbling. Number 69 on the Malecon, the city’s long seafront, looks particularly perilous. The apartment block has gaping holes where chunks of brick and plaster have fallen away. Bare metal rods protrude where balconies used to be.

“Look how badly these columns have deteriorated,” says Olga Torriente, pointing to thick cracks in the external wall of her flat, up on the top floor.

She pulls her bed into the centre of the room in a storm, afraid the whole wall could come crashing down.  Big chunks have already fallen off this building on the Malecon Some of Olga’s neighbours – those judged priority cases – have been rehoused. Others joined a “microbrigada”, or construction team, almost three years ago to help build a replacement apartment block for themselves. But there is still no completion date, and no alternative.

“How long will we have to wait? We need to get out,” says Ms Torriente. “People ask me if I’m not afraid to live here. Of course I’m afraid, but this is my house so where can I go?”

Like Ms Torriente, most Cubans own the house they live in – one of the principles of the revolution. But many have lacked the funds to maintain them.

Adding to Cuba’s difficulties, some 200,000 families across the island were left homeless by devastating hurricanes in 2008.

“Buildings are crumbling because they’re old. Then there’s the salt spray, humidity, termites, hurricanes and overcrowding. There are many kinds of problems and sometimes altogether,” explains former city architect Mario Coyula.

Seven out of every 10 houses need major repairs, according to official statistics. Some 7% of housing in Havana has formally been declared uninhabitable. The province around the capital needs some 300,000 more properties.   The shortage has forced expanding families to build lofts and new partitions within their homes, putting weakened structures under additional strain.

“It’s difficult, because neither the government nor the people have the money to care for the buildings. In a way, we inherited a city we are not able to keep,” Mr Coyula says, referring to Havana’s once grand colonial-era architecture in particular.

But the government is now trying to stop the rot – literally. For decades, Cuba subsidised all construction materials, but production slumped when state budgets became strained. Finding materials was difficult and an expensive black market emerged. There were also tight restrictions on building work.

Now, Cuba has shifted tack. It is allowing builders yards to sell materials at market prices, while offering state funds to help those home owners in most need. Hurricane victims are a priority but anyone on a low income and in what is considered “vulnerable” housing can apply.

“We used to subsidise materials now we’re subsidising the individual,” says Marbelis Velazquez, from Havana’s provincial housing office. “Not everyone is in the same situation, economically and the state clearly has to help those most in need,” she says.

The new grants range from 5,000 Cuban pesos ($208) for minor repairs to a maximum 80,000 pesos ($3,333) to build a 25 sq metre room from scratch.

In Cerro, one of central Havana’s most run-down districts, the Padro family is hoping their own petition will be accepted. Nadia Padro’s parents built a basic wooden and brick shack in their garden when living there with six siblings and assorted partners and grandchildren became too crowded. There is a kitchen, with water and electricity. But the roof leaks when it rains and Nadia and her husband have to squeeze into one bed at night alongside their two young children. “A government grant would really improve things,” Nadia says, explaining that they want to build a separate room for their daughters. Neither she nor her husband has a steady job and could never afford the work on their own.

The government plans to fund the grants with the sales tax it collects from state-owned building yards. It has already increased production and after years of bare forecourts, the yards are filling up with materials for sale.

“Before you had to hunt for things through friends or contacts,” Hernan Mayor explains, as he loads roofing material onto the back of his bike at The Wonder builders yard. He has been saving money to build a small extension to his house. “The materials are all here legally now, which is better. If things were a bit cheaper, it would be perfect. But at least they’re available now,” he says.

Nadia Padro is hoping to get a government grant to build another room in her shack New regulations have also made it much faster – and simpler – to get a licence for new building work. And, for the first time, bank credit is becoming available.

So Cuba is creeping into action over its housing stock. But the delay has already cost dearly. In Havana alone, it is said that three houses collapse either partially or completely every single day.

As for the city’s heritage, beyond the carefully restored “hub” of Old Havana, much of that may already have been lost for good. “It’s impossible to preserve all the buildings, I know many will go,” says s architect Mario Coyula. “If nothing changes, Havana may end like a circle…with a void in the middle where the city used to be.”

Havana, April 2012, Photos by Arch Ritter


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Cuba’s World Heritage Sites

By Arch Ritter

Havana Fortifications, by Natascha Chaviano, 1997

I think of Old Havana almost every day when I walk over the gates in the Hartwell Locks of the Rideau Canal on my way to Carleton University. This is because the Rideau Canal and its Fortifications, like Old Havana and its Fortifications, is a fully certified “World Heritage Site”!  The Rideau Canal was built in 1834 to provide a secure water route from Montreal to Lake Ontario – secure against the United States, which had just been defeated in the War of 1812 when it tried to capture Canada. The Havana Fortifications were designed to secure the harbor and the Armada against pirates and the British – who in fact had succeeded in capturing Havana in 1762 (see the second last picture below.).

Rideau Canal entering the Ottawa River

Having lived beside the Rideau Canal system in Kingston and Ottawa for over half a century, I took it for granted but was pleasantly surprised when it received World Heritage (WH) status. But in thinking further, perhaps the WH designations have not been debased – at least not in the case of the Canal, which is an amazing piece of 19th century engineering. It was built by British tax-payers, English military engineers, Scottish stone-masons, and Irish navies.  It has been in active service from 1840 to the present. Its sister canal is the Caledonian Canal in Scotland.

Cuba has nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The jewel in the crown of course is Old Havana, which is undoubtedly one of the historical wonders of the Western Hemisphere. The work of the “Historian of Havana”, Eusebio Leal, in preserving and reviving the old city is outstanding and perhaps underappreciated. I have visited only a few of the other WH sites in Cuba, so I will not venture any commentaries on the possible debasement of standards in the acceptance of such sites on the part of UNESCO. (One suspects that as more and more sites receive the WH designation, the standards may decline.) Trinidad and Viñales, are destinations for many visitors to Cuba and certainly worth seeing. The inclusion Camaguey and Cienfuegos historic centers was a surprise for me. I have not yet been to the other sites so I will not comment.

Here is a listing of the World Heritage Sites, hyperlinked to the relevant UNESCO web pages

There are also three additional sites in the process of proposal or submission to UNESCO.

Cuba seems to have done very well relative to other Latin American countries in having sites granted the WH status. Only Mexico with 31 and Brazil with 18 have more such sites. Otherwise, the countries with the most designations are the larger European countries with long histories such as the UK with 29 WH sites, France with 37, Germany 37, Italy 46 and Spain 37. The United States has a mere 21 WH sites while Canada has 15. The process for obtaining UNESCO designation appears to be rigorous and impartial (See the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.) However, I suspect that the campaigning by national governments to have their sites nominated and accepted is an important factor as well.

Is there an economic value to having sites receive the UNESCO World Heritage designation? Certainly tourist promotion and foreign exchange earnings are perhaps the most obvious economic benefit. Travelers pay attention to the designation and often conclude that sites with the designation are worth visiting. I at one time thought that it would be an interesting challenge to visit all 936 UNESCO sites during my life. If life and finances were infinite I would definitely do so. I am currently at # 97 so I might not make it all the way. However, I will definitely try to visit all of Cuba’s WH sites.

A second benefit is that UNESCO requires that any site with the WH designation has to be taken well maintained. This provides a useful incentive to preserve cultural sites and protecting natural sites. Greater international and national attention to the cultural and physical sites can only be positive.

 Havana Fortifications Castillo de la Fuerza

Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cabana, La Habana

“His Britannic Majesty’s Land Forces Taking Possession of Havannah (sic.), August 14, 1762 and Sloops of War Assisting to Open the Booms” Artist: Philip Orsbridge.    Less than a year after Havana was captured by the British in the Seven Years War it was returned to Spain in exchange for Florida by the Treaty of Paris. By the same treaty, France chose to retain Guadalupe and Martinique in exchange for Quebec which went to the British.

Living History at Fort Henry Kingston

 

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Haroldo Dilla Alfonso, “Cuba’s Collapsing Capital”

January 31, 2012 |  Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

HAVANA TIMES, from Cubaencuentro, Jan 30 — The recent collapse of a building in the Centro neighborhood of Havana is sad news that speaks to us of dead, injured and homeless – tragic losers of the nation’s “updating” of its model.

But the news isn’t surprising.

The only surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.

In fact, if this doesn’t happen every day in the Cuban capital, it’s because our architects and engineers left us with a solid housing stock, one proven by the test of time and generations of occupants.

The condition of housing has been complemented by of our fellow citizens, whose one-thousand-and-one ways of shoring up those crumbling buildings will someday have to be chronicled. They somehow manage to continue living in these structures until gravity finally catches up with them, these defiant challengers.

I’m not going to dwell on a balance of accomplishments and failures of the city over this long post-revolutionary era. I’m just saying that, even considering the usual benefits, the city lost much more than what it should have lost to achieve more balanced regional development across the nation as a whole.

It’s missing a lot because it lost the most dynamic segment of its middle and intellectual class; it lost its excellent infrastructure in the heat of neglect and carelessness; and finally it lost its particular metropolitan character due to the mediocre plebeian stoicism of its post-revolutionary political class.

To compensate themselves for their revolutionary efforts, a new leadership layer took special care to redistribute the best homes in the best places and to reserve exceptional sites for their own recreational pleasures.

Havana was sacrificed by a post-revolutionary elite who understood the change as anti-urban stubbornness and who saw the “new man” (to quote Emma Alvarez Tabio) as the noble savage laying constant siege to the city.

We still recall the Havana invaded by farmers, cattle fairs on the grounds of the Capitolio, Fidel’s failed coffee belt around Havana and his ridiculous idea of moving the capital to the small eastern town of Guaimaro.

However, the city ultimately suffered the conversion of architectural gems into rooming houses and government offices, to which were added makeshift garages, sheds in gardens and terraces, rooms where once existed gates and balconies, and the famous “barbacoas” (second floor additions), which have all pushed these buildings to the extreme limits of their physical tolerance.

Restored Old Havana Building. Photo: Caridad

If from the early revolutionary years we can point to a respectable architectural legacy along with achievements on behalf of the urban majority (as evidenced through accomplishments such as the Habana del Este planned community), the Pastorita city-garden, Cubanacan art school), what followed was pathetic: formalized overcrowding (whose most well-known expression is the Alamar “projects”) and one of the most ghastly buildings in the world: the Soviet Embassy.

Due to policing that prevented the growth of slums on the urban periphery, as occurs in almost all Third World cities, the city ended up swallowing its marginality. This is manifested in unprecedented overcrowding that gives life to about 10,000 tenements in which their occupants live in some of the most subhuman conditions.

My fear is that we are beginning to experience another phase of the history of this city. The  “socialist” city (mediocre and boring) is giving way to another city whose “brand” is precisely the metropolitan situation that was denied for five decades – with its glamor, mysteries and nights of sequins and sex.

This is precisely the Havana that City Historian Eusebio Leal restored to the extent of both his own Hispanophile and courtesan inclinations as well as to the present and potential tastes of consumers.

The Havana that’s being designed will lie along the coast with its extensive golf courses and exclusive marinas. It is a Havana that will have little to do with the poor people who lost homes and family members in the recent Infanta and Salud building collapse.

Havana is beginning its gentrification process in the heat of the legalized housing market, which while still lukewarm is nevertheless inexorable. Elegant Havana will again take shape where now live the old political elite and increasingly the new emerging elite, intimately tied together, in the metamorphic process given to us by the general/president with his “updating.”

This is the Havana of future Cuban capitalism.

“Havana A” will bypass those people who — like the victims living on Infanta and Salud — every night fear a disaster. For these people, like for the thousands of victims who exist in shelters, like the hundreds of thousands waiting for a new home or the repair of an already existing one in the capital, what will remain is “Habana B”: a city of the poor and impoverished, one with the worst services and the worst environmental conditions.

They no longer even have hopes for units in Alamar. The Cuban government, in the process of abdicating its social responsibilities, has left only one option to those who live on the island: cheap loans for housing repairs. What’s more, access to this assistance is only possible through this system of shared misery and monopolized power that the degraded Cuban elite insist on presenting as an option for the future.

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