An Information Service of the Cuba Transition Project
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
University of Miami

 
Issue 59
October 14 , 2004

 

 

Eric Driggs*

DETERIORATING LIVING CONDITIONS IN CUBA

     

Daily life has become increasingly difficult for the average Cuban. Shortages of food and electricity, a deteriorating transportation and health system, and a drastic decline of basic services provided by the state are creating tense conditions that could lead to increased social unrest.

Housing

The provision of basic public services has been woefully inadequate, and has noticeable repercussions on daily life in Cuba. Even the very homes that many Cubans live in are a testament to their struggle to survive. The housing situation, particularly in urban areas, is abysmal. The problem is twofold: there is an acute housing shortage in Cuba, and many of the living quarters that do exist are in notably poor condition. It is presently estimated that there is a deficit of 1,600,000 dwellings on the island.(1)
Perhaps the most shocking and well-known example of the crumbling housing infrastructure in Cuba can be found in Havana, where an estimated 300 buildings collapse a year.(2) While some are struck by the charm of crumbling architecture, snapping pictures and straining to imagine these buildings in better times, the reality that these unstable structures threaten the safety of thousands of families is unfortunately lost on many observers. Between 1993 and 1996, there were 5,381 partial or complete structural collapses in Havana.(3) It is estimated that over 100,000 Havana residents presently live in unsafe housing.(4) A United Nations program being implemented in historic Old Havana, one of the most densely populated areas on the island, reports an average of nearly two partial collapses every three days.(5) Sixty percent of residents in this beleaguered section of Havana live in homes in poor condition(6) and according to the Cuban government, eighty percent in Central Havana live in housing that is “deteriorated or in need of maintenance, including the units classified as fair or poor.”(7) Nearly half of the capital’s units are in fair to poor condition, and in 2000, approximately 75,000 were being supported with braces, 60,000 were designated for demolition, and 4,000 were in danger of imminent collapse.(8)
This situation is not being remedied by government construction or repair. In a rare moment of candor, a government housing official acknowledged that many of the newly constructed units are too small and have been made from low quality materials: cement made from soil, pasteboard and tin.(9) There is also some evidence of buildings that have received cosmetic upgrades, such as paint jobs, being reported as “repaired.”(10)

Electricity

One of the most pervasive and notorious shortcomings in public programs is the inconsistent electrical service. The phenomenon of apagones, or blackouts, is part of everyday life. The frequency of these blackouts is disconcerting; in 1995, 297 days of the year saw some interruption in the electrical service.(11) In the darkest hours of the post–Soviet “Special Period,” the Cuban government began modifying its power plants to use domestically produced petroleum, which contains elevated sulfur content that is highly corrosive. As a result, the plants are shut down approximately every three months for maintenance - much more often than plants burning cleaner fuels - to counteract the effects of the sulfurous fuel oil.(12) For instance, one Cuban plant was slated for a maintenance shutdown of twenty-nine days to prepare for the heightened summer demand.(13) Presently, about ninety percent of electricity is produced with Cuban crude. (14)
Recent developments have plunged the Cuban power grid into a new crisis mode which again places the burden upon the populace. In May, in a catastrophic oversight during a routine maintenance shutdown, one of the main rotors of the Antonio Guiteras power station, the largest thermoelectric plant in the Cuban electrical system, was damaged. As a result, Guiteras, which supplies approximately fifteen percent of the entire national electrical output, will be out for several months for major repairs.(15) Despite the fact that the accident occurred almost four months prior, and the effects have been felt in increased blackouts during that time, the government did not release this information until September. The clarification was finally given to explain new austerity measures, including scheduled rolling blackouts, the closing of over one hundred factories and other means of production until further notice, the limitation of nocturnal security lighting, and even strict guidelines on minimum indoor temperatures for air conditioned businesses.(16)
One resident voiced some of the frustration which has become a part of daily life: "You go to work and waste time because if there's no electricity you can't use the computer. You get home and you don't know whether or not you should turn the washing machine on. But the worst is when the power goes off in the middle of the night; with this heat, it's just impossible to sleep without an electric fan."(17)
Another more serious consequence of these stoppages is the spoiling of perishable foods. With the average Cuban earning the equivalent of $US10 a month, the unreliable availability of rationed foods and the high prices of staples and other goods at dollar stores, most do not have room in their razor-thin budgets to replace spoiled food that was already allotted for.(18)

Water

The system of water distribution is also in serious disarray and has proven unable to satisfy the needs of the Cuban population. According to the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, the Cuban government ministry overseeing water concerns, virtually all urban Cubans (98.3 percent) receive water service. Of these, the vast majority, or 83.5 percent, have a connection within the home, with another 14.8 percent having easy access to water, a technical term which implies a water source within 300 meters of the home.(19) Despite these impressive numbers, the reality of water provision in urban Cuba is a very different one. One Cuban government water official anonymously confirmed a common estimate that Havana loses approximately 30 percent of its municipal water supply to leaks.(20) This unfortunately is not a problem that is limited to the capital. Leakage in water systems is a tremendous concern throughout Cuba, with leakage rates ranging from 13.3 percent in Pinar del Rio to 30 percent in Manzanillo and Camagüey to an alarming 42 percent in Santa Clara.(21) This creates a situation where, as a result of these leaks, the amount of water extracted far exceeds the actual need simply to overcome waste and satisfy demand. A report from the Inter American Development Bank listed Cuba as having a ratio of water withdrawal to water availability of over ten percent, which is recognized as an indicator that the water supply is inadequate, signaling a need to either increase supply, limit usage, or both.(22)
Poor pumping capacity also limits the number of hours that water is available through these connections. While the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) cited the national average at approximately twelve hours a day, the figure varied from sixteen hours in Bayamo to eight hours a day in Pinar del Rio and Santa Clara.(23) One government employee responsible for the municipal aqueduct for Pinar del Río gave a revealing testimony of the state of urban water service. He confessed that no area of the city receives an adequate supply of water, citing the poor condition of the pipe network, poor electrical service for pumping, and the tremendous waste due to leaks.(24) Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city, is serviced by an aqueduct built in 1927 that has received little maintenance and is inadequate for the needs of the current population. Different areas of the city receive water every thirteen to fifteen days, and some neighborhoods, like the Reparto Abel Santa María, have recently endured 35 days without service.(25)

Medicine

Even securing basic medicines is often a Herculean effort in Cuba. Reports abound concerning the lack of aspirin, antibiotics, multivitamins, and other pharmaceuticals. Leaders in Havana point to statistics concerning number of doctors and consultations as proof of the outstanding coverage of the Cuban system. For instance, in 2002, there were over 76 million doctor visits or approximately 6.8 per capita.(26) Unfortunately, these numbers actually tell very little about the reality on the ground. For instance, patients may receive a prescription from their doctor, which is valid for a week. With the acute shortage of medication, the pharmacies usually do not carry the necessary medicines, and when shipments do arrive, the pent up demand often ensures that they are gone quickly. As a result, many must return to their doctors every week to have a valid prescription ready in the event that a shipment arrives.(27)
Antibiotics are rare in Cuba and are not available in the state-run pharmacies; they can only be purchased on the black market. Pharmacies are not stocked with even some of the most basic supplies, such as aspirin, forcing Cubans into the government dollar stores where they are available at prices in US currency, well out of the reach of many Cubans with no access to dollars. One Canadian journalist found that a tube of cortisone cream cost as much as US$25, the equivalent of nearly two months’ salary for an average Cuban.(28)
The privations of life in Cuba have been taxing on its citizens, who routinely depend on their resourcefulness to make ends meet. The black market is booming and theft at the workplace is commonplace. Meanwhile, services provided by the government are lagging far behind present needs: medicines are unavailable, water and sanitation shortcomings increase the likelihood of disease, and housing is inadequate, at times perilous. With the onset of the latest electricity austerity measures, some diplomats and observers on the island have suggested that these everyday burdens placed upon the population may stir discontent to heights not seen in a decade, when a rare public protest in August of 1994 was swiftly and brutally silenced.(29) Historically, in the face of these widespread shortcomings in government services, the average Cuban has seemed more preoccupied with fulfilling basic needs than clamoring for change. While the future is unclear, the present deterioration in basic services and the hardships of daily life facing the Cuban population are unfortunately all too certain.

 

NOTES

1. “Cuba, un eterno huracán,” Miguel Cabrera Peña, Encuentro en la Red, www.cubaencuentro.com, Sept. 7, 2004.

2. “Revolution vs. Globalization – Cuba,” John Ripton, New Internationalist Magazine, March 2003.

3. “Cuba, un eterno huracán,” 2004.

4. Ashby, Timothy, “Cuban Real Property – Current Laws and Future Prospects,” Real Estate Law Journal, Vol. 33, 2004.

5. Programa de Desarrollo Humano Local – Cuba “Caracterización y prioridades del Municipio de La Habana Vieja: Líneas Directrices para la III Fase del Programa de Desarrollo Humano Local,” 2000 www.undp.org.cu/uunn/pdhl/LDHVieja.doc

6. Modelo de Intervencion para la Vivienda, www.onu.org.cu/pdhl/fichas/habana/43-modelovivenda.pdf

7. “40 años de la vivienda en Cuba,” Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda, La Habana, 1999.

8. “Scarcity, desperation define Cuba housing,” Herald Staff Report, Miami Herald, January 3, 2000.

9. “Cuban housing a tight squeeze: many complain prime land targeted for tourists,” Ginger Thompson, Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1998.

10. “Cuba, un eterno huracán,” 2004.

11. Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, “Estadísticas Energéticas 2002.”

12. “Cuba retrocede una década por la crisis eléctrica,” Gerardo Arreola, La Jornada, October 4, 2004.

13. “Explican medidas para enfrentar los problemas en el suministro eléctrico,” Granma, September 30, 2004.

14. “Return of scheduled blackouts is actually a relief,” Dalia Acosta, Inter Press News Agency, September 30, 2004.

15. “Explican medidas para enfrentar los problemas en el suministro eléctrico,” Granma, September 30, 2004.

16. Ibid.

17. “Return of scheduled blackouts is actually a relief,” Dalia Acosta, Inter Press News Agency, September 30, 2004.

18. For more on the food situation in Cuba, see “Food Security and Nutrition in Cuba,” Cuba Focus No. 47, September 11, 2003, Institute of Cuban and Cuban American Studies, University of Miami.

19. Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)/CEPIS, Assessment of Drinking Water and Sanitation 2000 in the Americas, 2000. Available at: www.cepis.ops-oms.org

20. “Water scarce in areas of Havana,” CubaNet News, April 1, 2004.

21. PAHO/CEPIS, 2000.

22. San Martín, Orlando,“Water Resources in Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues and Options,” Inter American Development Bank, February 2002.

23. PAHO/CEPIS, 2000.

24. “Fourteen city neighborhoods have no water service,” Victor Rolando Arroyo, CubaNet, June 18, 2001.

25. “Deplorable el sistema de acueducto y alcantarillado en Santiago de Cuba,” CubaNet , September 22, 2004.

26. Anuario Estadístico 2002, Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas.

27. See “Faltan las vitaminas en La Habana,” CubaNet, April, 20, 2004.

28. “For Cubans, a bitter pill: Castro’s health care system is paid for through onerous taxation and cannot provide even basic drugs,” Isabel Vincent, National Post, July 7, 2004.

29. “Cuba swelters as blackouts, crisis persist,” Gary Marx, Chicago Tribune, October 6, 2004.

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*Eric Driggs is Humanitarian Aid Coordinator at the Cuba Transition Project at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.