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Deteriorating Living Conditions
Tuesday, August 02, 2005 By: Juan Paxety
Water, electricity, food, housing, etc.
From Net For Cuba
An Information Service of the Cuba Transition Project
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
University of Miami
August 1, 2005
Deteriorating Living Conditions Fuel Growing Unrest
The Cuban government’s inability to provide basic services, an exhausted economic and political system, and the impact of Hurricane Dennis are fueling rising discontent in Cuba, a fact that the Castro leadership seem to recognize. Recent actions by the Cuban government reveal a significant level of concern regarding the growth of social unrest. The Cuban population is exasperated with frequent and lengthy blackouts, increasing epidemics, growing transportation breakdowns and the inability of the Castro government to provide meaningful responses to these and other critical problems.
Cuba’s electricity issues have proven a daunting challenge for the government, even before the arrival of Hurricane Dennis, which did significant damage to electrical infrastructure. The use of unrefined Cuban oil with high levels of sulfur damaged power plants and created the need for frequent maintenance. Rolling blackouts are a part of life in Cuba, but have reached levels that seem to be testing the patience of the population. Twelve-hour blackouts and longer are now a common occurrence, and with the sweltering heat of summer and many families sharing homes, the sacrifice is taking its toll.
The issue of electricity is much more than one of enjoying comfortable temperatures and television. With unreliable electricity, food spoils in dormant refrigerators. One Havana resident stated: “You have to buy your food daily. If you don’t it will spoil.”(1) Many also rely on electric pumps for water, meaning they often go days without water waiting for “pipas,” or water trucks, to deliver small quantities that they carry home in buckets.
In June, Cuban officials reported that 1.7 million Cubans were without running water due to drought conditions plaguing areas of the island. Many others in urban areas are without service and rely on water trucks due to massive leaks in the water infrastructure. According to a recent extensive Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) study, the city of Santa Clara has reported leaks that claim 42 percent of water pumped into the system, with two other major cities, Manzanillo and Camagüey regularly losing 30 percent.(2) In July, after Hurricane Dennis, it is estimated that the number of citizens without running water has risen to 2.5 million out of Cuba’s total population of 11.3 million.(3)
Many Cubans are frustrated by the difficulties they face in feeding their families. The limited rations, which provide approximately a third of minimum monthly needs, and the exorbitant prices of other staples that are out of reach of those without access to dollars, are some of the problems Cubans face daily. For example, a half pound of chicken costs 24 pesos; a liter of milk, 30 pesos.(4) For the many Cubans making the minimum wage of 225 pesos, these two purchases alone would constitute nearly 25 percent of their monthly earnings.
There is a serious shortage in housing in Cuba, and standing policies make it difficult to rectify the situation. In a recent UN conference held in Havana, the Cuban government recognized that there was a deficit of more than 500,000 homes, and that half of existing homes are either in fair or poor condition.(5) Cuba’s housing infrastructure suffers from crippling neglect, and building collapses are fairly common. In Old Havana it was estimated that there were two partial building collapses every three days.(6) Cuban officials also revealed that in 2004, due to economic limitations, only 15,325 houses were built, many of which did not add to the total inventory as they replaced houses destroyed in storms. Put in perspective, Cuban officials estimate that the current housing situation calls for 50,000 new homes constructed annually for ten years at a cost of over US$4 billion. The total built on the island last year does not satisfy the estimated need of Havana alone, which requires approximately 20,000 new homes annually.(7)
The government in Havana has made recent decisions that signal their growing concern regarding rising unrest on the island. Fidel Castro's speech on July 26th, the anniversary of the attack that touched off the Cuban revolution, was not the usual official celebration in an outdoor plaza before thousands of citizens. Instead, the event was safely held in a theater in front of faithful government officials and military personnel. The speech was highlighted by Castro's warnings to dissidents, with threats of long imprisonment as well as the usual denunciations against US imperialism and its support for change on the island.
Reports of sporadic demonstrations and anti-government graffiti are surfacing throughout the island. Manuel Cuesta Morua, a Cuban dissident reporting on a feeling common among Cubans, stated recently: “Amid the miscellaneous promises and speeches of triumphs that cannot be demonstrated, Cubans are losing patience…Cuba is annoyed.”(8) It seems likely that despite increased government repression demonstrations and opposition will increase. An increasingly likely crackdown on opposition may cause political repercussions similar to the roundup of dissidents in 2003: a chill in commerce and a suspension of diplomatic relations with Western democracies.
The sanitation and water conditions may be converging into a tangible threat to overall public health. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) issued a public alert regarding a mysterious affliction which causes “digestive and respiratory symptoms, fever, and eventually early signs of cardio-respiratory insufficiency.”(9) This malady has claimed the lives of eight children in the capital, and its cause remains unknown, although MINSAP suspects the lack in basic services may have a role.
The deteriorating economic, health and living conditions, together with the lack of basic services outlined above, is a combination dangerously similar to the circumstances that provoked a massive exodus in 1994. Although difficult to predict, an increase in out-migration seems possible not only toward South Florida but perhaps toward the US Naval Base in Guantanamo or third countries.
1. “Castro to address Cuba electricity crisis,” Anita Snow, Newsday.com, July 22, 2005.
2. Assessment of Drinking Water and Sanitation 2000 in the Americas, PAHO.
3. Consejo Unitario de Trabajadores Cubanos (CUTC) Informe Parcial, July 2005.
4. “Fidelitis aguda: cuando el salario promedio no llega a un dólar diario,” Ileana Fuentes, Cubanet, July, 2005.
5. “Cuba enfrenta crisis habitacional,” Fernando Ravsberg, BBC Mundo, July 1, 2005. Also see UN-HABITAT website for the 2005 Meeting in Havana: http://hq.unhabitat.org/havana2005/
6. “The Case of Havana, Cuba” from Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, University College London. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dpu-projects/Global_Report/pdfs/Havana_bw.pdf
7. Ravsberg, BBC Mundo, July 1, 2005.
9. Nota Informativa del MINSAP, from Granma Internacional, July 25, 2005. http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2005/07/25/nacional/articulo03.html
Update - The Conductor writes that, rather than increase power production, castro is attempting to cut consumption with energy saving light bulbs. Trouble is, in Havana alone, there are fewer bulbs than there are people.