Havana Is Latin America’s Detroit, but Poorer

By: Guest Contributor - Mar 3, 2016, 3:02 pm
Havana, Cuba. (Market Urbanism)
Very little about Havana has been “preserved.” Instead, everything in the city is merely old. (Market Urbanism)

By Scott Beyer

[My second in a two-part series on Havana, Cuba. Here’s the first article.]

Before taking my trip to Havana, one thing that I was curious about was how a half-century of Communism had affected the built fabric.

While there are obvious disadvantages to economic stagnation, I figured that it would have at least created a charming-looking city. There are, after all, a handful of US cities, and numerous European ones, that have resisted growth, modernization, and the automobile, only to remain quaint and historic.

But it didn’t take even a 10-minute cab ride from the airport to realize that my assumption about Havana had been naïve — even if it is still held by many of the city’s blissfully incurious tourists.

In fact, very little about Havana has been “preserved.”  Instead, everything in the city is merely old, and because little gets produced, nothing is replaced.

This applies to the automobiles, furniture, hand tools, manufacturing equipment — and most certainly the buildings.

Collectively, this stagnation has destroyed the look of the city, with a physical blight that stretches nearly every block from downtown to the outer slums.


If I could define in one statement what Havana looks like, after four days of extensively biking and walking through, I’d call it the Latin American Detroit. It was a once-great city that declined because of bad policies, and its pervasive ruination serves as a constant reminder of this.

The houses themselves, while large and ornate, are almost uniformly inadequate by US standards. If they have not crumbled to the ground altogether, many are caving in. The foundations are crooked, full of holes, and marred by broken windows and doors.

Because of Havana’s European roots, stucco is a common material, but on most buildings is falling off, or in some cases has disappeared. Almost every building has dirt and grime, while some are covered in it.

And this is for Havana’s nice parts. Once I began biking out of the central neighborhoods and into the slums, I found that symbols of past wealth disappeared altogether, and were replaced with what in the U.S. would be considered shacks.

These structures were usually patched up with knotted wood, metal scraps, and thatching. One gentlemen who lived in the poor neighborhood of Cerro, and who I spoke with at length, described his area as akin to a Brazilian favela — which I found believable.

The two pictures I took below were from his front porch, and mirrored the aesthetic of such areas.




So what is it like to live and work in these buildings? As one might expect, the outside decay permeates to the inside.

The best access I got was through a 24-year-old working-class woman named Indira. I met Indira on my first night in Havana when stopping to ask directions, and after noticing that she spoke good English, took her to dinner.

We became friends, and she invited me into her downtown apartment, where she lived with her mother and father-in-law. The apartment was roughly 150 square feet — far smaller than a typical New York City micro-unit.

Because it had a high ceiling, the family had built a horizontal wooden floorboard halfway up the wall that served as the second floor, and built a makeshift staircase leading up. This upstairs “room” was for the mother and father-in-law, while Indira lived in the main room below, sleeping crammed against the kitchen.

Even in such a small space, there were numerous malfunctions. There was no hot water, either for cooking or showering. In fact, the shower did not even work, meaning that the family instead took scrub baths.

Because the toilet didn’t flush, they had to pour water into it each time after use to accelerate the draining. The built-in wooden floorboard was clearly sagging under the weight of the upstairs furniture, raising concerns that it would one day collapse.

As for the actual roof — it had been crumbling for years, and was fixed recently by a neighborhood handyman. To pay for the work, the family had to spend over a year saving up US$150.

The main story of Indira’s apartment.
The main story of Indira’s apartment.
The second story, upheld by a wooden board
The second story, upheld by a wooden board

Public Infrastructure

Just as peoples’ private houses were crumbling, so too was the public infrastructure — again, much like Detroit.

The public spaces, while well-used, were typically full of trash, overgrown weeds, and broken objects. Many parks, for example, were defined more by concrete than grassland.

Streets, if they were even completely paved, were filled with potholes and had such poor drainage that, after it rained, they would gather huge puddles.

A water-less pool.
A water-less pool.

I wasn’t able in my short time there to analyze the underground infrastructure. But if it is like everything else in Havana, I would assume that it, too, is crumbling.

For example, contrary to what tourist brochures say, Havana’s tap water is considered undrinkable by locals, and I was routinely offered bottled water to avoid catching cholera.

Indeed, the substandard nature of Havana’s built entities were so common that after a while I stopped noticing.

For example, when I attended a rainy fútbol match at a renowned Havana stadium, I sat underneath a roof that leaked constantly, getting soaked alongside other fans. Can anyone imagine this being tolerated at a US arena?

When I used bathrooms even in nice establishments, I would find that there often weren’t toilet seats, door locks, or — you guessed it — toilet paper. Schoolyards had swimming pools without water and basketball hoops without rims. And on it went.

This is how life is in Havana. And I soon realized, given this, how buffoonish it would have been to go around looking for examples of “historic preservation.” Such preservation is an aesthetic notion from the First World, driven by those who are willing to pay more to retrofit attractive old housing.

In a city of extreme poverty, preservation is the pragmatic steps people take to prevent their roofs from caving in.



So How Does Havana Compare To… San Francisco?

Have you ever read an article that was so hilariously wrong that you wanted to pick your laptop up and chuck it across the room?

This was my reaction to one article I read several days after returning from Havana, with the city’s horrific conditions still on my mind.

On June 8, published an article by columnist Therese Poletti called “New Tech Money Is Destroying The Streets Of San Francisco.”

Poletti explained that a flood of wealthy executives were moving into San Francisco, buying old homes, and altering the interiors.

It is now hard to find a Victorian home for sale that has not been gutted, its architectural details stripped and tossed. And owners or developers — looking to sell at a premium in the frenzied real estate market to “techies with cash” — hope to appeal to the tastes (or lack thereof) of current buyers, by turning once-charming homes with detailed woodwork, built-ins and art glass, into clones of Apple’s minimalist retail stores.

This trend has been developing for several years, but it seems far more prevalent today, with construction sites sprouting across the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco. And in addition to the remodeling frenzy, older buildings appear to be disappearing at a scary pace.

Before even addressing Poletti’s point, let me just set the record straight: San Francisco is not being “destroyed.”

I can testify from having lived there in 2012, and visiting several times more, that the city is an architectural gem that has largely stayed in character since being rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake.

Much of the city — including almost the entire northeast portion — is an oasis of historic Italianate, Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Art Deco construction. These buildings roll along the hills flanked by clean, well-paved streets, and small, impeccably-landscaped yards.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, San Francisco surpasses any other major US city, and perhaps any European one.

The reason for this is two-fold. San Francisco has expansive historic preservation laws that make it difficult or illegal to alter thousands of structures.

Compelling arguments have been made that the city takes this preservationist impulse too far, to the detriment of adding new housing supply – although such laws help maintain its unique character.

But the other factor — to which Poletti seems oblivious — is that the city has a large professional class with the financial wherewithal to maintain these homes.

I would argue that this second factor, more than the first, has preserved San Francisco.

You could put a historic overlay designation across Detroit, and it wouldn’t change much. The Motor City suffers from decay because it has undergone six decades of depopulation, and this has left no one around to preserve its own large historic stock.

[adrotate group=”8″]But the Bay Area has been flooded with capital during this period, and this has strengthened its culture of preservation.

Maintaining a historic home, after all, can be an expensive endeavor that requires ripping out floorboards, replacing pipes, and other structural changes. It is usually done by educated, well-off households who have either the money to fund repairs, or the time to dedicate sweat equity.

Perhaps not every family preserves their homes precisely to Poletti’s specifications, and I don’t blame them, since it is difficult to live in a floor plan that was laid out a century ago. But she should not miss the broader point, which is that San Francisco has remained as it is because of the demographics it attracts.

Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation.

But a fair-minded look at US cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at the United States’s most notable historic neighborhoods – the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston – a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth.

Meanwhile, there are numerous cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland — that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.

The same could be said when comparing Havana with Poletti’s San Francisco. Both cities have similar architecture and planning, but their differing economic histories have led to opposite preservationist destinies.

Wealthy and growing San Francisco is a city where thousands of structures remain in superb shape, and where people grieve over minor alterations.

Havana’s system has produced a crumbling city where the desire for preservation gets lost in a sea of basic needs. If Poletti really wants to see a “destroyed” city, she should visit the latter.

Originally published on Market Urbanism.

Scott Beyer is a US journalist who focuses on urban American issues. He is columnist for Forbes, Governing Magazine, and

When Will President Maduro Leave Power in Venezuela?

By: Guest Contributor - Mar 3, 2016, 11:17 am

EspañolBy José Marulanda This is the impatient question on everyone's tongue, both in Venezuela and abroad. The political, social, and economic crisis is getting out of control and discussions about a premature end to President Nicolás Maduro's constitutional period abound. Some very turbulent and decisive days lie ahead, and the "21st-century socialism" movement will be put to the test. Warnings about the breakout of violence and a humanitarian disaster in Venezuela have been frequent. A quick overview seems to lend support to the prediction: shortages affect 85 percent of food products and 90 percent of pharmaceuticals. The country suffers from the world's highest inflation rate. Its capital, Caracas, ranks as the world's second most violent city, losing only to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Shameless corruption schemes and other scandals undermine the country's institutions and make the current government politically unstable. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is stuck in a whirlwind of accusations against the government. The members themselves, meanwhile, resort to scapegoating, revisionism, or self-criticism. Preparations are underway to replace the government's visible head, as is usual with authoritarian regimes in which a clique runs the entire country for its own benefit. Some factions within the PSUV are joining the opposition-controlled Congress by calling for Maduro's removal. Public opinion overwhelmingly wants the president to step down; a recent poll showed that 72 percent of Venezuelans want to get rid of the captain in command of a ship of state that is rapidly heading toward the seabed. But will Maduro's ouster end the agony common Venezuelans go through everyday? Of course not, everyone knows this. The main problem is not the president but the political and economic system called 21st-century socialism, implemented 17 years ago by a passionate yet misinformed army officer, Hugo Chávez. How exactly Maduro's exit from power will come about is the subject of much speculation. He could resign and leave for some Caribbean island, or Russia, or Colombia, accompanied by the First Lady and congresswoman Cilia Flores. Maduro could also be removed by Congress. Or by the people through a recall referendum. Or even by a military coup. Chavista-friendly organizations such as UNASUR, CELAC, ALBA, and Petrocaribe will not lift a finger against Maduro. Whatever the future holds for the president, the Venezuelan drama will continue. The people, including once ardent Chávez supporters, will continue suffering in endless lines just to get their hands on whatever food is available at supermarkets. Rumors about the military abound: that officers are in cahoots with the Maduro administration; that only the army leadership supports the Chavistas because they receive money and influence; that military barracks are on the verge of rebellion; that soldiers will or will not shoot against the people when protests erupt; that, in sum, they will define the course of the country. While domestic and foreign pundits scrutinize the military, the international community comes across as apathetic to the tragedy unveiling in this petrol state, where the oil business continues to operate, unfazed by the crisis. On February 20, state-run PDVSA reached a deal with Russian Rosneft to tap into three gas reservoirs on the Venezuelan coast. Chavista-friendly organizations such as UNASUR, CELAC, ALBA, and Petrocaribe will not lift a finger against Maduro. Despite their rhetoric on human rights, they ignore how, in September 2015, Maduro condemned "foreign interventionism" at the United Nations while he bought brand new anti-riot equipment from Brasil, Spain, and China. The Venezuelan armed forces have announced that they will purchase five war planes form China. This comes after Beijing refused to extend Maduro the grace period of a US$50 billion loan. And Saudi Arabia pulled back from a deal reached with Venezuela — along with Russia and Qatar — to freeze oil output in an effort to curb tumbling prices. [adrotate group="7"]Despite all this, the probability of Maduro's downfall are not as imminent as some international media outlets keep announcing. He is certainly close to being toppled, but Venezuelans' suffering will go on as opposition begins its own internal battle between radicals and moderates. In Caracas, criminal bands have ramped up their violence. Grenades are exploding across the city. The colectivos, groups of Chavista thugs, loot trucks daily and they target Polar, Venezuela's largest brewery and food processing company. The Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), a sort of paramilitary group which Chávez created, are increasingly carrying out attacks. FBL pamphlets call the population to "prepare for confrontation." On February 20, two explosives exploded inside Fuerte Tiuna, Venezuela's main military base. The organization exhorted soldiers “not to be accomplices of the criminal administration and high military commanders who are destroying the country.” The few private firms that are still around are under risk of expropriation. A clash with Colombia over the closed borders is a possibility. All 15 nations that make up the Caribbean Community (Caricom) have backed Guyana in its territorial dispute with Venezuela over a strip of land where Exxon Mobil discovered oil reserves. Venezuelans, once rich and proud, wake up every day feeling more ashamed of their sorry state, caused by their ignorance or apathy. They try to maintain some dignity, though. One day, I was having breakfast at a hotel with a friend from Caracas. The waiter brought us just coffee and he apologized: "it's a pity that we don't have any milk." My friend, smiling, replied with a popular Chavista slogan: "but we have our fatherland! We all laughed. This article was originally published on Confidencial Colombia. José Marulanda is a newspaper columnist, lawyer, security analyst, and Colombian army colonel in active reserve.

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