Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Havana Cleans Up For Obama

Locals are unimpressed by efforts to overhaul the appearance of an otherwise neglected city.
By Odelín Alfonso Torna, Julio C.A.
  • The National Capitol Building under restoration is pictured at the end of a street in Havana. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)
    The National Capitol Building under restoration is pictured at the end of a street in Havana. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Brigades of workers clad in fluorescent vests have ploughed through the streets of Havana in recent weeks, unblocking drains and sewers. Streetlights, rubbish bins and road signs have sprung up in places where they have never been seen before.

Other labourers worked against the clock to paint the facades of the houses lining the capital’s central avenues, while the Latinoamericano, the flagship stadium for Cuban ballgames, was also painstakingly refurbished.

The regime has been making meticulous preparations for the March 20-22 visit of Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, the first official visit by a US president since 1928.

Not all locals, however, have been impressed.

 “This is another pantomime,” said Néstor Torres, a 39-year-old builder and one of Cuba’s growing number of small-scale private entrepreneurs. He noted numerous previous visits by dignitaries that had led to short-term cosmetic improvements but no lasting change.

“We’ve already seen it with the [visits of] popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis. Also when [in 2009] Olga Tañón and Juanes announced the Peace Without Borders concert in Revolution Square.  While these old guys [Fidel and Raúl] are in power this country won’t be fixed even if Jesus Christ himself comes down.”

Residents were further infuriated by the efforts of sanitation inspectors issuing fines to those deemed to be dumping rubbish or failing to maintain their properties.

At the beginning of March, for instance, about 60 residents were fined for water leakages inside their homes in the capital’s San Francisco de Paula neighbourhood.

Obama is due to visit the district to tour the Ernest Hemingway Museum.

With no prior notice, the authorities asked for identification and handed fines ranging from 30 to 300 Cuban pesos (1.50-11 US dollars). The average monthly salary in Cuba is 23 dollars.

“I hope Obama talks to me so I can tell him that we were fined for leaks inside our homes,” complained 57-year-old housewife Elisa Contino. “And what about the leaks on the streets? Who’s fining the government? All of this is because Obama is going to the Hemingway Museum. Now they want the neighbourhood to be cleaner than ever. When Kerry [the US Secretary of State] came to the museum, they stopped all the leaks on Buena Suerte Road, and afterwards everything continued the same or worse.”

Many citizens want it to be human rights issues that play a central part in the meetings between Obama and Castro.

The independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) has reported at least 2,555 politically motivated short-term detentions so far this year.

A student at Havana’s Kim II Sung college, who asked not to be identified, said, “It would be a step in the right direction if there were an opportunity not just for exchanges with the government but also to meet with civil society organisations, and to also let the opposition speak; they really know more about current problems.”

Tamara Rodríguez Quesada, an activist in the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), agreed.

“I don’t think that this visit will bring us hope of any kind,” Rodríguez said.  “I’d tell Obama that if he wants to know about people’s reality, he should walk with the people, interview the people.  Don’t let them direct your visits. Understand the people, the real people of Cuba.”

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