The (Castroist) Ruralization of Havana (Part II)

1968, Year of Ruralization

For Castro’s rural mentality, if the countryside is the focus of revolutionary economic development, the city must become the countryside. “There will be very little area left in this province that is not agricultural”—the motto of the Havana Cordon.

1968 should have been the “Year of Ruralization.” It was baptized with a tepid name, not at all bombastic: “Havana Cordon.”[1]

The plan begins on April 17 with a command post similar to that of the Armed Forces, where orders are given. Havana’s Radio Cordon broadcasts the bulletin “Cordon News” (Castro’s first morning activity, according to legend). Tens of thousands of people, including underage students, are thrown into the so-called agricultural tasks of planting coffee, picking vegetables and tubers or clearing bushes. The goal is to turn the city into a giant agricultural production center.

New Topics of agricultural development The command posts Sergio Baroni, Centro de dirección agrícola El Yarey. Granma, 1969-1970, National Agricultural Management Center

At the end of 1968 Castro reviews the achievements in the Cordon. 908,389 fruit trees have been planted; 39 million 400,613 coffee plants, 13 million 793,110 pigeon peas and two million 612,913 trees. Unexpectedly, the project failed when it was discovered that the coffee plants were not progressing due to the parallel planting of pigeon peas, a leguminous plant intended to provide shade to the plantation, but which absorbed all the oxygen from the soil, killing the coffee plants.

Despite the strong setback, ruralization took another step forward with Law 1231, called “Law against vagrancy,” on March 15, 1971. It entailed the reconcentration of 218,000 adults for forced labor in production tasks. With an economy destroyed by intransigence and ineptitude, does it not become clear that forced labor and voluntary work promulgated by Castroism are mechanisms of coercion and control on a large scale?

Alamar, a Failed Model

The micro brigades project of the early seventies obeys the call of the Maximum Leader to the state enterprises and their labor force, to build apartment complexes to solve the housing shortage.

The companies provide the labor while the government supplies the building materials. Sixty-five percent of all housing in 1972 and 1974 came from micro brigades. Forty percent of the housing is erected around Havana. Here Castro’s coup de grâce:

In the countryside we will not build such large buildings, but we will certainly build vertically rather than horizontally.[2] And the policy that will be followed is to give preference to the countryside in the construction of housing over the city and preference above all to the workers who work in the state farms, and progressively we will also solve the housing problems of the peasants. That is to say that the countryside in construction will have priority over the city. And that is very logical and that is very fair, I don’t think anyone would dispute that (applause). (Emphasis added.)

A famous joke among Alamar residents in the late 1970s is that “everything in Alamar is built but the city.” Prefabricated, amorphous, isolated and impersonal, Alamar, by the late 1980s, is an urban disaster. Streets have been built behind the buildings (instead of in front of them). The visitor walks in the midst of drab courtyards and clotheslines. With no gardens or green areas, the development, as a whole, looks dreadful.

Seventy percent of the enclave’s buildings are in need of urgent structural repairs due to deficient prefabricated systems. Constant leaks increase the humidity in the houses. It is common for pipes to burst, floors to rise and roofs to give way under the weight of accumulated water a few years after completion. The well-known urban planner Mario Coyula explains it this way: “The houses built did not contribute to solve the problem of deterioration and loss of the stock, in the best of the cases that of cohabitation.”[3]

By the 1990s, 14 percent of the city’s population lives in slums, unhealthy areas, or housing in unrecoverable condition, 20 percent of the units in Havana lack electricity and potable water.

I quote from a study on Havana by Spanish urban planners Antonio López Ontiveros and José Naranjo Ramírez:

The abandonment of Havana, with the consequent process of shantytownization […] when Old Havana suffers from a very long period of total inoperativeness, of inadequacy between official policies and the real work of protection and recovery; all this will lead to a process of ruin that, in many cases, has been irremediable. Because today Old Havana is a decrepit city, a shapeless and Dantesque accumulation of ruins, the most chaotic urban complex we know. How is it possible that we have reached this state of affairs? (Emphasis added.)

View of the Micro X neighborhood in the municipality of Alamar, east of Havana / ‘Periodismo de Barrio’

The “Shantytownization” of Havana

In the mid-nineties, during the so-called “Special Period,” in the midst of terrible housing conditions, migration from east to west (also called “palestinization” of the capital) accelerated.[4] The crisis became shantytownization: forced overcrowding in precarious housing on the outskirts of the city, built with cardboard, boards, plastic, zinc roofs, without drinking water, toilets or electricity.[5]

A study by René González Rego of the Geography faculty of the University of Havana shows:

It can be affirmed that the Cuban capital has been turning into a city of immigrants, since, if in 1977 41 percent of the population growth was due to internal migratory balance, in the period 1989-93 this represented 74 percent of it […] there is a tendency to live in increasingly precarious conditions, especially for those who migrate in search of work […]. Those who arrived between 1990 and 1995 settled in unhealthy neighborhoods, mainly in the outlying municipalities of the city, and the problem of the different perception of environmental conditions is noticeable, since even in these precarious living conditions, 60 percent of those interviewed say that their living and socioeconomic conditions in Havana have improved compared to their places of origin. (Emphasis added.)

Consensus from misery? The worst of Havana can be the best for someone from the eastern provinces.

According to journalist Gladys Linares, in the Cuban capital there are sixty-five shantytowns in subhuman conditions. Thousands of thousands of unclassified occupants of Havana’s “llega y pon”:

Without the right to work legally, without a ration book or access to basic services such as electricity, drinking water or sewage. Always with the fear of being deported to their province of origin. Their children, born in Havana, must be registered in the mother’s legal domicile, which of course is not the capital. While the communists never tire of talking about social justice… this is the drama that more than 700,000 undocumented Cubans have lived for years in their own country.[6]

Another factor in the “shantytownization” is the Cuban government’s new gentrification policy (kept secret for obvious reasons) of encouraging destruction to build luxury hotels, particularly after the 2020 pandemic. In the text accompanying the video, independent journalist Mario Echevarría Driggs states: “Whoever’s house falls down in Old Havana or in Central Havana, (goes to) a shelter, but you know, far away. No reconstruction of your house, no repairing your house. It’s sad what is happening.” According to Driggs, the Cuban government’s usual practice of taking advantage of the deterioration suffered by many buildings located in downtown areas to erect new hotels. “They prefer to let the building fall down and send you to a shelter.”

View of Los Mangos neighborhood in San Miguel del Padrón, Havana, where emigrants from eastern Cuba have arrived and live in “llegan y pon” houses / El Estornudo

According to USA Today, some 3,856 partial or total building collapses were reported in Havana between 2000 and 2013, not counting 2010 and 2011 when no records were kept. The collapses have worsened the already severe housing shortage. Havana alone had a deficit of 206,000 housing units in 2016, according to official figures.

A recent article in The Washington Post by Abraham Jimenez Enoa updates the misfortune during the pandemic:

Currently, 47 percent of all Cuban housing is in need of rehabilitation or repair and five percent is in danger of collapse, states a report by the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights. Within this real estate debacle suffered by the island, Havana, the most densely populated province in the country, has the worst numbers (…) with 2.1 million inhabitants, it has a housing deficit of 185,348 properties, of which 83,878 need to be repaired and 46,158 need to be replaced. In addition, 43,854 homes are needed for people who lost their homes due to collapses and are living in state shelters, as well as 11,458 more homes due to the city’s housing growth.[7]

There is not Enough Habana for So Many People

The crisis is so palpable that international newspapers have chosen to present a kind of photo essay, simply showing the degradation of the city. Here is the 16-photo dossier curated for El País by Sanne Derks.

Another essay, appearing in the British newspaper The Guardian, opens with the following:

The main focus of this project is to document the dismal housing situation in Old Havana, a reflection of the country’s wider collapse. Some sources suggest the government allows buildings to collapse in order to be able to buy them cheaply and convert them into tourism infrastructure. […] The voices in this report reveal a reality different from the image of a Caribbean paradise, of life in dilapidated buildings among rats, bedbugs, cockroaches and damp, with suffering continuous power and water cuts and only very limited purchasing power. (Emphasis added.)

Finally, the Maximum Leader’s dream of ruralizing Havana, discrediting it, has come true!


[1] Norberto Fuentes: “Cordón de La Habana: la capital hace su abundancia”, Cuba, marzo, 1968, pp. 3-16.

[2] That verticality of construction can be seen as early as 1959, in the model “Libertad,” a skyscraper-type building imagined in Alamar by Ysrael Zeinuk and Martín Domínguez (the latter the architect of iconic buildings in Vedado such as Radio Centro and FOCSA). See this article from the newspaper El País.

[3] Tomás Ernesto Pérez: “Microbrigadas,” Periodismo de Barrio, January 4, 2016.

[4] See this report by Yolanda Huerga. The term “Palestinian” is a pejorative construction used against black and mestizo people living in Granma, Las Tunas, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, which is hardly used against the natives of Holguin, firstly, because it has a better development structure, and secondly because, although most Holguineros are mestizos, it is a city that promotes itself as white and Hispanic in its identity. The population and housing census conducted in 2012 indicated that more than 518 thousand people born in other provinces were in Havana.

[5] “Migrants arrive at night, taking advantage of the darkness, and in no time at all they build a room, no matter what material the walls, floor or ceiling are made of, to add another “llega y pon” to the more than 20,000 homes registered in Havana’s 23 illegal neighborhoods. Most of the families do not own the land. Nor do they have a ration card, electricity meter or water from the aqueduct. A clothesline that goes from house to house helps them to keep the lights on at night and to turn on the occasional household appliance, overwhelmed by the low voltage.” Redacción, “Llega y pon: la triste vida de llegar de oriente a La Habana en busca de un futuro mejor” (2022). Retrieved April 26, 2023.

[6] Linares continues: “For many years the government has not had the capacity to house all those in need. Year after year the pro-government media echoes some new ‘housing program’ with which the leaders pretend to be willing to solve the serious situation of the housing stock, especially in the capital. And year after year the show remains as mere government propaganda, because the negligence and slackness of the leaders of the sector prevents its realization.” See here a video of the situation.

[7] Read this testimony in El Estornudo of the very notorious collapse in January 28, 2020, in Jesús María’s neighborhood, that cost the lives of three girls.

Alfredo Triff is a tenured professor of philosophy at Miami Dade College and professor of design history at the University of Miami. He has written cultural criticism for Miami New Times, Sun Post and El Nuevo Herald. His books include Pulpa, Hígado al ensayo y Miami Arts Explosion.


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