Havana fights trash problem ahead of 500th anniversary

Luxury hotels are rising fast along the Prado, the tree-lined colonial boulevard that is home to many of Havana’s best-known architectural masterworks.

Yet within sight of five-star lodgings charging $500 a night, stray cats and flies swarm mountains of uncollected trash. Piles reeking of rotting waste spill out of dumpsters and climb waist-high as garbage trucks fail to appear for days and even weeks.

One of the most basic functions of city government — trash collection — has become a serious problem in one of Latin America’s most spectacular cities, which celebrates the 500th anniversary of its founding next year.

In the Atares neighborhood just outside Old Havana, Daysi Boza, 71, sleeps with a stick laid across the bottom of her door to keep out rats that feed on the trash spilling from the four big garbage bins feet from her door.

“I can’t even remember how many years this has gone on,” she said. “Every day it’s filthy, stinking — a pigsty.”

The root cause appears to be the cash crunch affecting Cuba’s entire government, leaving infrastructure crumbling, suppliers unpaid and state-run businesses without the inputs needed to produce basic goods.

Cuban officials blame the six-decade U.S. embargo for strangling its economy. The government’s critics point to the inefficiency and pervasive small-scale corruption in one of the word’s last centrally planned economies.

Officials say Havana has fewer than half of the 100 garbage trucks it needs to conduct daily trash pickups for the city’s 2 million residents. Many of those trucks, mostly Chinese-made, regularly are out of service due to a lack of spare parts.

“I’m surprised — I expect to see crumbling buildings, but not so much trash,” said Rosario Aneas, a 38-year-old art professor from Spain on a short trip to Cuba. “It’s affects the image of Cuba, mars it, and it’s a shame for such a beautiful city.”

Aggravating the problem is the fact that virtually no Havana residents use trash bags, which are difficult to find and even when available are hard to afford on a state salary of about $30 a month.

Instead of bags, people collect trash in plastic paint buckets that they empty into dumpsters that sit on most street corners in Havana. Because the bins are filled with loose trash, they spill over and reeking garbage piles up as soon as a truck misses a few days’ pickups.

The problem is so serious that Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has gotten involved, saying at a recent meeting that his government should look for foreign investors to help fix the trash crisis.

His administration hopes to create a $100 million company controlled by the Cuban government with a minority share held by foreign investors to handle Havana’s 2,400 tons of daily trash, earning money by recycling and producing energy from landfill gas.

Foreign Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca told The Associated Press recently that the government had negotiated with a Spanish business but the talks fell through and Cuba is now talking with other potential partners.

The trash problem worsened after 2010 economic reforms that allowed Cubans to buy and sell houses and start small businesses in their homes. Instead of paying for professional carting as required by the city, many works crews simply dump sacks full of rubble alongside the nearest trash bin.

Many Habaneros dump their domestic trash on top of the rubble, creating mountains of foul-smelling refuse.

“Some people throw bags of trash from the fifth floor window,” said Luis Alberto Martinez, a 50-year-old messenger.

The head of the municipal government said in May that along with new trucks, Havana needed 12,000 new dumpsters to handle the trash problem.

Dozens of Cuban have been arrested in recent years for stealing the big metal bins and cutting them up in workshops to make improvised tubes and other goods in a country with shortages of virtually every product.

Cuban authorities say they are hopeful that 60 trash trucks donated by Japan will arrive by the end of the year to help alleviate the problem.

Meanwhile, Habaneros on every side of the trash problem are growing frustrated.

“People are really undisciplined,” said Victor Leon, a city worker in a crew of six men, some prisoners on work release, picking up trash that had fallen on the street as a garbage truck emptied bins in the Cerro neighborhood.

“We’re cleaning up around the dumpsters, but you’ll see, in 45 minutes this will look just as bad.”

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Andrea Rodríguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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