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EXCLUSIVE: Reports From Cuba By Soraya Diase Coffelt: Three Houses A Day Collapse In Old Havana

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Soraya Diase Coffelt, JD, MJS

By SORAYA DIASE COFFELT/SPECIAL TO THE V.I. FREE PRESS

HAVANA – Today is the second day of my visit to Cuba. We began with a walking tour of old Havana and observed buildings that had been newly renovated as well as buildings that were under renovation, and others that were in a state of disrepair and crumbling.

Since Cuba was a part of the Spanish empire, Spanish architecture is predominant in the old city, with huge buildings that once were private homes, each with ornate facades and spectacular inner courtyards.

Havana has been described as a decaying city. The “city historian,” a government official, has been tasked with overseeing the renovations and ensuring the authenticity of the work. Because so much restoration is needed, some building projects can take over four years to complete.

The hotel where we were staying was just recently renovated. Portions of the streets in front of it and close by were dug up as government workers were laying new pipes for water, electricity and gas. There are no poles with overhead utility wires in old Havana.

The highlight of the day was the presentation to our group by renowned Cuban architect Miguel Coyula on Havana’s past, present and future urban planning and architectural challenges. After hearing Mr. Coyula speak, I better understood what had caused the widespread dilapidated and decaying buildings as well as the desperate need for renovations.

Over their history, Cubans believed that Havana was “a little piece of Europe in the Caribbean” as Mr. Coyula described. Families sent their children to various European universities to study and bring back their experiences and education to help develop their country. The architecture of the buildings in old Havana was a result of this.

After the revolution in 1959 that brought Castro into power, the new government nationalized all land ownership and concentrated its efforts in building new buildings to house Cubans. For decades, buildings that already existed were not maintained by the government, especially those in old Havana.

And, as the new buildings were built, they too were not maintained. Slowly, private ownership of the buildings has been allowed and today, about 94% of all housing is privately owned, but not the land which continues to be owned by the government.

Families, however, have not been able to afford the upkeep of the buildings. The average salary is $20 (U. S. dollars) per month.
Mr. Coyula estimates that three houses a day collapse due to a lack of maintenance.

In the meantime, there is an extremely high demand for housing in Havana and as the tourist economy continues to grow exponentially, housing for visitors is in high demand.

In fact, based on their tourism statistics, at least two million Americans will travel to Cuba over the next two years, and these figures are low projections.

The Cuban government faces a daunting task in planning for the urban revitalization of Havana. Additionally, the demand for food grows as currently 80% of its food is imported while an estimated five million acres of land lay unproductive. Much work needs to done to ensure a vibrant Cuba for its people.

Tomorrow, we will be spending time with the owners of vintage American vehicles as well learning about the history of Judaism in Cuba and meeting Cuban cultural dancers who have performed all around the world.

I was finally able to purchase an Internet card and hope to email my articles tomorrow. Hasta manana.

Soraya Diase Coffelt is a longtime St. Thomas resident, a retired Superior Court Judge and former V.I. Attorney General for the Mapp Administration who has a JD and MJS in law. She is visiting Cuba as part of a “people to people exchange” in conjunction with her alma mater Cornell University.

Old Havana capital

Havana capital: Photo by Soraya Diase Coffelt

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