NEAL PEIRCE COLUMN
For Release Sunday, January 13, 2002
© 2001 Washington Post Writers
By Neal R. Peirce
HAVANA -- Continued bickering by the U.S. and Cuban governments, on every topic from political freedoms to economic embargo, is obscuring a fascinating opening toward grassroots democracy in this capital city.
A quarter of Havanas 2 million
people now live in neighborhoods where one of the Western Hemispheres
most ambitious citizen participation experiments is underway.
The effort began 14 years ago when
leading Cuban architects and planners formed a the Group for the Integral Development
of Havana and began setting up neighborhood transformation workshops
to let grassroots residents make more decisions for themselves and stop waiting
for commands handed down from the central government.
None of this means Fidel Castro welcomes
outright dissent. Openly defying the government can still land Cubans in prison.
Politically orthodox Committees for the Defense of the Revolution still function
in Cuban neighborhoods.
But whether the issues housing
or infrastructure, social services or urban gardening, the Cuban authorities
have been increasingly willing to listen to residents and let them mobilize
to tackle problems their own way.
Leading Cuban architect (and revolutionary veteran) Mario Coyula, a leader of the Integral Development group and currently a visiting professor at Harvards Design School, describes the effort with words that often roll from the mouths of progressive U.S. planners: decentralized, participatory, ecologically sound, self-sustaining.
All thats been no easy task
in a country racked by economic hardship and the inability of government to
supply neighborhoods with their accustomed rations of food or fuel since collapse
of Soviet support in the early 90s.
But hard times have prompted the government to permit some free market entrepreneurship -- independent restaurants and craft sales, for example. A natural parallel has been to encourage citizens to develop plans for their neighborhoods, to look for ways to generate revenues as government assistance dries up, to study and then attack substandard housing, environmental hazards and social problems.
How, for example, to recycle wastes?
Or recycle building rubble into new construction materials? Or help women develop
skills to increase their incomes in ways that avoid the rampant prostitution
thats accompanied opening of the tourist trade?
Architects, engineers, social workers
and engineers are made available to advise the neighborhood workshops. Officials
of the 15 municipalities of Havana are encouraged to take joint training and
collaborate with (instead of suppressing) the neighborhood initiatives. Each
spring theres a sort of Olympic competition of the neighborhoods as each
(20 are now participating) presents its most original experiences andachievements
at a citywide meeting.
Some neighborhoods star; others lose
momentum with change of their elected leaders. Still, Cubas emerging recognition
that many problems are best handled from the bottom up, not down from central
government offices, has a familiar ring for Americans. Democracy, like ground
cover, has a way of spreading once planted.
Another similarity: Cuba is rejecting
the stark high-rises for lower-income housing that were so popular for years
under practically all world systems -- communism, fascism and capitalism. Design-wise,
the Cubans now see the as too energy-intensive. And theres huge social
cost: People lose their identity, become anonymous, and the social problems
become very big, says Mario Coyula. Mixed town-like developments of varied
but human-scale heights and forms, he adds, must be the answer.
Another Havana surprise: its architect-planners
are becoming world-class achievers in explaining urban form and development
issues. The proof is in their incredibly detailed 1:1,000 scale model of all
of Havana and its surrounding region, on display at a custom-made pavilion in
the Miramar neighborhood. Produced largely from the cedar wood of empty cigar
boxes, the models a low-tech but powerful tool to explain Havanas
history and future choices to schoolchildren, tourists, government executives,
neighborhood activists, would-be developers.
Ive not seen a model of comparable detail and technical mastery anywhere in the U.S. The miniature buildings are extremely accurate and color-coded to give viewers a sense of how the city grew from its colonial era (1519-1898) to the revolutionary years since 1959. Every neighborhoods physical setting and historic context is clear.
Showing American visitors the model,
Miguel Coyula (Marios cousin and a member of the Integral Development
team) enjoys telling the story of how, in the late 80s, a 46-story office
building was proposed to be built beside the Plaza de la Revolucion. Proponents
and critics were invited to see a precise scale model of the building placed
on the city model. But the skyscrapers mass was so inappropriate that
at moment it was inserted, there was stunned silence in the room. All
that remains is a cardboard model reminding us of that King Kong proposal,
From grassroots politics to architecture
and town planning, the conclusion emerges: we Americans and the Cubans, notwithstanding
the ideological gulf said to separate us, are wrestling with parallel 21st century
Now, cant our governments wake
up and smell the coffee?