HAVANA NOTEBOOK: STIRRINGS OF
NEIGHBORHOOD DEMOCRACY

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NEAL PEIRCE COLUMN
For Release Sunday, January 13, 2002

© 2001 Washington Post Writers Group

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 Havana’s 2 million people now live in neighborhoods where one of the Western Hemisphere’s 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 issue’s 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 Harvard’s 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 that’s 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 that’s 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 there’s 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, Cuba’s 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 there’s 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 model’s a low-tech but powerful tool to explain Havana’s history and future choices to schoolchildren, tourists, government executives, neighborhood activists, would-be developers.
I’ve 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 neighborhood’s physical setting and historic context is clear.

Showing American visitors the model, Miguel Coyula (Mario’s 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 skyscraper’s 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,” says Coyula.

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 challenges.

Now, can’t our governments wake up and smell the coffee?