Public Spaces and Environmental Health in Cuba

May 18, 2017 |

By Alexander Londres

Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Talking about hygiene and sanitation in public spaces in Cuba has become a bit repetitive, as well as talking about communal services, especially garbage, has become an apparently talked to death issue, especially in Havana, the object of countless analyses regarding this subject.

Garbage out on the streets, bags filled with domestic waste on the sidewalk are still a daily reality which slap us in the face and make our noses shrivel, and which have become an obstacle that we have to sidestep when walking. However, this isn’t the subject of this article which, by the way, isn’t dealing with anything new.

To start off, I have two questions: What happens outside of the capital, and even within it, when it comes to other aspects which also form a part of communal services, which are linked to environmental health, beyond just sewage and garbage? Also, what happens with public toilets, for example?

Not too long ago, I read a comment which criticized the behavior of some people – men, in particular – who urinate without consideration in any dark place, behind a tree or lampost, in a corner, in the doorway to a home or another building. In the publication, the writer stated enough reasons to recriminate such an act, however, he lost sight of the analysis of a factor which is crucial, in my opinion, in order to have a broader vision of this phenomenon: the shortage of public sanitary services in our cities.

Let’s imagine that it’s one of those days when you have an upset stomach and you have to leave home and go far away; or let’s think about those people (regardless of gender) who, whether it’s because they are too young, have reached old age or have a specific health problem, can’t “hold onto these urges” when they feel the need to go. What do you do when you can’t find an adequate space dedicated to relieving the bladder and/or intestine? Will the solution continue to be asking neighbors for favors, or “permission” to use the toliet in companies or institutions located in the area when “Nature calls”, that is if they have bathrooms that are fit to use, if they aren’t just for employeees and, last but not least, if the person with the key is around?

The answer to this question should be “no”. But in reality, is it no?

Are there any plans, even if they are in the long term, to change this reality as well as the punitive actions that inspectors and police enforce on those who do their physiological needs in public spaces? Are sufficient measures being taken with the management of commercial establishments, cafes and other facilities where food services are provided, whose bathrooms are closed or remain in the worst possible condition?

Up until now, some reluctant justifying official – who doesn’t raise the recurring “economic crisis that is affecting our country” argument – could claim that the abovementioned are just isolated or specific cases which are due to exceptional circumstances, affecting very few individuals.

We would then need to bring up the fact that Cuba – which in 2025, will have 25% of its population senior citizens – ranks among the most aging countries in Latin America and, therefore, it’s an urgent issue which needs to be highlighted in the state’s agenda so that measures can be taken which are destined to improving the social life of a population which is experiencing a speedy aging process. Taking into account just how regular incontinence (anal and bladder) is in the last stage of people’s lives, installing a greater number of public toilets in urban spaces should be among the most essential priorities on the government’s agenda.

Another piece of clear-cut evidence with regard to the matter we are experiencing – or suffering – a countless number of Cuban men and women, is during the celebration of popular holidays and carnivals in any part of the country. Who has gone to “actively” participate in these holidays, where beer on tap is the most popular and in high demand beverage, and not found themselves needing to get rid of excess fluid urgently? When that time comes, where do you go if temporary toilet facilities don’t exist, don’t work or are insufficient?

Quite a few men, sometimes against their will, others out of (bad) habit, have no other choice but to stand against a wall or hide in the first shadow they find, putting their embarassment aside, to “free themselves” of their bodily waste. Women, on the other hand, have it a little more difficult with their more cautious social behavior, which doesn’t allow them to “do it” anywhere, and they even run physical danger if they try to.

A consequence of this “discharge” of human waste is the uncomfortable foul smell everywhere you go during these days of partying. The unsavory environment in the places where these public celebrations take place, and the discomfort that passers-by and neighbors there experience, puts them at risk of the potential dangers that reside in an unsanitary environment.

In the face of this scenario being repeated across the island, we have to also ask: Do local governments not consider the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) claims that a lack in sanitary conditions is associated with the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid fever and polio important? Or that, according to this international organization’s statistics, 1.7 million children under the age of 5 and 4.9 million adults aged between 50 and 75 years old could be saved every year if the environment was better managed, where hygiene is a specific risk factor?

Reconsidering urban planning in Cuba from the planning stage and drawing up more effective strategies which contribute to improving conditions of and for public sanitation, is of the utmost importance in order to reach the long awaited-for comfort and wellbeing that modern society need, and at the same time to comply with development objectives.

All of this shouldn’t be taken on as a sudden one-off task, but as part of a process for preparing for the future, which implies rigorous controls and demands, which call for decision-makers in Cuban society to urgently deal with this matter.

The permanence and proliferation of urban spaces that lack hygiene definitely have a significant responsibility in the social indiscipline. But, what do fines and exemplary actions do if they don’t achieve their objective?

The situation clearly needs to be dealt with by the governing authorities in every town. However to do so, they also need to be given the material conditions they need to work with a firm hand and perseverance in order to erradicate this problem. This is what is very clear, or can often be seen out of the corner of your eye. This is where the well-known phrase “Hygiene is Health” would take its rightful place, to stop being a simple slogan painted onto walls of sanitation institutions.

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What's your opinion?

  • Michael Ritchie

    You may remember…
    A while back I wrote a related piece regarding the lack of toilet seats in Havana. The article decried the fact that even at Jose Marti Airport, which welcomes international travelers, there are no toilet seats in the rest rooms.
    Since that article was published I’ve returned to the island twice.
    Nothing has changed.
    At Jose Marti Airport and at various other restaurants, bars, hotels, etc., toilet seats remain absent. Even one stall at the elegant Hotel Nacional was missing its seat.

    “As soon as we install them, they’re stolen” is the most common response to my queries regarding the missing hygienic accessories.
    How does one walk out of a guarded airport with a toilet seat when I can’t even secret a lighter past the armed guards?
    Toilet paper? Forget it. But at least one has the latest edition of Granma.
    The issues addressed in Mr. Londres’ article are probably more important than my silly toilet seat issue. But they are a lot more difficult. A lot has to do with the city’s water pressure, which doesn’t exist. To correct that, virtually all of Havana’s streets will have to be torn up to install new pipe systems. Costly and time-consuming.
    It will come, I’m sure.
    But in the meantime, despite economic hardships, one would think President Castro could at least make sure there are seats for the many in the few facilities available.

  • Michael Whitaker

    Excellent article.