Cut off

The water famine in the Centro Habana district of Havana was extreme. When I was there in December, people rushed to fill storage tanks, bowls, buckets,  whatever receptacle was to hand, when the mains supply was turned on, generally around 4pm in the afternoon. The supply was turned off again about 7pm.

Despite the water shortages, the Cuban government is apparently planning to build ten golf courses for the tourists. One golf course uses as much water as a town of 12,000 inhabitants, according to

The University of Havana suffers from the same privations as most of the rest of the city. The water supply to our campus building was turned off when I was there. This meant that the toilets were closed, although the guardian of the WCs would unlock in response to an urgent plea. Then it was a case of using a pail to scoop some of the remaining water from a barrel, and tipping it down the pan. The flush mechanisms had all been removed, and there was no water for hand washing.

The 88 wide steps leading up to Havana University are a city landmark. Students sit and stroll in pairs and groups on the pleasantly tree-shaded campus. I was there for a week to learn more Spanish, not nearly long enough, of course, but the maximum time I had. My fellow students were of all ages, including pensioners, mainly from northern and western Europe and Japan – and some from the USA.  Our teachers were expert, their classes excellent. They work in difficult conditions, because the university has other shortages besides water.

Books are scarce and many date from before the demise of the Soviet Union. In the pharmacy library, half the floor was up, and the dusty surroundings made me think I had stumbled into Miss Haversham’s hermitage in Charles Dickens‘ Great Expectations. An assistant was searching in an old-fashioned card index. There is no internet access on the campus, not a surprise because only Cubans with special authorisation, or with enough money to pay 6 to 10 cuc (£4 to £6.67, the equivalent of a week’s wages) for an hour at an official access point, can use the internet. Even then, the sites visited are monitored. In the university’s classrooms, teachers have a blackboard and chalk but not much else.

I think there are circumstances in which Cuban self-reliance goes too far, and education is one of them. It is a closed world. Outsiders cannot routinely apply for jobs or even work for free in Cuban schools or higher-education institutions, unless they have a place on one of the few tourism-cum-culture three- or four-week volunteer holiday programmes, which are closely monitored. I suppose the government thinks foreigners would spread imperialist propaganda. As a result, young people are not exposed to different points of view, nor challenged to think in different ways. Little by little, this deliberate sequestration threatens to marginalise Cuban scholarship. It’s not only water that is cut off in Cuba. Even if it’s not yet possible fully to restore the water supply, why not allow teachers and students more freedom to open the taps of communication?


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