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La Guinera: a self managed community in south Havana

Edited by Bill Caspary from reports of the I. I. S. conference visit to La Guinera by Gloria Pasin, Bob Stone, & Ken Estey. They are not responsible for mistakes I may have made in this account.

The Group for the Integral Development of the Capital City is the central agency for participatory community development in Havana. At the behest of Fidel Castro, the agency constructed and placed on exhibit a very large model of the city. The public is encouraged to visit the model to gain a broad perspective on the city, and contribute suggestions for physical and social development. The agency trains architects in community development and sends them to the neighborhoods, while neighborhood residents are brought to the agency for workshops in building design and neighborhood planning. Through this participatory and interactive process,the option of high rise housing was rejected. High rises are good for investors in capitalist housing markets, giving a high return on investment. For a low income society, however, they are too technology and energy intensive, and for a socialist society their size and design isolates neighbor from neighbor. Single family dwellings were also rejected on grounds of cost per unit, and lack of community. The general guideline reached, therefore, was for multi-family buildings, walkups of no more than six stories.

For planning purposes Havana is divided into neighborhood units, one of which is La Guinera, which I.I.S. members visited. La Guinera, a municipality in the southern part of Havana is not a cooperative, but is a self-managed community of 24,000 people, with its own physical and social characteristics. Before the Revolution, a marginal community, with a very low standard of living, La Guinera today is still visibly a poor neighborhood with a mixture of new, rehabilitated, and deteriorating housing. It is only by comparing it with what it might have easily become-the shanty town “barrios” of Caracas or Bogota, and the “favelas” of Rio de Janiero-that one can appreciate the relative success that Cuba has achieved here.

“Micro brigades,” made up of neighborhood residents donating their labor, construct new housing in La Guinera. Materials, machinery, and technical help are provided by the government. The process begins with a neighborhood housing assessment and recruiting campaign. Volunteers walk around the neighborhood, noting the poorest housing. They knock on doors house by house, asking residents to join the brigade. A series of meetings and workshops follows. The most responsible and committed people people form the brigade, and elect a chairperson from among themselves. The brigade members receive construction skills training, but also turn for expertise to the architect assigned by the central agency to their neighborhood. The current brigade consists of 33 people, with a woman as elected leader, who began building in 1994. The work is done without pay during the members´ time after their regular employment.

Women outnumber men in the micro-brigades, attracted by the chance to acquire skills and gain autonomy, and hoping to improve conditions for children, families, and the community. Machismo sometimes surfaces in response to these resourceful women. Some brigade members were told by their husbands, “either the micro-brigade or the marriage.” Most of the women did not succumb to these threats.

Unlike many “sweat equity” projects in the U. S., where individuals contribute labor on their own homes, the brigade builds housing for the community. Brigade members may eventually live in one of the new units, but many other neighborhood residents will be accommodated as well. When residents move into the new housing their old dwellings are rehabilitated. Other brigade projects include building schools and day care centers. The first building, begun in 1987, contained nine apartments and took 8 months to build. Subsequent buildings of 45 apartments took two years to build. The current micro-brigade has been working on a 45-unit building since 1994, with progress delayed by shortage of materials due to the loss of trade and subsidies from the former USSR. The total number of apartments completed is 345. There appears to be a high level of morale and participation in decision-making within the brigade.

In addition to housing and other construction, neighborhood services include health care. In La Guinera, there are 32 paramedics nearby who can offer maternal, pediatric, general hospital care, and educational services. La Guinera is also the site for a community center building, donated by an American couple in memory of their son who had been a devoted supporter of the Cuban revolution. At the community center there is a wide range of classes and services, including a day care center, and elder care. There are environmental preservation classes for young people, aimed at raising a new generation of ecologically aware citizens. A youth education class provides information and encourages discussion on AIDS and homosexuality. For women there are parenting classes, self-esteem groups, and training in various job skills.

La Guinera presents a model of participatory community development which may well be applicable in other societies. Comparing it, for example, with Boston´s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the United States, reveals common features of participatory planning and construction, as well as highlighting the vast differences in social and political context.

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