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The Eternal Return of Garbage in Havana

In socialist Cuba waste is recycled but not as an ecological practice but as a means of survival. In one of the largest landfills in the capital you can see the so-called 'divers' digging in the dumps to feed the black market circuits, where authorities and traffickers have a slice, until the products -mayonnaise or meat, grains or soft drinks- arrive at the domestic pantries. With this work, Armando.info begins to publish in-depth reports made in the largest of the Antilles.



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Havana - Cristino Rojas does not go along the Buena Suerte street, hawking Delicia mayonnaise or Toki soft drinks. He got these products from his humble and risky job as a collector in a landfill in Havana. A lethal disease took him in less than six months. While in the rest of the world the big markets throw out tons of food close to their expiration date, in Fidel Castro's Cuba the Government and the black market only pretend to do it. 

Distrust of buying groceries or toiletries increases in Havana. Wholesale products, which are often expired or close to expiration, escape from stores and warehouses, including clandestine copies or adulterations of those of greater consumption, like coffee, rum and an immeasurable range of products. There are less and less product lines complying with the regulatory cycle in shelves of stores or capital fairs. And as soon as they are dumped in the dunghills, they are recycled by the so-called divers or garbage diggers.

The Routes of ‘Dumping’

Everyone is reluctant to talk about dumping. This is what they call the unloading of each truck with discarded products from state companies that arrive at the landfill, the open-air garbage dump at Calle 100 y Ocho Vías, created in 1976 in the south of Havana. It is an area of ??about 200 square meters (2152 square feet) adjoining the municipalities of the capital outskirts of Arroyo Naranjo, Cotorro and San Miguel del Padrón, considered among the poorest and most polluted in the capital.

A regular visitor to the garbage dump, who remained anonymous - no photos or recording -, says that they expect a shipment of meat from the Cuban-Spanish company Tauros. In combination with the landfill custodians, they first proceed to do as if they will burn the product and bury it in previously opened pits, a ritual that takes place under the presence of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR). But the fire will be extinguished as soon as the authorities leave, and if the pits are covered with earth an excavator will be ready to dig up. Then the meat will be reloaded in private transport. It will be redistributed in established clandestine circuits of the informal market.

There, the first offer of recycled garbage expands in the population, in closer neighborhoods or districts, such as Ojo de Agua, Parcelación Moderna and San Francisco de Paula. Naturally, depending on what appears as an offer, it can be "marketed" in any part of the capital. Cheap prices are more attractive for a population with low resources.

In the last week of December 2015, a batch of beans returned to the streets of Havana, specifically to the town of La Lira, south of the capital. The merchandise was never incinerated in the landfill in Calle 100 y Ocho Vías.

"Many collectors made packages of red, black and white beans, as well as chickpeas. Nothing was incinerated or buried," argued Alexis Monterrey, one of the haulers who dump waste in Calle 100 y Ocho Vías.


As soon as they are dumped in the dunghills, they are recycled by the so-called divers or garbage diggers. Photo: Flickr/Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas.

"The dumping happens every week, more than once, and with any type of merchandise, from parts and pieces of electronic equipment to personal care products. Here everyone joins the game. Everyone receives their money: the truck driver, we the loaders, and the custodians of the dump," says the anonymous witness.
The landfill is arranged so that to throw and incinerate all kinds of remains, without classification. The waste comes from companies, hospitals and the residential sector. Attracted by this way of earning a living, countless divers or waste collectors swarm and sometimes even live in the premises in makeshift shanties. They have been evicted by the police, but they return.

From Indolence to Complicity

Poverty and ambition create new corruption pacts. They mixed the boundaries of the majority state property and the black market, confusing them. They include garbage and industrial waste, which make up real bottlenecks.

Garbage is already part of the city's environment. The growing stacks in the corners are raised with alarm by both official and independent newspapers. The accumulation occurs even by local regulation. The inhabitants of La Prosperidad, in the San Miguel del Padrón municipality, have to accumulate their own waste for over 20 days.

On January 1, 2016, the official newspaper Granma published in the section “Cartas a la Dirección” (Letters to the Directorate) the complaint of a citizen about a new spontaneous landfill. Since a year ago, garbage accumulates on Avenida 255, between 44 and 46, Punta Brava, La Lisa municipality, in the capital.

However, Armando Fernández, a sexagenarian of San José residential neighborhood in the Mayabeque municipality, puts the same thing into practice, but for convenience. As he trades in recycling, he fills all the rooms in his home with collected waste.

But the reality of the waste circuit is still much more complex. Sometimes expired products do not even arrive at the landfills.

At around five in the afternoon of last December 23, three employees of Comunales (a garbage collection state company) opened in the Pando Ferrer hospital the boxes and nylon bags that this institution disposes of to recycle bottles and medical instruments. This is corroborated by a video taken by Cuban journalist Laura Paz, a contributor to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Another case reported was the sale of mayonnaise and synthetic soft drinks with expired date labels in La Prosperidad neighborhood, San Miguel del Padrón municipality, in March 2012.

Subsequently, two other revelations of this endless detritus route were made, “Cacharreros (junk dealers), by journalist and writer Frank Correa, on the digital portal Cubaprensalibre.com, in April 2014; or the release by journalist Miriam Herrera Calvo, Granizado en vasos contaminados sacados de la basura (Slush in contaminated glasses taken from the trash), en Cubanet.org, in January 2015.

The tittle-tattles of this shady trade border on the institutional, but nothing more. This is revealed by the open letter from the General Manager of Habana Oeste branch office of CIMEX stores (the commercial, retail and wholesale holding company of the Cuban State), in response to the article “¿Tienda Coyula o Tienda con coyunda? (A Coyula store or a strapped store?), a report published in Cubadebate, a governmental digital portal. In this case, it is recognized that the commercial establishment was selling expired paint, and not even at a sale price, and despite the official regulation that provides the removal of every expired product from the shelves.

Death Hangs around the Garbage Dump

Surreptitious recycling emerges in the meager daily consumption, in the same way that causes of death, epidemics and contamination increase.

The first known death among the inhabitants-merchants of the garbage dump of Calle 100 and Ocho Vías was in 2001. Back then, Cristino Rojas, a man of only 36 years old became ill and died in a devastating manner, his family recalls. According to his death certificate, it was due to acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

The next sudden death occurred in 2014, in the garbage dump at Calle 100. Fredy González, 40, lived in the dump. Fearing the spread of a very aggressive infection, the Public Health authorities shrouded him right there, as some told to this team of landfill reporters.

Under anonymity, two physicians from the Institute of Oncology stated that acute lymphoblastic leukemia is an acquired cancer disease and that there is no effective treatment on the island to fight it.

"The ongoing exposure to lead, tin and radioactive products is a potential active component for this pathology," said one of them.

An agreement signed in 2007 by and between the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment in the Department of Community Services of the City of Havana and the Japanese Agency for International Cooperation and the International Pacific Consulting Company Nippon Koei Co. provided for a plan to be developed for rational waste management. It was a 9-year project with a budget of 96.7 million US dollars and 138.4 million Cuban pesos.


Not even CIMEX stores, the commercial holding company of the Cuban State, escapes from the complaints for resale of expired and damaged products. Photo: Cubadebate.

The main objective of this plan was to classify garbage from its own dumping base in suburban neighborhoods, with the possibility of extending it to the rest of the city. It also aimed to clean up the existing dumps, where for over 40 years, organic and inorganic waste is mixed in a noxious cocktail. The goal was to transform them into controlled waste disposal sites. Harmful emissions and earth contamination would be reduced to a sustainable minimum. They would be transformed into healthy recycling sites that would produce compost and biogas.

Once the deadline was reached in 2015, the goals to achieve were very far from the aim. On the contrary, the garbage dumps in the city and the clandestine trade with its contents significantly increased, thus the danger for the population.

Luis Martínez, a long-experienced environmental specialist and former professor at Universidad de La Habana, went into great detail about this matter in an interview. He assured that classifying garbage is indispensable. There are soils contaminated due to mercury waste. They can pollute underground water with carcinogenic compounds.

"The continuous and disorganized mixing of landfills caused heavy metals and other harmful products to settle in the land," he said.

Another consulted oncologist who requested to remain anonymous said, "There are risk factors that are linked to neoplastic diseases. People working with lead, asbestos, beryllium and other toxic substances are in a medium with risk factors. Neoplasms, like viral leukemia and fatal infections are likely to incubate in individuals who are permanently in a polluted environment like mixed garbage."

He also assured that cancer is the first cause of death in the country. The national statistics confirm it, as they are extreme if compared to the statistics of other nations in the area: one out of five deaths is a victim of cancer.

The specialist emphasized that the national figures —which have experienced a 3% increase in deaths from cancer from 2000 to 2014, as recorded in the Public Health Statistical Yearbook— could be even higher.

"The statistics are distorted because the cause of death indicated in death certificates often hides the main reason for death," he said.


Failure in garbage collection in Cuba is on the agenda of the Cuban media. Photo: Cihpress.com

It is common that in places where mixed garbage accumulates for years, emanations like methane, trichloroethylene and benzene are produced. All cause diseases of various types, some fatal. The expert consulted warned that this type of contamination was not occurring in landfill garbage only.

"There are industrial plants in Cuba that are capable of concentrating metals in their proportion up to 15 times," he concluded.

"In addition, the oxidants that farmers are using to accelerate the ripening of earth fruits and their sale, like calcium carbide and other artisanal alcohols, contain heavy metals that are absolute producers of cancer, which are directly consumed by the population throughout the country, without any sanitary control ", commented specialist Martínez.

The careless contamination of land indicated by former professor Luís Martínez is confirmed by a study published in the Cuban Journal of Health and Work (2012/13 (1) / 3-9), of the Institute of Sciences, Technologies and Environment, Evaluación de la incorporación de metales pesados al agro-ecosistema. Rol de las prácticas productivas ejecutadas por los trabajadores agrícolas (Evaluation of the incorporation of heavy metals into the agro-ecosystem. Role of productive practices executed by agricultural workers).

In this extensive study it is stated that "...for several years, the area under study has been exposed to the effects of the emission of aerosols associated with spontaneous fires caused by the combustion of gases as a result of the fermentation of the organic waste of urban solids, bad odors, presence of rodents and insects and the proven contamination of the Almendares river waters that circulate in the area, resulting in alterations in the physical-chemical and microbiological parameters of the river waters.”

Nobody Answers

Trade and general corruption take the increasing jam and final disposal of garbage to a new-route recycling. They are trade agreements of spontaneous organization that operate surreptitiously within the same State apparatus, including the direct theft of their coffers. With the almost absolute state monopoly of the national official import and distribution, it is too tempting with the prevailing poverty. It becomes impossible for individuals of the state administration not to be part of this illicit trade and incur in crimes that - along with bureaucratic negligence -do not affect public health.

A broad report of December 11, 2014, by the official Granma newspaper “El rastro de la basura” (The Garbage Trail), by Arlin Alberty Loforte, which includes interviews with three officials related to public hygiene, does not mention the status of the restructuring plan of Havana landfills. The attempts to communicate by telephone with them and ask for their opinion on this issue were futile. The telephone numbers provided by the Information department of the State Telephone Company (ETECSA) did not correspond with those of the officials José Luis Toledo Álvarez, vice president of the Provincial Administration Board, Adalberto Freyre Giraudy, director of Comunales in Centro Habana municipality, and Abel Camejo Peñalbert, first vice president of the Administration Board of Havana.

Thirteen years after the death of Cristino and only two after Fredy's, other divers are immersed in a business of few that involves many. The garbage and the dark shortcuts of recycling contribute to the pantry of the Cubans.


Death hangs around the landfills in Cuba.

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