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Cuba at 50 - Interview with Andro Williams

Civil engineer discusses Cuban life after 50 years of revolution

by Gwalgen Geordie Dent

Cuba at 50 - Interview with Andro Williams

For the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, contribuing member, Gwalgen Geordie Dent went to Havana to talk to folks about life in Cuba. He spoke with Andro Williams, a civil engineer and director of projects in Old Havana, on January 4th, 2009, 3 days after the anniversary.

Gwalgen Dent: What do you do on a day to day basis?

Andro Williams: Normally I do projects of restoration in all the buildings in Havana including the buildings that are destroyed in the hurricane. 30 people work in my department, which only oversees the direction of restoration projects. Construction is another department. My first job was in construction, but now I've changed the work to engineering.

G: What kind of challenges are in your job, what makes it difficult?

A: We have many limitations here in Cuba. For example, the computers are not the best, no paper or supplies. In my department we have a lot of skilled people, but when we implement a project the construction is not the best. We don't have good qualifications and skill in construction. This is the problem.

We do not produce a lot of construction materials here in Cuba and we need to import some of this material from Canada and other countries in Europe. But, for example, the conditions in Canada are not the same as the conditions in Cuba. Humidity in Cuba is very high and for that reason a lot of buildings have humidity problems with the walls. We have a laboratory to analyze materials, but we do not have the best equipment.

In my work specifically we sometimes have poblems with bureaucracy. Things are slow. We can make a very good project but, the directors will say it is too expensive. They are correct, but cheaper projects do not last as long.

G: Tell me about the economic blockade. Does it impact your work?

A: Not exactly. In my job there is more relation to people from Europe, for example, Spain than the US. Most of the buildings which were built in Havana were built during colonization by Spain. The books and the memory of these year are in Spain. I think the blockade does influence us a little though. We can't participate in the congress of engineers in the US for example. Some of the best engineers in the world are in the US. We can't interact with them.

The US also buys-up some enterprises who do business in Cuba. And then the business with Cuba must stop This was what happened with Sandisk Cruzers. A US business bought them so we don't have Cruzer disks (flash drives) in Cuba anymore.

G: Can you tell me about the credit and loan problems in Cuba?

A: Cuban people can buy something in other countries, but the state cannot get credit to buy it through US banks due to the blockade. For that reason we can't buy things in other countries on credit like equipment, transport raw materials, medicines. We can theoretically buy these things in other countries but we don't have the money up front and we can't get the credit to buy them.

G: How does your department deal with shortages of goods?

A: Cuba still uses a lot of dot matrix printers. If the ink tape on our printers breaks down, we use carbon paper. If a computer breaks, we take 2-3 broken computers and make a new one. We use a lot of cracked software for programs. In construction, we have serious problems with wood for setting concrete. Nails, we reuse all the time. We have to make a lot of our tools, because we don't get any new ones. In order to cut tiles for example, we take the motor from a washing machine and make a machine to cut tiles. In the construction of a house, we have to do things like that. We make chisels with an iron bar. We heat it up and pound it like Vikings or Romans.

G: How were the Hurricanes worse in 2008 than other years?

A: The Hurricanes were not especially serious. But this year we have 2 hurricanes in two different zones in Cuba. One at the West in Pinar del Rio and the other in the East in Camaguey. This was a serious problem. We had major damage in 2 zones of the island. We do not have a lot of materials to rebuild houses, we had transportation problems, etc. The damage was especially bad for electricity lines. In Cuba all the lines are above ground. For that reason, every year when the hurricanes come it damages the lines. If we don't have electricity, we don't have light, water or functioning stoves.

G: Are things getting better?

A: No, it's the same thing, no big chances. In Cuba, the changes are never big in all directions at the same time. For example this year, changes were made with transportation, we have new buses in Havana from China. But only in transportation; other things stay the same. A year ago, the government took to repairing the hospitals. It's not good. We feel that there are other things that require the same attention. Some people feel it's better to do a little of everything rather than a lot of one.

In 1993 to 96 the government was very focused on constructing new houses. In these years, the principal motivation was tourists. After 96 and 97 things changed and we started to focus on things other than tourism. Things with Venezuela started to get better and we started making medical trades with Venezuela and other Latin American countries for oil and other materials. They would come here for operations and we would send doctors.

G: What about other countries?

A: Cuba in the last year has had better trade with people from other cultures and countries. Things have gotten better with Russia, China, Venezuela. We can see other realities, other than Cuba. At my job we have more information about construction in other countries. We can then put that into practice and my work gets better. I can then give my information to others with less info and we both get better. Information sharing has gotten better. Years ago, we didn't have internet or e-mail. Now we have e-mail. Still no internet but it's something.

G: Have there been changes in government?

A: The government makes changes. The reality now is not the same as years ago. Now we have a different economy. For that reason the government must take less control than years before. The government is changing direction but no big change, only small changes.

G: How do you think people feel about the government and their way of life after 50 years of the current government.

A: In general human kind does not conform. In Cuba people do not conform with some things like the prohibition of trips to other countries, but they agree with the government about education and medical attention for example. For that reason the people do not feel very angry. The people are uncomfortable but not very uncomfortable. Cuban's are waiting for change.

G: But what about 1959, things changed quickly then, right?

A: Yes, years ago the world was different than things are now. But now most people are quietly waiting for change. We do not conform with everything the government does and people want change but not big changes. Wages, for example.

Young people feel, most of the time, that we can make changes. Foreign people in Cuba can not understand. In Cuba we've been 50 years with these people in government. Today it is so difficult to change their mentality or ideas from one day to another. Changes take time. Now we have young people in the government like the Minister of International Relations. He's young. But it takes time. People in the government won't live forever.

G: Are people comfortable with that?

A: People want change to happen quicker, but if the changes are not big, they will wait.

G: How do you feel about the 50th anniversary of the revolution?

A: I feel happy. Not with everything in the revolution but I admire Fidel Castro so much because he's very intelligent and other leaders of the revolution are very good people. Sometimes they don't do the things I want them to do, but they are very good people. The laws that Fidel made are good laws but sometimes the people that apply them are not good people.

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Topics: Solidarity
Tags: cuba

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