It was the end of November. Only four days had passed since I went back to Mexico after finishing my studies at the DPU. I found myself in Havana, enjoying the outdoors without having to wear a coat. I was excited because I had been invited to present the main topic of my MSc dissertation in a local Congress organised by the Ministry of Construction (MICONS) targeted to 160 public servants, representing the country’s main “territories”.
I was proud to be portrayed as one of the four key speakers at the Congress among three members of the Havana University Faculty. My research topic was about the need to regulate infrastructure services to find a balance between a free-market economy and a communist system. The objective was to explore the need for direct regulation in order to redefine social justice “beyond a distributive understanding”, and expand “people’s capabilities”. All this is contextualised in the recent changes in Cuba, which will encourage greater governmental transparency and economic openness to global investors. The main topic of my lecture was to explain the importance of having available data and information to be able to address people’s main concerns and include their perspective in government policies. I used the same case study as I did in my dissertation: a mobility strategy for Havana. Little did I know that my conference was going to be the only lecture related to infrastructure. I was taken by surprise when I realised that the rest of the conferences were devoted to the Internet.
Inside the rooms of the Palacio de las Convenciones, most of the speakers explained the main uses of the Internet and the convenience of integrating new software and mobile devices to be more productive at work. At first, their explanations were as basic as describing the main uses of Twitter and Facebook to the audience. My first impression was that it was all part of an agenda to insert a specific vision into the public servants; and in a way, it was. However, I started to pay attention to what the professors were really saying and the reactions from the audience and that is when I realised there was so much more. At one point, one female professor explained, “Humans created the Internet to expand their reality, the same way as Plato’s Theory of Ideas”. The audience then made affirmation noises as if everything was now crystal clear and needed no further explanation. I was thankful for my philosophy modules at University. Another professor made it clear that if they “did not tell their story to the world, the only version the people could learn was the one written by the other side”. Hence highlighting the urge to become active users of the web.
I slowly became aware of what was happening in this conference, the country was preparing selected public servants for a transition. A big one! To do so, they are executing a very clever strategy: they are not only taking into consideration the big changes they need to improve their urban mobility or to re-open Mariel, their biggest trading port. They are also taking a step back and considering all the other basic tools they need to succeed when these changes happen. This means introducing themselves to new technologies, software and the biggest modern tool of all, the Internet. It is an integral and multidimensional strategy for Cuba to take over the world instead of fearing the world will take over the island, and I think it is an interesting way to do it.
After the Congress finished, I went to the Havana University campus in Marianao, just outside Havana to meet an Architecture professor. Having in mind the described events, I felt confident about what was going to come out of this final meeting. I was not disappointed in that aspect. However, the cruelty of the country’s reality hit me when I got there. The Architecture faculty building was decayed, grey, and partially destroyed. As we climbed the stairs to the eighth floor, we had to dodge debris, rods and the risk of falling into the void as the cardboard that served as a wall on one side of the stairs explicitly announced. The professor explained to us that there were over 500 students in that building and that many students were not able to attend due to lack of means of transportation to what he refered to as “the remote” campus, situated 15 km from the City Centre.
After four days I went back to Mexico feeling exhausted, confused and at the same time extremely grateful to have played a part in this transition. I see a country excited with the prospect of change and new hope, built on national proudness of what they have been achieved and the plans they have sketched for the future. Changes are everywhere in this island, so hopefully with the right urban planning policies, cubans will be on the road to success in no time. I cannot wait to see what happens next.
Ana Maria de la Parra Rovelo has an MSc in Social Development Practice from The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. She has specialised inn social impact and infrastructure, especially on projects related to roads. Last June she launched the International Road Federation Young Professionals Programme where members from all over the world collaborate in joint academic research on topics related to mobility and roads. Ana Maria is now based in Mexico City where she is helping with the launch of The Bartlett Built Environment Club – Mexico City, while she works on projects in Cuba and Mexico.