MEETING WITH FIDEL.
LETTER TO GROUNDWORK PARTICIPANTS AND SUPPORTERS SENT
June 8, 1988
We recently had some exciting developments with our work in Cuba that I wanted to tell you about.
Almost 3 years have passed since our preliminary designs for the new community of Las Arboledas were approved. Although the government had made a contract with one of its design agencies to complete the working drawings, progress was agonizingly slow. On one occasion the plans were delayed for over 6 months when I missed a plan review trip. My counterparts said they were unable to proceed because they needed my approval and had been unable to locate me in Nicaragua, (where I had been) although I was at the time back in the U.S. More than once I had thrown up my hands in despair over ever getting the project completed. At the same time, I saw many of the ideas we had introduced being adopted by Cuban designers.
Trying to create a complete town in Cuba based on new environmental and social concepts has been exciting and exhilarating. It has also been frustrating, depressing and infuriating. It has been filled with promise for wonderful new accomplishments and a lesson in problems of under development and socialism.
I sat thinking, after one of the crazy experiences this work has provided me, "What shall I do with all this?" What do I do with what I learned from our frustrations as opposed to the accomplishments. Maybe I should put it down on paper for others to learn from. And on an immediate level, how can I break the log jams that have slowed work in Cuba. Perhaps a letter to Fidel Castro? I debated with myself whether I should do it. Would it do any good? Would it be read? That day I received a call from a friend saying that their agency had been asked to bring a housing delegation to meet with President Castro and they wanted me to be on the delegation. So the decision was made.
I arrived in Cuba March 21. I had written a letter to Fidel with a number of my suggestions for improving housing in Cuba. Despite advice from my friends, the letter was long. There was too much to say. I handed the letter to an aide and asked that he take it to Fidel. I wondered again if it would be read. I also remembered a movie called "Waiting For Fidel" in which film makers had come to interview Fidel and shot some film over a period of weeks as they waited, finally having to leave without the interview. It was an entertaining film, but not encouraging to me at the moment.
The night before we were to leave we got a call that we should come to meet with President Castro in the next few hours. At dinner I wasn't too hungry but I ate a lot anyway not wanting to run out of energy. At 9:00 we got in our bus and headed to the Central Committee building. There, after having our bags and cameras searched, we were taken into a large waiting room. In a while Fidel entered. He was tall and graying with a beautiful young woman translator at his side. We were introduced to him and shook hands one at a time. When I was presented he looked me in the eye, said "Rorick! Hmm," and moved on. The introductions were completed and as we walked out of the reception area to the meeting room he said to me, "I read your letter. Carefully." "Well what did you think?", I asked. "I liked it. These are good ideas that we should use. And what about this $300 house?", referring to the demonstration houses we had done in Nicaragua.
We talked for a while about the work in Nicaragua. In my letter to him I had emphasized the importance of beauty and that this should not and need not be dropped for low cost housing. The $300 house, which is quite beautiful, was given as an example of what can be done in severe economic conditions. I find I am still shy at introducing the topic, but after many years of work it is clear to me that this is as important as our concerns for low cost construction systems, resource conservation, recycling of sewage & water, and other planning issues that we have pushed.
Someone pointed out that we had been speaking in Spanish which was leaving some people out of the conversation, so we switched to English and Spanish with the translator translating both ways. She did this so smoothly that shortly we forgot that translating was being done.
At that point we began the formal meeting. Each of the specialists on the delegation spoke giving some of their observations and suggestions. When my turn came I spoke about how to utilize the creativity of construction workers by integrating design and construction and about possibilities for recycling water and sewage. We discussed this a while and then he asked me about Las Arboledas. I said in this regard I wanted to ask him a question, "We have had the preliminary plans approved for almost 3 years and we still don't have completed working drawings. What can we do?" He looked at me and said, "If you are looking for an ally, you have one." I smiled and he continued, "What do you want?" "To begin construction," I said. "When?" "In 4 months," I replied. "Fortunately we have the principal builder for Havana here with us," he said turning to Maximo Andion, head of the Havana microbrigades. "Maximo, can you do this?" "Yes," was the reply. After exchanging a few more words with him Fidel turned to me, reached his hand across the table and shook mine. "It's a deal," he said.
The meeting continued until after 1:00 in the morning. Finally Fidel stood up and said, "We have been talking a long time. How would you like to see some of the building we are doing around Havana?" At that we piled into several cars and a bus and took off following Fidel to several building sites, a hospital and then Expo Cuba, a large exposition being built to display Cuba's products. Both projects were being pushed and there were people working around the clock. We walked with Fidel across the constructions sites and talked with the construction workers, young, old, men & women. The thing that struck me about him from the first moment of meeting and now again with the construction workers was his gentleness and the way that he listened, the attention that he paid to the people he spoke with. Each person had his total attention and concern. Is the food good? Do you have children? Where are they when you're working. Do they like the child care? He asked details from people, and at the end of the evening he spoke in a way that left it clear that he remembered those details about you.
Finally, about 3:00 in the morning we ended our visit and said goodnight to Fidel.
The result of all this was that I had to return to Havana the next week to organize the work with Maximo Andion, the Centro Tecnico de la Vivienda and others. That visit, also exciting, is another story. For the moment I will just mention that a full time team was assigned to the design work and preparations of the site were to begin immediately. I am scheduled to return in June to check progress on the work so that construction of the first buildings can start in September.
We have an intense period of work ahead of us. Construction will be done with the microbrigades (non-construction workers who get time off from their regular work to build housing for themselves and their co-workers). Steve Sears will be organizing a group of skilled craftspeople from the U.S. to go to Cuba to teach and to work with them. We will use this as a means of increasing community input, incorporating the creativity of the construction workers and creating a community that is well adapted both to the building process and peoples lives.
We also want to bring sewage and water specialists to review the plans for the water recycling and sewage system. For some of the architectural aspects Sanford Hirshen, Prof of Architecture at UC Berkeley, will come on our next trip and will help review the working drawings.
Things are moving rapidly. Our principle limitation now is funding for the Institute. We are excited with the coming work and will keep you informed of what happens next.