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CUBA: Citizen Action Transforming the Barrio

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Oct 3 2007 (IPS) - Two women set out nine years ago to help the barrio of Balcón Arimao, on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, tackle its numerous problems through community participation.

After an uphill battle, the Paulo Freire Community Centre has become the neighbourhood’s main social centre, and the permanent home of the Taller de Transformación Integral del Barrio (Workshop for the Integral Transformation of the Neighbourhood) since July 2003.

The beginning was not easy, as the women had to earn the trust of the local community, and the problems of rundown housing, bad streets and poor water and sewage infrastructure, as well as a rise in violent crime and drug consumption among young people, seemed insurmountable.

"The Taller has not been able to do anything in terms of house repairs or the poor condition of the streets and sewage system," admitted María de la Caridad Inerárity, one of the founders of the Taller.

The Taller is one of 20 set up by the Grupo de Desarrollo Integral de la Capital (Group for the Integral Development of the Capital – GDIC), a city government initiative created to tackle social problems generated by poverty in different parts of Havana.

But the lack of resources for tackling these problems did not keep Inerárity or her colleague Maritza López from successfully pressing local authorities for solutions to other difficulties, like improving public lighting and building a local high school, which were among the most pressing demands voiced by residents when an assessment of local needs was carried out with public participation.

The efforts of the two women, who have gained along the way the support of community leaders, representatives of political organisations and civil engineer Edicto Díaz, have also met with success in reducing the accumulation of garbage and converting the former dumps into commercial and agricultural establishments.

But "there are still problems of environmental awareness among local residents and micro-dumps in the area," Inerárity told IPS.

Through an agreement with the local trash collection and treatment services, rubbish is now picked up early in the morning, on a daily basis, by people with carts.

The neighbourhood of Balcón Arimao, which covers 1.7 square kilometres on the west side of Havana and is home to 20,000 people, emerged in the 1940s when rural and working-class families began to build homes in the area.

The Sans Souci cabaret, which was built in the neighbourhood in the 1950s and became almost as famous as Tropicana, featured renowned international performers like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Edith Piaf before it was closed down after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.

"Over time, we have drawn people in to participate in the activities we organise," said the 56-year-old Inerárity. "It was really hard at first to get them to come out of their houses, but now they trust our work."

Community participation has been essential to the success of a project for the prevention of dengue fever, which is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The initiative has been carried out by the Taller in coordination with the governmental Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine.

But Inerárity said the poor housing, road, water and sewage system conditions remain virtually unchanged in marginal parts of the neighbourhood, although the increasing participation of families from these areas in the Taller’s efforts to transform the district has brought down crime levels.

There is a shortage of around 500,000 housing units in this country of 11.2 million, while dwellings in poor condition account for 15 percent of the total in urban areas and 38 percent of the total in rural areas, according to the latest national census, from 2002.

The Taller’s headquarters, the Paulo Freire Community Centre, named in honour of the Brazilian educator who is known as the "father" of popular education in Latin America, offers training programmes and other courses aimed at developing the neighbourhood’s capacity to come up with solutions to local problems.

One of the Taller’s projects, "For Those Who Love Life", brings together local residents living with HIV, the AIDS virus. Inerárity and López, who received training as health promoters and counsellors, help the group discuss issues like the importance of regularly taking antiretroviral drugs and following a healthy, balanced diet.

"The idea came from HIV-positive people themselves," when AIDS became more prevalent in the area, Inerárity explained.

"The meetings are really emotion-packed," added the community organiser, who is well loved by the members of the group because of her solidarity towards those living with HIV.

The Community Centre also offers space to "With the Light of Hope", a project for the blind; the University of the Older Adult; an alternative medicine programme; and FEPAD, a programme for distance training of popular educators, which operates in conjunction with the non-governmental Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre.

"Thanks to the (Martin Luther King) Centre’s logistical support and training programmes, we have been able to make many dreams come true," said Inerárity, who after 29 years of teaching in primary and secondary schools is now using the methodology of popular education promoted by the Centre.

In its nine years of activities, the Taller has received support from international NGOs like Oxfam Canada and Norwegian People’s Aid, and from Cuban groups like the Félix Varela Centre and the Centre for Exchange and Reference on Community Initiatives (CIERIC).

"The people know they have a place to meet at the community centre, and they come in," said Inerárity. "They recognise this as the main social centre in the community and they respect our work with the different groups in the neighbourhood."

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