When The Cement Was For Tunnels

Túnel que conecta el Palacio de la Revolución con el despacho de Raúl Castro en el Minfar. (Llamado32' Blog)
Tunnel between the Palace of the Revolution and Raul Castro’s office in the Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINFAR). (Llamado32 ‘Blog)

As a part of the so-called “War of All the People” in 1991, the construction of tunneling was resumed with great intensity, with the trite prediction of a possible United States military invasion of Cuba.

In the Havana district of Cerro, drilling was carried out under the well-known Finca de Los Monos, the Mexico Cinema, the People’s Power, and the Havana Institute of the Economy. They also tunneled under the rocky promontories between the Zoonosis Institute and the Havana Pediatric Hospital. The ultimate goal was to interconnect all these places.

In January 1992 I entered the Pediatric Hospital tunnel. The things I saw showed me another face of what was happening in the country. There, as in every workplace, there were Communist Party and union nuclei. The day after I joined I ran into an individual who didn’t belong to the contingent. He collected bets for “la bolita” — the lottery.

Unconcerned, he announced the previous day’s numbers, paying the winners and collecting new bets. The flood of the workers who did the tunneling and built the tunnel entrances shocked me. Members of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and the Young Communist League (UJC), union leaders, administrative directors, almost everyone played the lottery or was interested in the results. A worker with debts was even shot through the throat with a .22 caliber revolver and it was covered up.

The high-density cement was put into an immense hopper with a capacity of six cubic yards. I never saw an invoice or voucher covering the output. I don’t know if its use was justified or not. Any kind of control was impossible with regards to the veracity of it. The blasts made deep holes in the hard rock and the volume was not always the same. They then placed the prefabricated structure, and the free space between this and the rock was filled with pieces of stone and cement. This space varied in width between a foot and a yard and a half. They worked in different “drawers” (tunnel cubicles) at the same time, so the workers wouldn’t realize how much as consumed.

They swapped blocks, bricks and iron rods for the cement. In the Special Period more than 15 of the tunnelers built, enlarged and repaired their homes. On two or three Sundays when no work was done, I was curious enough to examine the hopper before I left, and then again when I got to work on Monday morning; the contents had diminished considerably.

You could take off work there for sickness, personal problems or whatever, because your wages were never affected. On one occasion I abused this prerogative and in the two months that I didn’t go to work, they didn’t dock my wages.

The tunnel was completed in December 1992. In the two years of its construction, there were some 40 permanent men with a monthly salary of 250 Cuban pesos. So in wages alone it was around 240,000 pesos. Add to that some 600,000 pesos in food rations from the Cerro Pelado High Performance Sports Center. To give you an idea, the worst thing I ate as a main course was scrambled eggs with chorizo, with more chorizo than eggs.*

But the real main course was what was spent on construction materials. For that tunnel, the smallest in Havana, the tunnel was about 4,000 feet long (counting the cubicles), 8 feet wide and 13 feet high. The floor was about 8 inches thick, the walls about 14 inches, and the ceiling more than 24 inches. Plus the lighting system.

This tunnel I worked on was located under the People’s Power of the district. There were more than 3,200 feet of tunnel constructed in various directions even under the 10 de Octubre Surgical Hospital, some 500 feet from the mouth of the tunnel. To give you an idea of the size once it was finished: it passed under the hospital and the street of the same name to join the one that passed under Cristina Street. Another went under the Mexico Cinema to Via Blanca. Another went under Calzado del Cerro, with a mouth under the little park in front of the Latin American Stadium, and continuing below the stadium to the Havana School of Economics on Ayestaran Street.

The fifteen of us on this tunnel spent all of 1993 using a powerful pump to pump out the water that seeped in from the water table and flooded the underground system. I don’t know how long this chatting, eating and earning a salary went on, as I left my usual workplace in December of that year, but in May of 1994 the situation remained the same.

This was my third season in the “middle ground.” In 1963, when I started junior high school, they had built a shelter for future aggressions at the elementary school across the street. In the eighties – the Reagan era – all the workplaces in the country were required to have an air-raid shelter.

Millions of Cubans live in dwellings declared uninhabitable, in shelters, in huts with dirt floors, in badly built houses incapable of withstanding hurricanes, with no means to enlarge or repair them. In a country in ruins the government spent millions of pesos on tunnels. Were these constructions a necessity, a presidential whim, or a political strategy?

No Cuban ever had to enter a shelter or tunnel to protect themselves from an enemy attack!

*Translator’s note: This would have been luxury food,  at this time of great national hardship after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to Cuba.

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