Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Great Havana Clean-Up

     Cuba has had the bad luck to have suffered from oppressive governments for most of its history (it still does), but at least there were times when something positive was done - like when the U.S. was in charge. As you are no doubt aware, the Spanish-American War began with the U.S. intervening on Cuba's behalf during its war of independence. The result was that the country got its independence, but only after being taken care of by Uncle Sam from January 1899 to May 1902. And when Major William Black arrived as head of the U.S. Army Engineer Corps, he must have felt the same way Hercules did when presented with the Augean stables.
     Havana, he was well aware, was a cesspit of disease. In the eleven years from 1899 to 1899 inclusive, an average of 400 people died of yellow fever every year. The highest toll was 1,262 in 1896, the lowest 101 in 1899. Yes, this was just before mosquitoes were identified as the true vector of the disease, but he also knew that dirt and health cannot co-exist, and Havana suffered from an oversupply of the former. Decades of filth had accumulated in the courtyards, and even the cellars and closets of private homes.
     Fortunately, there was a precedent for city wide cleansing, for New York had also once been a filthy city. The active ingredient was "electrozone", or fresh water obtained from sea water by electrolysis. It came in two solutions: a strong one with a disinfectant and a weaker one containing a deodorant. A vast team of hired Cubans under the command of the U.S. Army went through the city washing the streets, using 33,000 gallons in a day.
     Not only were the streets purified, but also the houses along the sides. It made no difference whether the inhabitants welcomed the invasion or not, or whether their social status was high or low. By the time the team had finished, the building had been done over from cellar to ceiling, the floors washed with electrozone, and the walls with mercury bichloride(!). By the end of the second year, every house had been cleaned at least once.
    The hospital occupied two city blocks, and two thirds of the patients died inside. Outside, the soldiers used to hold their breath as they walked past. The team not only cleaned it from top to bottom, but treated the walls with several thick coats of whitewash. The top floor was converted into a school for 700 children, the basement into a warehouse, and a gymnasium was added. I don't know what happened to the patients.
     As for Colon Park, here are the before and after photos. Whereas once it was a mugger's paradise, it became a promenade for nurses and children.
     Now for the really nasty stuff. The sewers had remained untouched since their construction, and were now choked with refuse. The squad went deep underground, cleaning and repairing every foot of them. So thorough was the sanitation protocol that not a single member was taken sick.
     As for yellow fever: in 1901 only five fatalities occurred. But it is not easy to establish a direct link with the clean-up, although I suspect a lot of other disreputable diseases found it more difficult to spread.

Reference:  Anon: 'American progress in Habana', National Geographic, March 1902, pp 97-108

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