Windows looking out on the Church of the Sacred Heart were covered with tattered newspapers. Wheel-swallowing potholes pitted the streets. Paint peeled off the walls in sheets.
Then the pope said he was coming to town.
Crews of workmen showed up as if from nowhere this summer, smoothing streets, patching walls, and painting facades in pastel shades of pink, blue, and green. Across Havana, hundreds more laborers planted palm trees, cleaned up trash, and repaved sidewalks. Gleaming cranes and front-end loaders appeared like spaceships, taking a few hours to fix problems unattended for years.
As Pope Francis’ Saturday arrival nears, a whirlwind of renewal has hit a city known for its decay, leaving ordinary people appreciative of the repairs but indignant that the government unleashes the forces of renovation only when a pope is about to place Cuba in the international spotlight.
“At least we’re getting some benefit from the pope’s visit, although it’s a shame that things only get fixed on special occasions," said Carmen Silvano, a student who lives in the central Havana neighborhood near the church that serves as headquarters of Cuba’s Jesuits.
State media have said next to nothing about the repairs and renovation, but Cubans have sardonically branded it “Plan Papa," or “The Pope Plan." Havana residents say similar flurries of renovation preceded Pope John Paul II’s groundbreaking 1998 visit and Benedict XVI’s trip in 2012 but things quickly fell back into disrepair.
Thanks to reforms put in place by President Raul Castro, Cuban single-family homes are being redone at unprecedented rates, particularly in Havana, where people have greater access to foreign capital and building supplies. Meanwhile, the communist government remains responsible for the communal areas of apartment buildings and old mansions roughly divided among more than a dozen families in some cases, meaning problems as simple as a blown lightbulb can go unfixed for months or years.
Dayron Rivero, a social worker and self-employed barber, said the government had promised to repair the neighborhood around the church for years but no work was ever done, supposedly because of a lack of supplies.
“They announced the pope’s visit, the materials appeared and they put the pedal to the metal to finish all the repair work," he said. His building still needs to have floors redone and windows repaired, among other projects.
“Inside, the ceilings are in bad shape, but at least they gave it a coat of paint and it looks better," he said.
A short drive away in the Playa neighborhood around the Apostolic Nunciature, where the pope will stay during his time in Havana, tooth-rattling gullies and holes in the streets have been filled in, buildings have been painted gleaming white and yellow and piles of debris have cleared from the streets. Yet, just a block from the Nunciature, streets are still rutted, debris is uncleared, and facades are fading and unpainted.
“I wish the pope would stay longer and drive through every street in the capital," said Maite Delgado, a state office worker. “Maybe there’d be even more repairs done."