How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In 1976, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union drew up blueprints for a twin reactor nuclear plant to be built at Juragua, a site just west of Cienfuegos Bay, on the southern coast of Cuba. When completed, the facility would revolutionize the island’s shoddy electric power grid—with just one reactor capable of meeting 15 percent of the country’s energy needs. It would also reduce dependence on expensive oil imports, while creating thousands of new jobs for the country. In order to see this dream realized, a small city was to be six miles from the plant—it would feature 4,200 homes intended for the families of construction workers, scientists, engineers, technicians, and the nuclear specialists flown in from Moscow to oversee the project. The city, which became known as Ciudad Nuclear, or Nuclear City, officially opened on October 13, 1982.
Although the project held much promise, in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow’s funding for Ciudad Nuclear dried up, much to the relief of Washington. Juragua is only 260 miles south of Miami, and Washington could do little at the time to monitor the project’s safety, having cut off diplomatic ties with Havana years before. Havana struggled on for a few years to finish the power plant, draining what resources it had, until 1992, when the nuclear program at Cienfuegos Bay was scrapped. In 1996, Cuba and Russia discussed reviving the project (which had so far cost them around $1.1 billion), by finding other countries willing to invest in the reactor. It never came to pass, however, in part because the United States enacted a law known as the Helms-Burton Act, which allowed Washington to sanction any country helping Cuba to finish the plant.
But Ciudad Nuclear did not die there. Today, although the city is a mess of half-built homes and unfinished concrete towers, a few hundred Cubans—and a handful of Russians—still call it home.
Even after construction was abandoned and four hundred Russian workers left, many Cubans stayed behind. Some of the Russians stayed, too, taking advantage of the regime change and raising their families in the cluster of completed buildings that run down the central boulevards of Ciudad Nuclear.
There is a temptation here to draw parallels between Ciudad Nuclear and the “ghost city” of Pripyat at Chernobyl. Both were designed as model nuclear utopias—the socialist atomgrad (a 1970s vision of the future full of social housing and limitless clean energy)—and both were tied to nuclear programs that would ultimately end in disaster. But while Pripyat was evacuated in 1986, poisoned by a nuclear meltdown whose effects would render the city uninhabitable for the next 10,000 years, Ciudad Nuclear, abandoned before completion, was left to suffer a somewhat slower and less toxic death.
Year after year, the city’s fate is drawing closer. With next to no budget for maintenance, the concrete hulks are beginning to rust and crumble in the salty sea winds.I visited the city in April 2014, and I did not find a ghost town. This was no Pripyat but, rather, a living village nestled in the ribcage of a dead city. The market in the center sells live chickens and fresh vegetables, clothing, shoes, bottles of rum, and cans of sun-warmed beer. The community has a small primary school, a pharmacy, a playground, and a clinic, but despite the color and commotion in the little market that day, the sheer poverty of Ciudad Nuclear was palpable.
In the café where I stopped for lunch, the staff listened to cassettes on a battery-powered boom box. Raw meat sat on the counter beneath a fly-proof net, and there was only a bucket of water available in the restroom for washing hands. I was later told that residents had full access to facilities such as electricity and water, but I didn’t see any evidence of it during my visit—nor did I see any trace of Ciudad Nuclear’s alleged Russian residents.
Without local employers or resources, Ciudad Nuclear can survive only as a commuter town, if it survives at all. Some of the residents work in Cienfuegos, a port city with a population of 170,000, some 25 miles away. However, given that only five percent of Cubans own a car or other private vehicle, it is difficult for most to travel between the two cities, which is a five-hour shadeless walk under a scorching sun. Even the horses I saw tethered to a wagon in Ciudad Nuclear appeared to be struggling with the Caribbean heat.
Year after year, the city’s fate is drawing closer. With next to no budget for maintenance, the concrete hulks are beginning to rust and crumble in the salty sea winds. I saw balconies that had fallen away from towers, sections of wall collapsing to reveal the iron girders rotting inside. An old man watched me pass from the shadowed awning of a bare, concrete skeleton. He leaned on the wall, smoking a cigar beneath a sign painted with former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s famous words, “¡Socialismo o Muerto!” (Socialism or Death).
In Cienfuegos I met Ramos, a Cuban engineer now in his late 50s, who had come to the coast in the 1980s looking for a job at the power plant. The plant was never finished, though, so he settled in Cienfuegos instead, where he works as a taxi driver to this day. I asked Ramos about Ciudad Nuclear, about the unsustainable community amid the concrete cemetery.
“It’s not a town,” he told me, with a sigh. “It’s a dead end. It’s nowhere. You cannot live in a place like that.”
It seems that the residents of Ciudad Nuclear are faced with a choice. They can either retreat to the cities—such as Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, or Havana—or they can simply wait and hope for better days.
Those days may come, perhaps. U.S. President Barack Obama talks of opening trade deals with Cuba. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to cancel 90 percent of the debts that Cuba once owed to the former Soviet Union—about $32 billion—in exchange for reopening its old Soviet spying post at Lourdes, just outside Havana (a facility that had once been used to monitor telephone calls coming out of the U.S. southeast). One way or another, Cuba’s fortunes are set to change over the coming decades. But for Ciudad Nuclear, with its wilting population and rapidly decaying homes, these changes may come too late.