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Carretera Central: lifeline of Cuba's highway network.

The Carretera Central or Central Highway is the backbone of Cuba's transport system. It may be eclipsed by the construction of other highways, battered by lack of investment or beat down by the growing speed of modern traffic, but La Central--as it is affectionately called throughout the island--is still the spinal column of Cuba's road network.

It spans a total length of 711 miles from the western city of Pinar del Rio (139,300 inhabitants) to Santiago de Cuba (423,400 inhabitants) at its eastern terminus. The highway directly connects eleven of Cuba's 13 major cities with 100,000 residents or more; the two exceptions are Cienfuegos and Guantanamo.

Together, those 11 cities have a combined population of 4.145 million. Another 631,000 people living in 25 of the 107 Cuban cities with 10,000 inhabitants or more are directly linked by the highway. All told, La Central directly unites 5.04 million Cubans, or 45% of the island's population.

But with only two lanes along its route and a speed limit of 50 mph--reduced to 25 mph when it crosses populated areas--the Carretera Central is no longer fit for modern traffic.

Yet it's the only road that runs across Cuba, especially in the eastern half, where the wider, straighter National Highway isn't finished.


As is the case with most Cuban infrastructure in general, the highway is also in urgent need of major care. Lacking investment for the past two decades, La Central needs repaving, resignaling and painting; its bridges demand critical attention and the once-comprehensive network of road services, from gas stations to lodging and eateries, is nearly gone or badly deteriorated.

The Carretera Central was built between 1927 and 1931 at a cost of $75.9 million (equivalent to $1.09 billion in current dollars) with a major upgrade throughout its entire length added between 1943 and 1948.

The investment was planned to be paid through a temporary gasoline tax. Extensions to the highway--but not part of it--were built later to reach populations west of Pinar del Rio (the Pan-American Highway) and east of Santiago to Guantanamo and Baracoa (La Farola Highway).

The influence of La Central on the economy, the environment and social and political life in Cuba was immediate and lasting.

It is by far the single most important civil engineering construction project in modern Cuba, one so powerful that it reshaped the geographic landscape, creating an axis for the distribution of population while serving as a powerful magnet for industries and communication lines.

The highway soon became a major booster for trade, tourism and transportation, while also helping to shape the political-administrative districts. Last but not least, the Carretera Central is a common fixture of Cuban folk stories of the countryside.

Not by coincidence did Fidel Castro drove all the way from Santiago to Havana through La Central right after he seized power in 1959. It was a well-publicized trip from Jan. 1 to Jan. 8--during which he personally waved to half the population of Cuba and secured all major and minor cities along the route.


Even as the Carretera Central stimulated population growth along its path, it condemned to relative stagnation those important settlements bypassed by the route, such as the ports of Cardenas and Cienfuegos.

The result was the migration of people from the coasts to the hinterland. Settlements touched by the highway grew faster than any other in the first years after completion. Cuban geographer and historian Levi Marrero asserted in his "Geografia de Cuba" (Havana, 1955) that "the 48 most important settlements located along the Carretera Central had an average population increase from 1931 to 1943 of 26.6%, while 78 settlements located off the route grew only 15.3% in this period."

The Carretera Central is well adapted to the nature of the island. It was built along Cuba's axis, following in part the old traces of the colonial Camino Real--a dirt and cobblestone road best fitted for horses and bull carts, but departing from the drainage divide to reach some key cities, as Sancti Spiritus, Bayamo and Holguin.

It touches the coast only in three places: Havana, Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba.

Running close to the watershed, through gentle rolling upland plains or flat karstic lands, the highway faced few serious obstacles and minimized the need for costly bridges. Although planned initially as a single road, the highway is utterly part of a broader road system designed and gradually built to serve all corners of the island.

Numerous feeder roads connect to the highway, putting most towns within a one-hour drive of the central trunk.


The plan for the Carretera Central was presented by the Ministry of Public Works to the National Congress on July 15, 1925, and a public bid later awarded it in two sections: the western half to the Associated Cuban Contractors Inc. and the rest of the project to Warren Brothers Co. of Boston. Construction began May 1, 1927, in all six provinces.

The road was said to be a model of engineering for its time. Eight decades of intense use proved its quality of construction.

It consists of an asphalted two-lane, two-way road, 20.66 feet wide throughout rural areas and widening to 26.5 feet through towns and cities, with a concrete core six inches thick in the middle with thickened edges to eight inches.

Thousands of soil borings along the trace found in some places soft ground and muck that were dug out up to 45 feet deep and filled with rock to provide a stable base for the road. All bridges 100 feet long or less are made of concrete, while longer bridges are made of steel.


Despite running very close to the Central Railroad (see CubaNews, March, 2010), there are no grade crossings that could hamper traffic. Builders even went to great lengths to build parallel dirt roads for many miles to divert the bull carts and special granite-block grade crossings to protect the road from cart wheels. Though no longer necessary, many of those granite crossings remain in place today.

Upon completion, the Carretera Central became the Main Street for the towns it crossed. Commerce, illumination and public buildings sprouted along with parks and other public areas, while unprecedented movement linked people along the road.

Real-estate--both commercial and residential--acquired a totally new dimension along the route.

Kilometer 0.0 of the Carretera Central is located at Havana's Capitol building, just in the center of the cupola, in front of the Republic Statue. It was marked by a 10-carat diamond in the floor of a magnificent hall. The diamond has been out of public view for decades.

Upon its completion Feb. 24, 1931, the Carretera Central drew the attention of the public, the media and specialists.


One of the more enthusiastic reviews of that time was offered in the October 1933 issue of Economic Geography by Edwin J. Foscue: "The Republic of Cuba, scarcely three decades old, with a good trunk line railroad, has recently completed a highway that is a model of scientific construction, scenic beauty and economic usefulness."

Foscue was even more emphatic when talking about the impact of the Carretera Central.

"What Cuba has accomplished with limited funds, but with a strong determination to progress, should set an example for her sister Latin American republics. When all feeder lines are completed, Cuba will have a highway system such as few countries possess."

If Foscue's economic and geographic views were all correct, a final political remark proved to be dead wrong:

"Good highways tend to stimulate trade and break down isolation. As transportation binds the sections of the island into one interdependent whole, revolutions, like the present catastrophe [the revolt of 1933 that ousted President Gerardo Machado], may be more easily avoided, and, it may be hoped, ultimately eradicated."

Havana-born Armando Portela, a contributor to CubaNews since the newsletter's birth in 1993, has a Ph.D. in geography from the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Portela resides in Miami.



For one-third of Cuba's population, or over 3.53 million people, the Carretera Central is Main Street in their everyday lives. These people either live alongside it or a few blocks away from it. If people living in towns within a few miles from the highway are added, then it would be safe to say that half of all Cubans live by this highway.

Over 400 villages, towns or cities sit along its path--some as big as Camaguey (301,571), Santa Clara (210,220), Santiago (423,392) or any other provincial capital exceeding 100,000 residents. Others settlements have just a few homes with less than 50 residents in all.

The Carretera Central touches 55 of Cuba's 264 municipalities (including six in Havana) but passes close enough to most of them to be considered the main artery in the island's transportation system.

Yet the reach of Carretera Central goes far beyond of the towns, cities or municipalities it touches. Excluding the less-used air, maritime or railroad transport options, people living in the eastern or western tips of Cuba--where the highway doesn't reach-along the southern or northern shorelines, also largely depend on this road to travel the long distance. This raises the number of people with access to the Carretera Central to more than 9 millions, or 80% of Cuba's population.



No matter how meandering and narrow it is, the old Carretera Central is still the main artery for most cities and towns in Cuba.

In the stretch between the cities of Matanzas and Colon, the highway directly links several settlements with a combined population of nearly 250,000. Most of these towns serve as the economic, administrative and communications center for a swarm of satellite villages. All told, some 327,000 people in the area depend on this road.

This is one of Cuba's most important agricultural zones, with sugar and its byproducts once shipped through the ports of Matanzas and Cardenas (not seen in the map). It also produces cattle and food staples largely for local consumption.

As the province's capital city, with the province's largest port, airport, key industrial hub and direct route to Havana, the city of Matanzas pulls traffic from all over the area all through Carretera Central. At the other end of the map, the city of Colon is the center of a rich agricultural region, developed also as a midway stop between Havana and Santa Clara with key services for commuters.

The Carretera Central closely follows the old "Camino Real," the colonial-era cart and horse road linking Cuba's main settlements. It also runs very close to the Central Railroad path.

With no alternatives in sight, the Carretera Central will likely continue serving all local transportation needs for a long time, at least in zones like this, but will need improvements to facilitate modem circulation once the economy takes a long-awaited second breath. Widening the two-lane original trace, straightening unnecessary curves and building loop roads around towns would dramatically improve driving conditions.
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Author:Portela, Armando H.
Article Type:Legislation
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:May 1, 2010
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