Friday, March 27, 2009

The Castros and the Cuban Housing Crisis

Recently on CNN I watched a news clip about Cuba. A young middle-aged woman was showing the camera man her 'home' – one small room under the stairs. No plumbing, no bathroom, no kitchen. “I go to my mother's house to use the facilities,” she said.

This reminded me of Martha, a woman I met in a small town in Cuba in the spring of 2008. She and her teen-aged daughter were living in what had been a physician's consulting room – an eight foot by twelve foot room with a very small window, no plumbing, and of course no bathroom or kitchen.

Martha went to a friend's house, some two or three blocks away, to use the facilities. Her relationship with her daughter was becoming increasingly strained. Sometimes her daughter chose not to come home at night, staying with 'friends.' Her mother worried where this might be leading.

The reason the news clip was on tv was that Raul Castro, the same Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, who executed hundreds of Cubans during 'the revolution,' has recently announced that Cubans are now permitted to renovate their homes – as long as they use their own money. Read: money from family and friends outside the country.

Raul also said that the Cuban government would supply building materials. What exactly is meant by this is yet to be seen. Anything and everything that Cubans buy must, according to the restrictive communist regime they live in, be purchased from the government. There is of course a thriving black market, dealing mostly in materials stolen from government warehouses.

The clip made it sound like Raul is going to make building materials available without cost. That's of course how the Castro government wants it to sound, how all of their 'good news' pronouncements sound. But the reality is often quite different. And if building materials were truly going to be made available for 'free,' why would Cubans need money from abroad to renovate their homes?

Raul also pointed out, and this may be the hitch for many Cubans, that the renovations must be consistent with government plans for the house or building. A Cuban friend of ours recently renovated his house – a free-standing house in a small town in Cuba that only he and his family live in.

Although none of the renovations (replacing a leaking roof and old see-through wooden slat walls) changed either the exterior footprint of the house or the configuration of the interior space, our friend had to wait over a year for the necessary permits to proceed with his work.

Communist bureaucracy is even slower – and much more officious – than capitalist bureaucracy. Petty, nit-picking and requiring endless palm-greasing and back-scratching. Things only go smoothly when you have 'friends' in the system.

To understand the housing situation in Cuba, one has to first understand that all housing is owned by the state. The state assigns housing to its people. This family gets a house, this family an apartment, and this family just one room. Living conditions are often extremely crowded, with up to a dozen people sharing one small apartment. They sleep in shifts.

Unfortunately a number of Cuban homes and buildings were vandalized and destroyed by Cuban revolutionaries – and have never been repaired. Our friend Elena's family's home was commandeered and occupied by the revolutionaries for several years. They threw garbage and machinery down the well, destroying its forever. They broke and burned most of the furniture, and they left the house in a state of complete disrepair. The family, having no money to repair it, has simply had to live with it as is – a constant and sad reminder of what the revolution meant to them.

Furthermore, there have been very few additions to, or renovations of, the housing stock since the revolution in 1959. Some astonishingly ugly concrete slab apartments were constructed during Cuba's period of dependency on Russia, in the 1980's. In addition to being architectural eyesores, these buildings were poorly constructed. Most of them are now cracked and crumbling ruins. Plaster is crumbling, paint faded and peeling, old tiles broken or missing altogether. Windows and doors are battered and broken; stairs rickety and unsafe. Rooves leak, plumbing is non-existent or non-functional and electrical supply and connections are shockingly (literally) unsafe.

Many people living in Cuba's largest cities, like Havana and Santiago de Chile, are simply camping in derelict buildings, many of which have been condemned as 'unfit for human habitation.' But there is nowhere else for the people who live in them to go. There is simply no other housing available.

Some Cubans are homeless. We saw them sleeping in parks and in doorways – sheltering from sun and rain under scavenged pieces of cardboard. Almost always they were older men; a few were women. We saw no homeless children – but we cannot say with certainty that there are none.

In rural areas, mud huts with corrugated tin rooves are common. They have dirt, or in the wet season mud, floors and no windows. Their small dark interiors usually have only one room. The 'kitchen' is a collection of pots and utensils hanging on an outside wall, and an open fire somewhere nearby. There is no bathroom, and often no outhouse – just the great 'outdoors.'

Because of the lack of plumbing in so many homes and apartments, Cuban parks, beaches and empty lots have all become public latrines: a dreadful and disgusting health hazard for all.

Of course there are some better houses and apartments in Cuba, some which have been kept in better repair. But even in these, plumbing fixtures are old – and often temperamental. Hot water heaters are almost unknown. Few houses have proper 'kitchens' – more often just an old sink and a make-shift camp-stove with a bottle of kerosene hung overhead. The kerosene is gravity-fed through a length of recycled surgical tubing. Unbelievably dangerous, but it works.

In Havana and in other cities and towns around the island there are a few really upscale, and even opulent hotels, houses and apartments. Most of these are older colonial buildings, with fantastic colonnades, balconies, marble floors and tile rooves. They have been painstakingly restored, at considerable expense, and almost always by foreign governments, corporations or individuals. They stand in stark contrast to the crumbling and decaying structures around them.

These beautiful buildings are used either by foreign interests, as embassies or luxury getaways, or as hotels or high-end shops, or by the Cuban government and military. The foreigners at least keep their buildings in good repair, take care of the grounds around them, and make good use of them.

The Cuban government, on the other hand, having appropriated many of the nicest buildings in the country, now uses them as headquarters for myriad – and often inexplicable – government functions. Often this amounts to almost no use at all – a few tired-looking employees sleeping at their desks, guarded by an officious-looking guy in a military uniform at the door.

Upkeep of the Cuban government's buildings is minimal. Some have received new coats of paint, but interior and exterior walls are often plastered with revolutionary posters and slogans, and doors and windows are often broken or boarded over. The grounds and gardens have almost always been let go, with either scraggly grass and weeds or an expanse of parched dirt or mud bordering a crumbling cement entryway. Truly pathetic.

To be sure, a few Cubans have managed, with money sent from family and friends outside the country (often big bad America), to renovate or build new houses. Some are able to do it using money they make working with and for tourists – and getting paid in convertibles, the currency used by all tourists in Cuba. One convertible is worth over 25 times more than the Cuban peso. These Cubans are the envy of all. In some cases their 'good fortune' creates bitter divisiveness among families and communities.

But for people like Martha and Elena, dependent on state salaries, which range from $US 8 to $US 35 a month, and which is paid only in pesos, renovating homes is completely out of the question. Their salaries are not even enough to put food – poor quality government subsidized and rationed food at that – on the table.

Raul will have to come up with something more substantial than 'allowing Cuban people to renovate their homes (which will still be owned by the state) with their own money (mostly from sources abroad),' if he intends to truly address the housing crisis in Cuba. But perhaps that is not his intent.

Perhaps Raul's announcement has more to do with appearance than substance. Like his recent announcement that Cubans are now permitted to purchase cell phones and DVD players. As several of our Cuban friends have said, “with what money?”

Raul needs to put his money where his mouth is. Until the Cuban people have enough money to live – to eat and to house themselves – all his pronouncements are no more than bitter pills, cruel reminders to his people of what most of them cannot have.

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