14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 22 January 2016 – There are no colors. Only gray and white, with some ocher tones provided by the dry gardens, planted for opening day. In this hostile landscape in the Havana municipality of Cotorro, 19 buildings were made up of petrocasas (“oil-houses’). A dream of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez that is now falling to pieces far from the headlines and press photos.
Dozens of families who lost their homes due to building collapses, fires and hurricanes were happy when they were granted an apartment in the El Molino neighborhood, They were chosen to inhabit the “homes of the future” and leave behind the homeless shelters in Central Havana and Old Havana, where they’d been crammed in for 10 to 15 years. Their gratitude was incredible, but so were their expectations.
“We had nothing and this, at least, was a way to get out of that rattrap,” said Clare, one of those awarded an apartment in El Molina. She arrived at the shelter recently married and her children were born there. “It was very difficult to maintain a relationship as a couple in rooms where the neighbors on the other side of the partition heard everything,” she says.
Clara and her family lived for over a decade in an old motel that had been designed with rooms to be rented by the hour for lovemaking, and converted into a shelter for the homeless. “There we had the kitchen, the cradle for the children and our bed where up to six of us slept,” explains the woman, already retired.
Then hope interrupted her life. “They told us we were going to get a petrocasa and the truth is, to get out of there I would have gone to the moon,” she confesses. The day of the handover of the keys to the new apartments, Clara felt like it was her quinceañera, “I couldn’t stop crying and laughing from all the excitement.”
After the television cameras left and when the families were safely under their new roofs, the first thing they discovered was that they couldn’t hang a picture on those walls. Then they became aware of the vibrations caused by walking around upstairs, and in less than six months leaks began to appear.
In 2008 the petrocasas project manager, Julian Alonso, told the official press that “Cuba will produce more than 14,000 homes a year from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), thanks to a bi-national project with Venezuela.” However the figure was never reached and in 2015 the total number of homes planned for the whole country – of every kind of structure or construction method – was cut to 30,000, at least 17,000 of these to be built by people’s own efforts.
The panels to erect the petrocasas would be manufactured in a petrochemical complex that the late Venezuelan president promised to develop in the city of Cienfuegos. The work was not completed in its entirety and many of PVC panels that were used in Clara’s neighborhood were imported from other destinations such as Spain.
Poor construction quality has marked the settlement from day one: the windows began to fall out, the cement floors to crack, and there were short circuits in the electrical systems and leaks in the water pipes, several residents of the neighborhood told 14ymedio. On a bad day with high winds Clara’s top floor neighbor’s roof was about to fly away.
Rosa Helena, the mother of two children, slept in the living room to avoid the dampness in the bedroom. She complained that when the upstairs neighbor mopped the floor, the water started to drip on her furniture within a few minutes. “No one came to fix these problems, but we had barely arrived when they formed the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution,” she claims.
These problems were compounded by the area’s infrastructure. The woman tells how when she went to register “the boys in the elementary school they opened in the neighborhood, they told me it was full and we had to get up at six in the morning to get to the school where they accepted them.” She said her mother was visiting her one week and the first thing she said was, “Ah, sweetheart, you were better off in the shelter.”
The place could not be more inhospitable. The streets are unpaved and dampness gets into everything.
Carlos, considered a “social case” because of his serious health problems, complains that the Ephraim Mayor Polyclinic is too far away. Like the rest of the neighbors, he has to pay a monthly rent for the apartment granted. They haven’t even become owners of their petrocasas, but maintain the status of renters.
“In any event, I don’t even have a peso to eat, so I’m not going to pay anything,” he says. When asked if his house has the same defects as the others, he smiles sarcastically and says, “They explained to us that there was a one year warranty and that during that time the State would be responsible for any repairs. After one year, anything that breaks is charged to the tenant.”
However, the old man said that after he was there nine months, there was a short circuit that burned out the refrigerator. “Now I can only turn on the lightbulb in the bathroom and no one has responded to my complaints.”
Other neighbors who didn’t want to be identified said that in many houses from the very beginning there has been a lack of doorknob in the rooms along with other construction elements. They said that after the opening, buried near the houses were reserves of things that had been stolen, boxes of tiles, bags of cement, containers with silicon and bathroom fixtures.
The blame for these “diversions of resources” and the poor quality of the finishing is the responsibility of the ECOI 53 Industrial Works Construction Company, and the Julio Antonio Mella Brigade, that worked on this neighborhood of petrocasas. Many of the employees didn’t even stay on to finish the work because they were fired for bad work or stealing, as confirmed by a builder who was involved in the work.
Settlements of this type have also been raised in the San Agustin, San Miguel del Padron, Guanabacoa and Alberro neighborhoods. The neighbors have renamed the petrocasas “cardboard houses”.
An elderly lady who listened to the complaints of Carlos and Clara, says that she feels “happy” with her new home. “What happens is that there are many ungrateful people who do not recognize the efforts the Revolution has made to give us these houses.” There is a long pause and she concludes: “Perhaps we deserved something better than this?”