14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 11 February 2019 — The winds of the tornado that affected Havana just 15 days ago have not only left thousands of damaged homes and hundreds of families that lost everything, but have also deepened the shortage of building materials in the retail network, where cement, bathroom fixtures and slabs are all unavailable.
“We had planned to renovate the kitchen and got the money to buy everything we need,” Osmel Rodríguez tells 14ymedio. Rodríguez, 58, lives in the Havana municipality of Cerro, an area that suffered no significant damage from the tornado. “Now we have to hold off on the work because there is no cement,” he laments.
In the hard currency stores a sack of type P350 cement, used to set roof tiles and kitchen counters, costs about 6 CUC. Despite the price, which is the equivalent of a week’s salary for an average professional, the demand for this product is still very high in a country where 40% of the housing stock is in fair or poor condition.
“Last week we ran out of cement and they have not resupplied,” explains an employee in the area that sells heavy hardware in the centrally located Plaza de Carlos III in Havana. “We still do not know when we will have it again, because they are prioritizing the bulk sales places in the areas most affected by the tornado,” he says.
“We also have problems with bathroom fixtures, plastic tanks for storing water, floor slabs and tiles for bathrooms,” he adds. “The problem with cement started before the tornado, because for two years the supply has been very unstable and when the product comes in the quantities are low, but in this last week it has simply disappeared.”
The same scene is repeated in the most important hardware stores throughout the Cuban capital.
Since the passage of the tornado on January 27, the State is guaranteeing a 50% subsidy on the cost of construction materials for people with homes damaged by the disaster in the neighborhoods of Luyanó, Regla, Guanabacoa and Santos Suárez, and 70% of the amount of water deposits, according to Lourdes Rodríguez, general director of Institutional Care, of the Ministry of Finance and Prices.
But the volume of damage far exceeds the pace at which the country can produce or import many of these materials. The latest official figures put 3,513 properties damaged by the tornado, although the number grows every day as families sign onto the damage registry that is being prepared in several offices open for the occasion.
The national cement industry has been operating at half speed for decades, after the fall of the socialist camp and the end of the Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s. In 2016, only slightly more than 1.4 million tons of gray cement were produced, a figure that is far from the 5.2 million reached that same year in the Dominican Republic, according to a report by the Association of Producers.
“They gave me a subsidy to buy sand, steel bars, cement and a water tank,” says Moraima, who owns a house that lost part of its roof and the wall of the facade in La Colonia, a neighborhood in the municipality of Regla on Havana Bay. “We went to the bulk sales place and they have the materials, but all the workers told me to rush to buy them and move them to my house because there is instability in the supply.”
“Now the problem will be to watch over all this,” says Moraima. “Because the need is great and having all these materials outside the house will be a headache.” In the block where this Regla resident lives, the neighbors take turns to guard the blocks, the piles of cement and the metal windows that have been arriving for the reconstruction.
“We are praying that it does not rain because if it does much of this material can be lost and they have already clarified that there will be no second round in the deliveries; whatever is lost or damaged has no replenishment subsidy,” she explains.
In the vicinity of the ironworks on Reina Street at the corner of Lealtad, informal vendors whisper their merchandise. One of them, wearing a cap that says “100% Cuban” explains the list of products on offer. “Sinks, adjustable showers, vinyl paint, sand, gravel and cement.” But the price of a bag of the P350 cement that could previously be bought for between 6 and 8 CUC on the black market is now around 10.
“I can not lower the price,” he responds to a customer who tries to bargain.” There’s no cement and right now moving a bag is a tremendous danger,” he says. It is common that after the damages caused by the passage of hurricanes and tropical storms, the Police reinforce controls on the informal sale of construction materials.
“They are searching the trucks and even the pedicabs they see with bags that could be cement, sand and gravel,” the informal vendor tells this newspaper. “They have already fined two friends of mine who are also engaged in this business and confiscated all their merchandise.” Most of these “thick” materials sold in illegal networks come from the bulk sales centers.
The merchants buy them wholesale in these places, and then repackage them and resell them at retail taking a good slice. “But now things have gotten bad at the bulk sales places and they are only selling to people who come with the papers showing they were affected by the tornado,” he says.
“We are closed to the public and we are only taking care of the victims,” the employee of the bulk sales outlet located in La Timba neighborhood, a few meters from the Plaza of the Revolution and far from the areas where the tornado passed, repeated in tone that brooked no argument on Friday. His statement set off expressions of dissatisfaction among customers who came to stock materials for their domestic renovations.
“And now those of us who are already building, what we are to do?” protests a young man who had come to buy some sand and cement. “My work is paralyzed, the contracted bricklayers and all the work of months without being able to finish because I am lacking some sacks of cement.” An informal vendor approaches, speaks to him in a low voice and, after a few minutes of conversation, they both leave in a small tricycle towards a nearby house.
In 2017, a network for the resale of building materials in Pinar del Río was uncovered and seven people were convicted of the crimes of hoarding and illegal sale of cement and steel bars, among other products. Three of them received one year prison sentences and four spent 10 months in prison.
“This business has its risks, especially when there is an emergency,” says a cement and steel vendor.” It is the moment when we profit the most but also when it is most dangerous to do it.”
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