Facing a Cement Shortage, Cubans Resort to Alternative Home Building Materials

The only town in Granma province that met the state’s housing goal was Pilón, which built houses out of wood. (Granma)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, January 8, 2024 — On Sunday, Cuba’s Ministry of Construction  added Granma to the list of provinces that failed to meet the government’s 2023 housing goals. According to official news outlets, only 737 (or 45%) of the planned 1,636 houses were built. Provincial officials blamed the “low manufacturing output” and public resistance to “alternative materials.” They admit, however, that the real problem is reduced deliveries of steel and cement, products that are not available locally.

Officials told the newspaper Granma that only 184 (28%) of the homes the ministry had planned as part of its housing initiative were actually built. For their part, state-owned companies, which invest a portion of their profits in workers’ housing, managed to build only 553 (57%) of the proposed 965 homes.

The biggest delay in the province, however, involves state financial and material subsidies for families in precarious housing situations. It was estimated that this aid would have allowed construction of 409 units. Instead, only 84 houses (15%) were built.

Local development projects, Tejeda complained, have not focused on the use of “alternative” building materials   

Michel Tejeda Acuña, the provincial government’s coordinator, explained that, in addition to a shortage of cement and steel, the “limited” prodution of provincial companies also makes it difficult to carry out the plan. Furthermore, regulations also preclude local materials such as stone, wood or clay from being used.

Local development projects, Tejeda complained, have not focused on the use of “alternative” building materials either, nor do they take into account the region’s capabilities. Only one of these projects, which was managed by private individuals and built in Bayamo from clay bricks with help from the state, seems have come close to meeting expectations.

Privately owned, and often illegal, artisan businesses have for years provided customers with inexpensive building materials they cannot find through state sources. The chronic shortage of construction materials has led many people to substitute bricks for concrete blocks, something the state itself has had to do to deal with its own shortfall.

Since potters began supplying the Ministry of Construction, hand-made brick production is the only thing that is going well. Their contribution, however, is not still not enough. “About five million bricks are produced in Granma annually. This is estimated to grow to about seven million but, to meet the housing policy’s target, we need more than twelve million a year,” explained Tejeda.

The only good news from the province comes from Pilón, a town with a policy of “more home-grown solutions and zero waste” and the only municipality to comply with the housing plan. It did this by substituting wood for cement. The homes, which were built with a type of wood that had not been specified, will be given to residents whose homes were destroyed by hurricane.

In Pinar del Río, Granma reported that this strategy has allowed some municipalities in the province to reach the goal of building homes at the rate of one per day. However, this does not include installing electricity or other items which rely on deliveries from a national distribution network. The concrete block industry is facing a similar challenge. In Vuelta Abajo it has the capacity to produce at “four to five times” the national average but only if cement and aggregate are delivered in a timely manner. “In other words, for a long time the program has been relied on resources that are not available in the province, and that, therefore, do not ensure its sustainability,” explained Jesús Nilo Soca, the regional government coordinator.

Here again, bricks are being use in place of concrete blocks. Until last November, Pinar del Río produced 800,000 bricks. “We produced more in eleven months than we had in five years, said Yalexis León, director of the Provincial Maintenance and Civil Construction Company. She estimates that production levels will reach two to two-and-half million annually in 2024.

Clay, a resource that is readily available, is used in the production of many alternate materials

Clay, a resource that is readily available, is used in the production of many alternate materials. That is, at least, how Delilah Diaz Hernandez, director general of materials for the Ministry of Construction, described it on an episode of the TV interview show Mesa Redonda (Roundtable) last June. She explained that Cuban marble, which commands a higher price, would be exported in order to finance housing construction.

Local production of building materials has been government policy for years. According to Granma, in 2010 there were 55 workshops of this type in the country versus 465 now. It concluded, “[This] means that more than 80% of the resources required for a home can be obtained locally.” Reality clearly demonstrates otherwise.

The steep increase in prices for building materials in recent years has made the dream of owning a house in Cuba unrealistic. Even with subsidies, people often complain that just building a wall is impossible without governmental assistance due to the high cost of rebars, concrete blocks and gravel. To make matters worse, these resources can no longer be found even at sites that sell building supplies.

Things are much the same with businesses and the Ministry of Construction itself, whose budget covers less and less An article published in 2022 by the magazine Invasor raised the possibility of the government purchasing houses for sale on the real estate market, something that — given the current drop in prices due to the large number of people leaving the country – would mean savings in the millions for the state in terms of materials, personnel and time. The proposal, however, fell on deaf ears.


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.