Havana Reinvents Itself / Iván García

The family of Hector Iznaga lives hand to mouth. His daughter, 18-years-old, was going to have a baby, and they realized that their house was very small. They got to work. Without permission from any state body, they quickly turned the balcony of their small two-bedroom apartment into a new bedroom.

Many families in this country are like the Iznaga family. There are areas of Havana geography that have been turned into veritable architectural Frankensteins. Very different from their original design.

In Cuba, the respect for rules and directives of the Housing Institute and for the municipal architects do not exist. In general, people wipe their rear ends with the norms of urban order.

It’s like we live in an African jungle. The disregard for the laws of coexistence is typical on the island. People like Hector Iznaga show why. His family has lived for 20 years in an dreadful building of five floors in the Alamar neighborhood, one of the largest and worst slums in Havana.

its upkeep, supposedly, falls to the State, but only in theory. No official organ cares that the inhabitants of the property have carried their water for months, because the water pumps don’t function.

When it rains, the roofs leak to even the lowest floors. The situation is the same with the sanitary services. The stairways are dark and without handrails. The building speaks for itself. Filthy and dilapidated, crying out for a even a little paint.

The neighbors have complained to their local delegation of the Popular Power in their area, but nothing. Life continues the same. So, the inhabitants, in the face of such state slacking, do as they please.

At a glance, you can see that numerous families make adaptations without legal permission. They change the facade. They take collective areas for themselves. And without any knowledge of construction or engineering, they tear down load-bearing walls, putting themselves and the rest of the residents in danger.

I’ll offer you a figure. Sixty percent of the housing in the city of Havana is in fair to poor shape. In general, up to four generations live in one house.

In the middle of the capital, or in other overpopulated areas like Luyano, Lawton, or Vibora, it has been decades since many buildings have seen repairs. They have not even been painted.

People who live in larger houses or chalets renovate them based on their economic situation. It’s “save yourself if you can.” Although the State offers very little, it severely punishes urban violations.

According to the official press, just in Havana, in the first six months of the year, more than 3,500 fines have been imposed for illegal construction projects in private homes. The fines range from 200 pesos (10 dollars) to 1,500 pesos (60 dollars). In the case of about 500 families, newly finished construction projects have been torn down.

The issue of housing is one of the unresolved problems of the government of the Castro brothers. The deficit of housing is enormous. They have tried to patch this enormous gap with small patches, like allowing organizations or individuals to construct their own homes, but the supply of materials is precarious, and of poor quality.

Throughout the city, one can see buildings that have been under construction for ten years or more. And they threaten to take longer. In the face of such a necessity, families patch them together the best they can.

The same families construct “barbacoas,” a 100% Cuban invention. It consists of a wooden or concrete porch inside their own house. If later, they want to add on to the house, if they have an empty lot next door, they will take it over and expand their dwelling with no consent from the authorities.

This all serves to give a little more capacity for a relative from the country, or for a baby on the way. Like the Iznaga family, who got rid of their balcony in favor of a new room for their future grandchild. And they have been lucky, not having been caught by the state inspectors. For now.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Gregorio

August 29, 2010