Killing for a Dwelling / Cubanet, Ernesto Perez Chang

A usual scene in Reparto Electrico, whether Holy Week or not
A usual scene in Reparto Electrico, whether Holy Week or not

cubanet square, Ernesto Perez Chang, Havana, 1 July 2015 – A daughter killed her mother, dismembered her with the help of her boyfriend and then reported her missing in order to be able to inherit her humble apartment in a slum where they both lived. It may seem the plot of a horror movie but it is a real story that barely a year ago shook the community of Reparto Electrico.

It was not the first time I heard such chilling news as that; but more than the blood relationship between the victim and the murderer, the motive of the killer was what accentuated the absurdity, the insanity, especially when in the streets, while the crime was being talked about, equally disturbing stories emerged about family conflicts related to the difficulties in wrangling a place to live.

Before and after that bloody episode, I learned of other similar scenarios, and, according to Orlando Asdrubal, a lawyer who has followed several cases in the Arroyo Naranjo township, the bloody events within families are increasing, all related to housing property rights.

Although they do not always yield fatal outcomes, this kind of litigation accounts for almost half the cases heard in the courts: “Brother against brother, children against parents, and always it is because of a room, to inherit a shack, a little piece of land, four pesos. Too much violence, that is what poverty brings when there is hopelessness and desperation. That is one of the main attractions of the Cuban courts. Four cases out of ten have to do with housing,” says Orlando.

Amado Ibanez, resident of Centro Habana, illustrates for us with dozens of anecdotes how increasingly frequent are the bloody events related to housing and involving family members who have shared the same space for years: “Right here, on this street, every day there is a brawl and they have nothing to do with gangs or drugs or machismo, those are less frequent. The majority are because of one brother who wants to bounce another from the house or a child who wants to divide a room that is his father’s or uncle’s, and all that is sometimes with machetes.”

Violent events like these to which Amado refers are those that everyone hears about because they are frightening. However, there exist others that go unnoticed due to their everyday nature, more so in the current political-economic environment in which old people are classified as a social burden, an obstacle to development, although, paradoxically, that subliminal rhetoric comes from the discourse of our ruling elders.

Through the testimony one can hear on the street, from the mouths of neighbors, friends and work colleagues, one can sense that in Cuba many old people, whose only heritable property is the humble family home, die as victims of what could be considered “stealth killings,” most of the time at the hands of their own offspring.

Recently while riding on a bus, I could hear the conversation of two women. One was telling the other about how turbulent it was to share the home with her elderly father who suffered very advanced diabetes and episodes of senile dementia.

When one detailed the things that she did or left undone in order to hasten the death of the sick man (she left him alone at night, fed him a bad diet and even stopped administering his medicine to him), the other fearlessly advised her about the steps she should take to declare him incompetent, admit him to a health institution and inherit the property that was simply a small apartment with only one room. The gruesome plan was discussed aloud as if it had to do with an inoffensive plan to exterminate cockroaches.

On a more personal level, I have known neighbors who have died in the cruelest abandonment by their families without any governmental institution bothering to investigate in depth what happened and without any legal mechanism for reporting these cases in which one senses that, behind the supposed negligence, there are hidden true instances of premeditated murder.

A doctor from a clinic in Reparto Electrico, whose identity we withhold, says that in recent years instances of old or sick people dying because of the apathy of their relatives have increased and that, due to the lack of interest demonstrated by the institutions who should attend to this phenomenon, it is very difficult to prevent these tragedies.

“There is no way of knowing if the relative is acting out of ignorance or if the lack of attention is on purpose. I always am inclined to the latter. If, as a relative, you take responsibility for a sick person, you must do things just as the doctor indicates, but in the end you cannot complain about them for anything because neither the hospitals nor the nursing homes are capable of offering better attention. (…) I have had several cases where it is evident that there has been a murder. But how can I prove it? And not only that, how do I know that the police will pay attention to me?

“And worse, I am asking for them to come and stab me four times in the back for something that I cannot prove outright. (…) I have had many experiences but I don’t need to be a doctor to live them daily. For example, in the same building where I live. A neighbor, not very old, was partially paralyzed after a stroke so that she could not walk. With some physical therapy sessions and some more or less good care the woman was up, but her daughter did nothing. She had her thrown in bed and did not worry about feeding her. She died after a few months.

“I live here, and I know that every day there were fights about the apartment, I know that they left the woman to die, that they saw the opportunity to resolve the matter that way, finally, no one investigates. (…) For the government it is one less old person and another housing problem solved.”

The difficulties of getting housing in Cuba are not comparable to any other reality and it has been creating quite complex phenomena where official corruption, astronomic sale prices or political conditions for getting an assignment for a place to live are practically not problems in comparison with the tragedies that have occurred within families or with the loss of moral values and the degradation of human feelings to monstrous levels.

About the Author: Ernesto Perez Chang 

Translated by Mary Lou Keel