14ymedio, Havana, 13 April 2018 — The residents apartment building located at the central corner of 23rd and 12th in Havana’s Vedado district, are counting the days until they will return to their homes, six years after being evacuated, in March 2012, because of the collapse of the staircase. After a prolonged repair, the residents of the emblematic building will return to their homes on 16 April.
The iconic structure known as the Sarrá Building, built in 1925, is the currently a hive of activity swarming with builders and officials. The authorities hope to reopen the five-story block on the date commemorating the 57th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s declaration of the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution, during a speech delivered from the same corner.
The 36 families that inhabited the building six years ago will be able to return to their homes, which have been returned to “optimal living conditions,” according to statements to the press from Michel Milán Reyes, vice president of the Provincial Administration Council in Havana.
“The brigade is rushing to deliver the work on 16 April,” one of the builders engaged in the restoration told 14ymedio, who did not want to reveal his name. The worker says that in the last weeks they have had to “put the pedal to the metal, because the bosses want it ready on that date.”
“All the apartments have been worked on because, although it was the staircase that initially collapsed, over the years the entire building was damaged and much deeper repairs had to be made,” the worker says. “The roofs, beams and slab were very affected by humidity,” he says.
After the staircase collapsed six years ago, the residents loaded their belongings, appliances and other valuables and moved to the nearby Charles Chaplin cinema from where they were relocated to state shelters and houses scattered throughout the municipalities Cerro, 10 de Octubre, Guanabacoa and Habana del Este.
This April, the art gallery that was traditionally located in the basement of the building will reopen its doors, but “on this occasion, dedicated to the Undefeated Commander Fidel (Castro),” said Milan Reyes in a statement. The official also announced that on the ground floor of the premises there will be other services to mark the “500th anniversary of the city.”
Since the first residents were evacuated and the building was left in total neglect, the commemorative sign that marks the place where Castro made his historic speech was covered with a metal plate to protect it from deterioration and vandalism.
The plaque shows a bronze bas-relief with the figure of the former Cuban president, one of the few sculptures of his person that exist on the island, where in 2016 a decree was passed prohibiting the use of Castro’s name or image in public spaces or monuments
During the prolonged work of repairing the building, the complaints of the residents, who feared the total collapse of the building, were constant. In 2013, several of them sent a letter to the official newspaper Juventud Rebelde in which they lamented that, although in December 2012 the budget for the reconstruction was approved, almost a year later the work had not yet begun.
The signers deplored the “lack of will” and of “coordination among the agencies in charge of the repair.” In the letter they insisted that they could not allow the “the lack of responsibility, the indolence and negligence” to continue, and they requested that the facts be investigated and the responsibilities for the delay determined.
Nereida and Manolo, a couple who resided in the building, reported that during the first years when the building was uninhabited after the collapse of the staircase “the scourge of water and mold” considerably damaged the apartments, which were also plundered by vandals, who stole flooring, tiles and elements of the electrical installation.
“This place became a dumpster and they even took the hinges off the doors,” says Mario, a resident on 12th Street a few yards from the well-known corner. “Now they have had to invest in replacing everything that was stolen,” says the neighbor.
The residents, who spent years evacuated in state shelters, wrote to the president of Parliament, Esteban Lazo Hernández, a number of high officials of the Communist Party and the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office to press for the repairs to be done, but the budget was not approved until 2014 and the first work started two years later, a total of four years after the evacuation.
“This has been an ordeal, there were people who died without being able to see the finished work, couples who divorced, children who have grown up in a shelter without any privacy and even families who ended up leaving the country,” Mario explains. “To many this return is bitter because they have already spent six years of their lives without a roof of their own.”
“The fear that the neighbors had is that, given the location and the importance of this building, they would repair it to give it to some institution or use the land to build a hotel, but from the first moment they wrote letters and demands to everyone, so they could not do that.”
In Havana some 33,889 families (132,699 people) need a roof and most of them have spent decades in “temporary” shelters for victims of building collapses or hurricanes.
In 2012, the Population and Housing Census showed that 60% of the 3.9 million homes that exist on the Island are in poor condition.
The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.