Robert is a retired gentleman of 71, who was looking for a relaxed job to make up for his inadequate retirement, and to be able to eat badly for the thirty days in a month. Up all night after exhausting days, he took a sip of televised propaganda and was drunk with enthusiasm. He thought he could get a subsidy to fix his house and threw himself into the hype of State bureaucracy and corruption. “They’ve spun me around more times than a top,” he told me, “And I haven’t resolved anything. Lines and more lines, paperwork and more paperwork… More than to leave the country!”
A young functionary who helped him one morning warned, “Grandpa, the materials offered by the State at subsidized prices are to repair your home, not to sell them.” He got a lump in his throat because it’s not good to “wrangle with the cook,” he thought, and he swallowed hard at his response. Roberto’s residence is brick but its gabled roof is of French tiles laid over asphalt paper resting on a wooden structure. As the beams are rotten and the warped roof threatens to fall in, he consulted with family members to help him repair it when he got permission to obtain materials at favorable prices. The walls also need attention, because since the late 60s he hasn’t been able to make major repairs to his property.
In his whole working life he never had the resources to purchase construction materials at the official price or to pay for the labor required. For 48 years he worked for the Cuban state, facing a furnace in the steel industry. Today he takes stock of his live and the holes in his pockets match the existential vacuum of facing homelessness.
It is due to the endless and huge lines, the mistreatment by many of the people who work dealing with the public — something systemic — in the Municipal Housing Department, and the complex and delayed processing of any paperwork in Cuba, that Roberto has no papers for his dwelling. Now, in order to avoid being buried in his own home, he must prove that the ruined house where he has lived for nearly 50 years is his, or wait for the ceiling to fall in on him.
Discouragement begins to haunt his efforts. In his despair, he turns to sitting in the park along with other retirees who ironically remind him of Consuelito Vidal, a now-deceased Cuban television personality: “You have to have faith that everything will come.” And Roberto, skeptical, replies: “Yes, but when?”
Some fellow sufferers in these proceedings suggested to him, “Offer a little gift to the employee who is helping you to encourage her.” Reflecting that she is paid for doing her job, but thinking that surely — like most people — her salary is insufficient, that if she has children the best she can do — like others — is to send them to school on an empty stomach, or with an improvised breakfast, get on a packed bus that comes at the wrong time to get her to work, and perhaps, ironically, does not have the title to her own house, for the same reasons he doesn’t.
He confessed to me that when he laid down and looked at his piece of domestic ceiling, blackened by rot and eaten by termites, he thought about whether he could patch up his home as he proposed. He believes that if the government would allocate more cement for domestic consumption and less for export, if they weren’t involved in so many construction projects abroad, if they eliminated the red tape, and paid their workers a fair wage, people would not have to suffer the martyrdom of exhaustion or lose days of their lives in tortuous proceedings to receive the authorization which, more than a permission to do something, seems like a grudging charity.
April 21 2012