The Housing Problem: the System’s Autotrophic Phase / Miriam Celaya

Those of us Habaneros who were already adults in the 90’s witnessed the dismantling of the so-called “hostels” or INIT shelters, which — for the younger readers — were something like the tropical version of a cheap motel in which, for a small fee, couples who had no other adequate space rented a room for a few hours to have sexual relations. As a “solution” for the impossible task of sustaining the housing construction micro-brigades in the midst of the crisis known as “the special period in peacetime”, those hostels were fully adapted to housing and distributed as tiny apartments to families that did not have a place to live.

As a consequence, far from solving the general problem of housing, given that there were never enough hostels to provide homes to so many who needed them, they created another problem: couples without private spaces were stripped of their seedy but single possibility of having sex behind closed doors, without emptying their pockets. There has been little discussion of this, but since they closed the inns, sex was another item that became significantly more expensive and even became part of public spectacles in parks, dark corners, and stairways of familiar buildings.

But such dispossession was not something that concerned government officials. After all, this only hurt the poorest and, besides, no one would even think of bringing up such a problem in an assembly, lest they be labeled obscene or be subjected to ridicule. Mockery is already known to be the national tendency. On silencing the issue, the problem would “disappear”. Curiously, Cubans, who often boast of being sexual athletes, get very picky when discussing issues related to this. And so, the hostels, like other morally questionable sites, ended up red-listed among the many useful institutions that disappeared under this government.

The fact is that twenty years later, with the growing housing crisis, the steady deterioration of housing stock, and the chronic insufficiency of construction, the authorities have opted to appeal to a supreme source: turning into housing many of the local houses and offices recently used by their institutions, plus factories that have been closed due to the regressive economic effect of the system. Of course, this is not about institutions that are strategic to the government, but those that do not produce earnings, but expenses: The Ministry of Education, of Housing, small factories, etc.

Thus, while the construction of new buildings with better dignified façades are intended only for the sectors for the faithful (“atypical” buildings for Armed Forces or Interior Ministry officials) or beautiful homes are built for the anointed with closer relationships with the power in exclusive neighborhoods of the city, such as the “frozen” area in the vicinity of the hospital popularly known as CIMECQ, near Ground Zero, a neighborhood that was for the previous highest bourgeoisie; the disadvantaged get an ancient building or an austere narrow office space turned into an apartment, where, slowly, as construction materials make their appearance, they are building, with their own hands and with moving illusion, what will be their home the day that they finally install the last coat of plaster.

Those who want to verify this can simply pick out a sector of the city and set their eyes on the details. The old tobacco factory located at Carlos III and Árbol Seco is getting the final push to be transformed into a kind of new type of rooming house which will accommodate 21 apartments for families. The old building of the micro-social in the Casino Deportivo (3rd Street, between Entrada and 2nd) is also being turned into small apartments, while the house that was a branch of the Ministry of Education on the same block was given to a more lucky family… maybe an official who is devout from one of the sacred, untouchable institutions, those that don’t get mutilated.

Mind you, I don’t regret the disappearance of the offices of so many obsolete units which, like the marabou weed*, have spread throughout Cuba for over half a century. In fact, I would love to see their return to their original condition as family homes, for example, four comfortable mansions which for decades, after having been expropriated from their rightful owners, have been used as headquarters of the provincial committee of the Communist Party. That, and not to mention the overwhelming number of buildings also occupied by other parasitic organizations: CTC, CDR, FMC, DC, Popular Power, and an endless list. The mansions of the leaders and their privileged neighborhoods, are, of course, not linked to the housing program for the poor.

Given the lack of new construction, the inability of the state to build, and the reluctance to allow work to develop from the initiative of private contractors and private enterprises of Cubans, the government has chosen to draw on the outgrowths of their own outdated institutions, a kind of social autotrophy that, somehow, looks like a graphic manifestation of the system’s malnutrition.

*Translator’s Note:
Dichrostachys cinerea. In Cuba, the plant is known as El Marabú or Marabou weed. It has been estimated that it occupies close to five million acres (20,000 km²) of agricultural land.

Translated by Norma Whiting

October 28 2011