The Mansion, The Country / Yoani Sánchez

She has a five-bedroom house that is falling to pieces. She got it in the seventies when the family for whom she worked as a maid went into exile. At first she went through all the rooms each day, the interior patio, caressed the marble banister of the stairs to the second floor, played at filling the basins of the three bathrooms just to be reminded that this neoclassical mansion was now hers. The joy lasted for a while, until the first bulbs burned out, the paint started to peel, and weeds grew in the garden. She got a job cleaning a school, but not even six salaries for such a job would have been enough to maintain the ancient splendor of this house that seemed increasingly larger and more inhospitable.

Thousands of times, the woman in this story thought of selling the house inherited from her former employers, but she would not do anything outside the law. For decades in Cuba a market in housing was prohibited and it was only possible to exchange properties through a concept popularly known as a “swap.” Dozens of decrees, restrictions and limitations also arose, to regulate and control this activity, making moving an ordeal. An all-powerful Housing Institute oversaw the completion of a string of absurd conditions. With so many requirements, the procedures were strung out over more than a year, such that before families could go live in their new homes they were exhausted from filling out forms, hiring lawyers and bribing inspectors.

Such anxieties raised hopes that the Sixth Communist Party Congress would raise the flag for real estate. When, in the final report, it said that the purchase and sale of homes would be accepted and all that remained was to legally implement it, hundreds of thousands of Cubans breathed a sigh of relief. The lady with the mansion, at the moment it was announced, was sitting in front of her television avoiding a drip falling from the ceiling right in the middle of the living room. She looked around at the columns with decorated capitals, the huge mahogany doors, and the marble staircase from which the banister had been torn out and sold. Finally she could hang a sign on the fence, “For Sale: Five-bedroom house in urgent need of repairs. Wish to buy a one-bedroom apartment in some other neighborhood.”

30 April 2011