14ymedio, Nelson García and Olea Gallardo, Havana, 22 November 2023 — Judging from the buildings at 202 Obispo Street and 653 Cuba Street in Old Havana, one would never guess it has been sixty-five years since the Cuban revolution. Neat and tidy, with smooth walls and new paint, the buildings — recently renovated with Saudi money — contrast with the surrounding buildings, which remain on the brink of collapse.
Local officials were present at the inauguration ceremony on Saturday, which marked the the 504th anniversary of the city’s founding. The state-run press covered the event with its usual fanfare.
Tribuna de la Habana reported that the reconstruction was carried out by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana with help from the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD). The eleven renovated homes at 653 Cuba Street – the former Palace of the Marquis of the Royal Proclamation – and another thirteen at 202 Obispo Street are to be occupied by “families who were facing difficult housing situations.”
It seems, however, that the apartments, described by the newspaper as “renovated and very comfortable,” are not being occupied by people of modest means. “No way,” said a local resident on Wednesday who has been observing the comings and goings. “What few families like that there are were very carefully chosen.” Security agents armed with walkie-talkies control access to both buildings.
Inside, all is luxurious, pristine and quiet. “You think they’re going to give these homes to someone who isn’t shouting ’Viva Fidel’?” the woman asks rhetorically. “These are not for average people.”
As Tribuna de La Habana reported, the FSD also financed the Havana Aquarium, located in the city’s historic center. That project was also managed the Office of the Historian, which had become its own power center under the command of the late Eusebio Leal until the Cuban armed forces took it over after his death and depleted its resources.
What the newspaper did not say is that this same fund also financed the grandiose Fidel Castro Ruz Center, which opened in Havana’s Vedado district in late 2021. At the time, a source from the Office of the Historian confessed, “The money was supposed to be for housing but some of it was used for the center and for the Capitol restoration as well.”
In 2017 the SFD loaned Cuba 26.6 million dollars for the Office of the Historian’s building restoration and social welfare program which, officially, was supposed to help alleviate Havana’s ongoing housing crisis.
14ymedio has learned through unofficial sources that another the project made possible by the SFD is the Práctico del Puerto building, which has views of the Plaza de Armas, the Royal Military Fortress and Havana Bay.
Of Práctico del Puerto’s former residents, who were evicted at the start of construction, only one — Francisco Muñoz — has returned. Neighborhood residents claim that the apartments, which enjoy a spectacular view of Havana Bay, went to employees of the Ministry of Health.
Muñoz told 14ymedio in late 2021 that he was able to return to his former home in late 2021 because he spent “eight years living in front of the building, inside a container, without moving.” He also had help from Eusebio Leal, with whom he worked for twelve years as construction manager at the the Office of the Historian. “At one point a military officer even came to evict me and [Leal] came to my defense with a copy of the law in his hand,” he said at the time. As for his former neighbors, “there were people here who went to the shelter and weren’t able to return. I hear there’s a married couple still living at the shelter.”
The SFD began operations in 1975 and has as its principal objective the financing of projects in developing countries. It has approved loans to Cuba for projects related to rehabilitating hydraulic networks (122 million dollars in 2016), improving the Camagüey sewage system (40 million dollars in 2014), overhauling Havana’s water system (30 million in 2013) and acquiring medical equipment for maternity care centers (in 2010).
In 2013 the island signed an agreement to send Cuban doctors to Saudia Arabia in exchange for 10,000 dollars a month per doctor, of which each individual physician receives only 1,000 dollars in compensation.
The Prensa Latina news agency reported that Ricardo Cabrisas, the minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in October to “review” the state of bilateral relations. It appears they are as strong as ever.
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