Victims Without Rights

Isbet Acosta Valle had been in Havana for three years when the tornado destroyed the home where she was living. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, February 19, 2019 — There are those who lost everything or almost everything in the tornado, but there are also those who can’t even legally prove that the winds on that January 27 took everything they had. Before that night, Isbet Acosta Valle lived with her daughter in a borrowed apartment but her identity card didn’t say “Havana.” She is one of the many “illegals” who live in the city, who can’t ask for help to rebuild their homes.

Born in Las Tunas, Acosta arrived in the capital with the dream of making it there. A friend offered her a modest house and told her: “Stay for however long you can.” Three years had passed by the time the storm destroyed everything and flew off with her dreams.

“I can’t make claims because my name isn’t on the papers,” she tells 14ymedio. “Unfortunately the house was made of wood and the roof of fiber cement. It was in really bad condition but at least it was something, now I’m left on the street with my seven-year-old daughter.”

In the first 19 days, no authority came by the improvised warehouse in which they were sheltering. (14ymedio)

According to data on internal migration gathered in the 2012 census, the province where the most people live who were born in another province is Havana, with 462,677 (41.6% of the emigrants).

In 1997, authorities toughened the law on the settlement of inhabitants originally from other regions of Cuba in the capital. The regulations have led thousands of them to live in illegality or settle the matter via irregular methods, like paying a landlord who adds them as a resident in a home or marrying for convenience.

Frequently the police carry out raids and check the place of residency on identity cards. If it doesn’t match a Havana address, the person can be deported to their original province. Many of them live without access to the rationed market, higher education, and jobs in the state-controlled sector. Havana natives sometimes refer to them, derogatorily, as “Palestinians.”

Isbet Acosta has become familiar with all those vagaries in the past few years, and now her conditions have worsened. She stayed in an old warehouse of interprovincial buses in the days after the tornado along with other families who have been left without a roof, but living together is complicated and privacy is null.

In the first 19 days, no authority came by the place. “We’re trying to find a solution for our housing because here we don’t have the proper conditions and there are small children, pregnant women. The state needs to give us an answer, I don’t care if it’s land to build on or materials to repair what’s here.”

In the warehouse where they spent the first days there was neither water nor electricity. (14ymedio)

The government has agreed to subsidize the price of construction materials by 50% for families who suffered total or partial collapses of their homes. However, an indispensable requisite to access these subsidized prices is being able to demonstrate ownership of the affected house, something that Acosta has never had.

To regularize her status in Havana she must first have her own home or the consent of the owner. The owner must register her at a private address, but the process includes procedures in several offices, verification of whether the house has sufficient square feet to accommodate another person, and numerous documents. In some neighborhoods an additional authorization is needed because they are considered “frozen zones.”

Without those formalities, Acosta cannot have a Havana address on her identity card, and without that requisite she remains on the margin, as well, of the possibility to request a bank loan or ask for some social help given her economic precariousness.

Despite her condition, every day the young woman appears at the Processing Office on Pedro Perna street in Luyanó, set up after the tornado, but they answer her that her case “is complicated” and “she has to wait.” At night, she sleeps between three moldy and chipped walls of the old warehouse, where she keeps her belongings in a strict order, as if she wanted to stop the chaos at least in the small space around her bed.

It wasn’t until last Friday that local authorities came with a concrete proposal for the victims sleeping in the place, the majority of them illegal. “They came early and told us to gather all our belongings because we were going that very day to a shelter in Boyeros and that’s what we did.” Everything that they had they put in small cases and they even gave away some things that they couldn’t carry.

“It was a total humiliation, we were waiting all day for the bus to come get us and nothing happened, at night another official came to tell us that we were no longer leaving for the shelter and that we had to wait.” The woman laments that they just have to “keep waiting” after the passing of the tornado.

On Friday night Acosta was desperate. She had given away her mattress because she didn’t have transportation to take it with her and she didn’t have anywhere to sleep. Saturday passed in the same way until on Sunday they were finally moved to the shelter. “We don’t have anywhere to go and for two weeks the state didn’t worry about whether we ate, whether we were alive, nothing,” she says.

As she recalls, there were days in which people came by bringing water, clothing, or food of their own initiative. “The water that some people have brought us as a donation is what we were using to clean ourselves the days when there was no water from the sink. With my daughter I had to live asking favors from neighbors to bathe her with lukewarm water because we didn’t even have electricity.”

The desperation of not having an answer has already passed, now she and her daughter are situated in a shelter that, although it doesn’t have all the conditions of the home that she lost, at least has the minimum necessary to spend the days. But Acosta is still an illegal and she fears that her situation will surface when she begins to complete some legal procedures and they will return her to Las Tunas.

Her dilemma is whether to make herself noticed and make claims to get a roof, or to keep quiet to avoid detection of the irregular status of her residency in Havana. To be or not to be, that is her quandary.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


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