THE HOUSING DIMENSION IN CUBA'S URBAN CRISIS: HAVANA AS A CASE IN POINT
The housing situation is a crucial indicator of the living conditions of a population. In Cuba, the available evidence indicates that housing is extremely inadequate and with highly uncertain perspectives for improvement in the coming future. Havana, where a fifth of the island's population lives, is the focal point of our analysis. We will attempt to describe the present status of its housing, to surmise the causes of its condition and to briefly examine the future prospects.
Even a superficial visitor would be impressed by the deterioration and outright destruction that this once proud and beautiful city has experienced since 1959. The visual aspect of the older part of Havana resembles in many places the destruction experienced by cities in Europe during World War II. The complete collapse "derrumbe" of buildings, or the partial derrumbe leaving only its external structure, is impressive. Rubble from those "derrumbes" often is left in place for long periods, obstructing the streets and sidewalks. No less impressive is the generalized state of disrepair in the form of lack of paint and peeling of the external structure and the outright partial derrumbes, with buildings that have gone without adequate maintenance for decades.
Official statistics corroborate the visual perspective. According to 1997 statistics, metropolitan Havana had over 2,200,000 inhabitants living in 560,000 dwellings. Of these, half were ranked as defective or in bad condition, while 60,000 were beyond repair and should be demolished. There are 75,000 with "apuntalamientos" and over 7,800 are waiting to be "apuntaladas" to prevent their derrumbe. (San Lazaro) According to the same source, by 1996 there were 188 marginal neighborhoods, lacking the most essential services, comprising 23,000 dwellings and 76,000 residents. Another official report indicated the presence of 1,500 (ciudadelas-cuarterias), 1000 of which were ranked in bad condition. Due to the derrumbes, a total of 6,000 families needed shelter (albergue), while only 350 had received it; also 500 multidwelling buildings were in great risk of a derrumbe and 40 were considered to be "miracously" still standing.
Most of those neighborhoods in bad conditions are inhabited by migrants from the interior, mostly from the former Oriente province, nicknamed "palestinos", coming to the capital seeking better job opportunities and greater availability of consumer goods. Indeed, internal migration has been a critical factor in the growth of Cuba's capital, which is considered beyond the capability to adequately support that population. According to those official sources, that type of migration averaged annually between 10 to 12,000 persons for the 60's decade through 80's, while by 1996, it reached 28,000 with a growing trend. To make future prospects worse, a recent investigation by Havana's Centro de Estudios Demograficos (CEDEM) indicated that about 185,000 Cubans from the interior would like to move to the capital.
Furthermore, housing construction for the Cuban people as a whole is lagging at a huge rate. Our estimates indicate an annual deficit of about 15,000 units since 1959, amounting to 585,000 units for the country. To add insult to injury, the quality of new houses, built by the inefficient "microbrigadas" composed of non professional construction workers, can be categorized as an "instantaneous obsolescence". Frequently, the walls and ceiling crack and the plumbing quits working, even before the new appartment is occupied. A poor finish is a typical feature of new housing constructions. Havana is no exception to this pattern.
As a consequence of this deterioration and huge shortage in housing construction a significant amount of overcrowding has taken place with very negative social consequences. Entire families are often forced to sleep in the same room. It is very common to see what was initially a single family dwelling unit being subdivided into two or three family nuclei. The increasing domestic violence appears to be directly connected with this situation as well as the extremely high divorce rate. Yet, many divorced couples must continue living together, although they marry again, subdividing the already restricted dwelling.
The young married couples are those who have suffered the most because of the dwelling deficit. In the majority of cases, just-married couples must live at the house of one of their parents. Or, even worse, if the living quarters are already congested in both families' houses, then they may have to continue living separately, each one with his/her respective family. The situation is such that, very often, married couples have to go to the "posadas" love nests or rooms-rented-by-the-hour places now managed by the government, in order to enjoy some privacy. But, in order to rent a room in those places, due to their scarcity, in many instances they have to form a line in public, frequently during a long period of time and even making payments "under the table" to the managers to get a good room or speed up their turn. Recent reports indicate a drastic reduction of the posadas in Havana.
Another form of coping with the housing shortage has resulted in a peculiar form or urban growth, not horizontally or vertically, but growth within the unit itself. Thus, many houses with a high ceiling, have been divided with the construction of a kind of mezzanine or "barbacoa", as it is called in Cuba. These additions are illegal in many cases, since the Popular Power does not usually authorize them, nor provide the materials. But, in this manner, the family "resolves" the situation of a son or a daughter who marries and has no access to his/her own dwelling. Obviously, these additions increase the dwelling population density and, as such, increase the possibility of family or social conflicts.
But the housing crisis endured by the Cuban people is not limited to finding a roof and materials to repair it. Energy and water supply are other aspects of this crisis. Regarding electricity, blackouts have been a part of daily life, naturally depending upon where one lives. These blackouts have been of such a magnitude that some, in an ironic or joking manner, have called the return of electric power, after the blackouts, as "alumbrones" (enlightenings). An interviewee recalls:
"... in my house at La Habana, twelve hours without electric power was common; at times we were left up to 36 and 48 hours without electricity".
Usually, blackouts have taken place throughout the day, but particularly during the "peak hours", between 5:30 and 9:00 p.m. But this has not only been in Havana; the situation has been similar in other cities along the Island. It is important to point out that there are areas where blackouts do not occur, --important hotels, hospitals and the exclusive residences of the new class in power. A popular measure to find a remedy when electricity is cut off, has been returning to the ancient "oil lamp of the fields" -- popularly known as "chismosas" -- made in a very primitive manner: A glass bottle with an empty tube of toothpaste inside, to hold a wick, frequently homemade. (See illustration.) Another more ingenious form of coping with the energy crisis has been the building of "energy plants." These are really sets of batteries (mostly obtained in the underground economy) of different types, and arranged with great ingenuity that can provide electricity at night, at least to see the extremely popular TV soap opera and illumination.
Coal, gas and kerosene for cooking or warming anything are also scarce. An interviewee pointed out:
"If you use gas for cooking, you must reorder at least 25 days in advance; if you run out of gas by the 20th., perhaps you will get your supply by the 15th. of the following month".
Our 1989 survey revealed that kerosene ranges have reached a high degree of popularity due to the difficulty in obtaining those fed by gas or electricity. The kerosene ranges, of the Pike brand and made in Cuba, are of a very deficient construction. They work through gravity and their connections to carry fuel to the burners are very fragile, since they dislodge with a relative easiness. This has produced many fires, burns and even deaths among the population.
The telephone situation is worse than that existing before 1959. Public equipment is old and no telephones are practically installed in private homes, unless the resident holds a high-ranking position in government or is related to a high-ranking Party official.
The water shortage mentioned above is not new for Havana and other Cuban cities. But despite almost 40 years in power, the Castro regime has not solved it. "There are some neighborhoods in Cuba which, when I left in 1982, had been for over ten years without a daily supply of water", said an interviewee who had been an official in the Ministry of Public Health. This brings about as a result many difficulties for the population who, in the cities, must haul water for their homes, at times climbing several stories. Cubans, who have not lost their sense of humor despite their disgrace, have sought an outlet for this situation, at the same time ridiculing the regime that constantly creates "plans" of various kinds. To this effect, the difficulties with the supply of water and electricity have been called "the Plan Peru" (rhyming in Spanish "por el dia sin agua y de noche sin luz"), which implies being "without water in the daytime and without power in the evening". But what is worse is the condition of the pipes in the water supply system, that has decayed and destroyed in many places. Furthermore, it must be pointed out, according to some observers, that in a certain number of areas, the water table of Havana seems to be highly polluted as a result of broken sewer pipes.
Another consequence of the overall socioeconomic conditions affecting the island has been the ruralization of Havana. Due to the extreme food shortages the people have to endure, many have resorted to the raising of animals or crops within their very limited space, often without the availability of land. That has been the case of people raising hogs in their bathtubs or in their small backyards. Most frequently have been chicken for meat and for eggs. This, of course implied serious sanitary consequences.
And although massive vaccination campaigns have been conducted especially with children, it also seems to be true that important preventive sanitary measures have been neglected. This is related to the different epidemics that have scourged the Cuban people in recent years. The most recent are serious skin diseases and leptospirosis propagated by rats. An earlier example was the case of "dengue" (which did not exist in Cuba prior to the Cuban intervention in Africa), which is propagated by the "aedes aegypti" mosquito, through the presence of persons infected with that disease. That transmitting vehicle spread in a significant manner due to the detouring of fumigation resources from urban zones to agricultural production. On the other hand, many persons arrived from Africa being carriers of that disease, without being submitted to medical examinations or quarantines. Thus, the "dengue" spread again after an initial outbreak in 1976 that was controlled.
So it was that in a meeting by mid-1981 with the Public Health personnel responsible for the fight against the epidemic, Castro stated, as a physician who was in attendance recalled:
"... that the responsibility for the magnitude of the epidemic was his and the Party's, since the fumigation resources asked for were not provided by the Ministry of Public Health, due to neglect ... He was applauded by those in attendance ... But from there he went to a big rally in the Plaza of the Revolution, and for everybody's surprise he blamed the United States for the epidemic ... many of us believed that he was crazy..."
Others believe that this is synonymous with the lack of personal or political ethics. For Castro, apparently, truth is a relative concept. What is true is determined by the political expediency of the moment.
This brings us to the ultimate causal factor determining this urban crisis. The present totalitarian nature of Cuban society seems to be at the roots of Cuba's and particularly Havana's plight. This began with the confiscation of all rental property and the absolute control of construction materials and monopoly of construction itself after 1960. It must be pointed out that Cubans can't legally buy or sell houses. This was compounded by the inability of the population to react effectively due to the total control of the media. This, in turn, enabled the government to act capriciously, determining priorities, often at the whim of Fidel Castro who opted to use construction resources in his ill-conceived grandiose "plans," mostly in the countryside, including rural villages, water reservoirs, roads in remote places, not excluding the monumental eight lane highway through the middle of the island, apparently conceived more for military purposes. Indeed this has been the case of the massive construction of tunnels in Havana and throughout the island, also including strategic bunkers.
The people may lack paint for their houses but this is available without restriction for the housing of the elite, for propaganda purposes and for the new constructions oriented to foreign tourism. The same can be said for all types of construction materials for the new hotels and even for the repair of the old housing of all types, designed to be sold to foreigners at premium prices. Old Havana is being renovated to a great extent with UNESCO funds due to their designation of that area as patrimony of humanity. But those funds are not applied to alleviate the deplorable housing conditions that the people have to endure.
The salvage of Havana seems to be contingent then upon the elimination of the present totalitarian and unipersonal system. Billions of dollars will probably be required to make functional the basic infrastructure of Havana. But I feel very strongly that if Cuban ingenuity is allowed to work and construction resources existing in the island are made available to the population, great progress can be achieved. I have seen the results of significant improvement of urban conditions, even of slums, in other countries when resources have been made available to the people with some technical assistance, but mostly employing the voluntary labor available within the communities. It requires, in summation, that Cuba must open itself to Cubans. That Cubans cease to be second class citizens in their own country due to the prevailing totalitarian system, and be allowed to be architects and builders of their own destiny.
Juan Clark, Ph.D., Sociology Professor, Miami-Dade Community College, Kendall Campus