A Brief History of Cuba’s Public Restrooms

Daisy Valera

Photo: Pam Correagon / Viajeros.com
Photo: Pam Correagon / Viajeros.com

HAVANA TIMES— In 2011, when I skimmed through the list of 178 trades which the Cuban State had authorized its citizens to practice on a freelance basis, I was left with a number of questions and a general sense of bewilderment.

I still wonder how those who’ve secured licenses for such unprofitable trades as upholstering buttons or pruning palm trees manage to pay their taxes.

Of all the taxable occupations with which this scheme, aimed at pulling jobs out of a hat and throwing a bone to the unemployed, has been meticulously woven, the livelihood described as “public bathroom custodian”, I must say, struck me as a rather distasteful joke.

For the longest time, the search for a public bathroom around Havana frequently ended at a dark walkway surrounding the Capitolio, a derelict corner of the Manzana de Gomez commercial complex, the space behind a large concrete bus stop or, of course, an abandoned building – places where the stench of human feces, urine and wet newspapers combine to offer us one of the city’s hallmark odors.

The fact my bladder is the size of a pea and the intense heat has me guzzling water at every corner may explain why I’ve followed the evolution of this new occupation so closely.

Today, one has less trouble finding a public bathroom, not because a network of such lavatories has been set up around the city’s more frequented places (such as pedestrian boulevards and parks), but because these restrooms, be them at a restaurant, a cafeteria or a movie theatre, have become something akin to small businesses.

Now, every trip to the bathroom you make at a cafeteria, where you are likely to spend several hours and go more than once, will cost you. The same holds for ice-cream parlors and pubs.

The minimum amount you can get away with paying has, of course, been re-adjusted because of the taxes that the custodians (elderly people, for the most part) must pay, and any prospect of using a lavatory for a quarter of a peso has already become wishful thinking.

The public restrooms we come across now cost no less than a peso and up to 0.25 Cuban Convertible Pesos in touristy areas.

The former aren’t exactly bathrooms, not in the strict sense of the word, anyways (they often have no running water, nor faucets, for that matter). They are, rather, places for the writing of amorous, sexual or political manifestos, four walls covered with reams and reams of graffiti.

The latter are something of a blessing. The sliver of soap next to the basin and folded-up strip of toilet paper that the custodians offer outside the restroom as part of their “services” continue to be unexpected luxuries which people regard as rather outlandish.

For now, the State has been spared the burden of having to invest in public bathrooms, the salaries of these custodians can oscillate between 500 and 1,000 Cuban pesos a month and the city, all in all, probably smells a little a better.

To make use of one of these restrooms, however, one must always have a peso handy, unless one wants to incur the disfavor of the custodian, the contemptuous expression which is one of the faces of this precarious process of privatization.

Daisy Valera

Daisy Valera:Soil scientist and blogger. I write from Mexico City, where Havana sometimes becomes so small that it disappears. However in others, the Cuban capital is a city so past and present that it steals your breath.


3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Cuba’s Public Restrooms

  • May 9, 2013 at 12:14 pm
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    Well, they are in the very sense of the meaning shitty. Grady: whether this is the fault of socialism, I doubt it. I think people ( Cuban and not Cubans) are just piggies.

  • May 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm
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    We are frequent visitors to Cuba and public bathrooms has always been an issue. I have never travelled anywhere that I am required to pay 1 CUC for 3 squares of tissue to use a filthy toilet with no seat. Sometimes they flush but mostly no. Passed through Santa Clara Airport last month and their bathrooms were spotless, tissue in each stall and no harassing attendant. A pleasant surprise. Passed through the Holguin Airport and the bathrooms in the arrivals was disgusting with an attendant. A very bad impression for anyone entering the country. The ones on the departure side are much better. Why can’t regular cleaning staff take care of the washrooms and stalk then with soap and tissue like the rest of the world.

  • May 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm
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    I must say, Daisy, that this revelation of the public restroom situation in Cuba is shocking. Marxian state monopoly socialism cannot even provide the public with decent, modern sanitation! It is disappointing in the extreme.

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