Everyone’s a Builder in Cuba

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

Builder.  Photo: ecured.cu
Builder. Photo: ecured.cu

HAVANA TIMES — Just about anyone will tell you here that they’re an experienced builder. You only need to have some construction materials lying around the house for someone to show up and offer you their services.

“If you need a builder, just call me,” a neighbor who recently moved onto our block tells me.

It’s a good offer, but I haven’t been able to see the quality of his construction work. He may be the best builder out there, but, as my grandmother used to say, “seeing is believing.”

He is obviously looking for work, but, what price will I end up paying for his “work”? I don’t know.

A great many builders who have many years of experience are self-employed. Some have proper authorization and quite a number of others do not. The latter do not have a building license and depend on the recommendations of friends – or on how much of a risk you’re willing to take by hiring them without having first seen their work.

If you get the chance to see them “in action” somewhere and decide to hire them (because you like the work they do), well, so be it. But, even then, you can’t be too careful, as you still run the risk of having much of your building materials sold by that builder.

“You know, the other day I became suspicious of the builder who’s working at my place,” my neighbor Sainy tells me. Like me, she is repairing her home.

“I got so upset over some things that weren’t very clear to me that I decided I had enough and told him to leave. That same afternoon I confirmed my suspicions. An elderly man came to the house and told me he had come to pick up 10 bricks that the owner had offered him. He added that, at the time, he didn’t have the money but he had asked him to set them aside, and he had now come to get them. I looked him straight in the face as he described the builder who’d been working in my house.”

“I’m telling you this so you take precautions and the same thing doesn’t happen to you!” she said to me.

This is one case in point. There are thousands of people who haven’t even noticed the theft of their materials. After they’ve bought them at a construction site and personally taken them home, these vanish right in front of them. Luckily, my neighbor was able to sense the man was stealing, but, does she know how long he’d been selling materials for?

I know I have to be extra careful. My neighbor’s experiences and my other neighbor’s offer are enough to be on guard.

7 thoughts on “Everyone’s a Builder in Cuba

  • When the socialist system imposed by Castro ended the mortgage market in Cuba, all of the accumulated wealth represented by real estate was lost to the economy. People could no longer borrow against the equity of their homes to do improvements or renovations. Add to that the lack of property laws which discourages anybody from investing their own money in fixing up a house or large building. The end result is the slow and steady decay of real estate. The socialist system has destroyed the wealth of the nation.

  • The irrational prices paid for houses in Cuba are in part explained by the scarcity of housing. While this favors people with houses in Havana or by the beach, it handicaps all other Cubans. In the “favela” parts of Havana, where no tourists ever come, housing is terrible. The same in the shanty towns around Santiago de Cuba. That city has been doubly hit: the basic scarcity and dilapidated state of housing with the effects of the hurricane on top of that.
    Santiago is the worst I have seen. People are desperate and the government is basically doing nothing. Building materials are beyond the means of the people. The ridiculous “loans” only make things worse for people as the cash is not sufficient to repair anything and the money often goes to survival leaving people with an even bigger problem than before they started.

  • What is most disconcerting is the fact that there are no more than 4 million separate residences in Cuba and that is a very generous estimate. If there is deficit of 1 million living spaces then the math is simple: the Castros need to grow by 25% to adequately house their population. Here’s a little perspective: historically, even in the wealthiest markets around the world, increasing housing stock by 10% is a herculean accomplishment.

  • No argument from me. I have found it to be better to “tone down” facts here to avoid censorship.

  • That’s the ‘official’ estimate. Off the record, it is believed that as many as 1 million homes are needed to be repaired or rebuilt.

  • Like your friend, eternal vigilance is necessary to prevent being bilked, combined, of course, with some native common sense. In an economy of scarcity, the morally weak will always be tempted towards dishonesty. In the end, however, whether through pragmatism, or by a strong internal moral compass, “honesty is the best policy.” My auto mechanic, for example, is scrupulously honest. Several times I’ve gone to him expecting to pay big bucks, to be informed that only a minor “dohicky” was needed, or a minor adjustment made, and he would not charge me, or only charge me $38.27! As a consequence, his shop is always mobbed, and customers have to make an appointment several weeks in advance for scheduled maintenance or semi-annual check-ups. (Of course he can always fit you in in an emergency.) He has also hired a half-dozen other mechanics, and he stands behind their work, too..

  • A better title would be “everyone – except the elite – needs better housing in Cuba.
    Cuba needs 500,000 houses built or rebuilt.

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