Beneath the Rouge of Old Havana

Osmel Almaguer

 Dancing in Old Havana
Dancing in Old Havana

Joshua is my youngest and most recent friend.  He’s 22 and has worked for eleven months at the same place I do, the Cuban Book Institute.

Over the last three months we’ve gotten pretty close.  We tell each other about aspects of our lives, sharing our satisfaction and sorrows.

It turns out he has an apartment in Old Havana, the oldest area of the city, one where many colonial structures still remain.

The passage of time has affected a large number of these buildings, despite a restoration project that has conserved and enhanced many of the facades and streets of this municipality.

Despite the improvements in this district, there still exists a way of life associated with “solares” (tenements).  What were enormous two-story homes where the richest Creole families once lived, are buildings that have been subdivided into numbers of small apartments within which large families typically live.

In each solar reside many families that have to share the building’s sole bathroom. The sanitary conditions are poor, and fights and conflicts between the residents are fairly commonplace.

Beginning in the 1990s, the development of this historical center was organized into a kind of self-financing business, since a portion of the earnings of the area’s new hotels, up-scale restaurants and museums are plowed back into the further development of the district.  In that these facilities accommodate the tourism market, they generate a great deal of hard currency for the country.

For this reason, the Office of the City Historian has sufficient funding to make Old Havana a place more pleasing to the eye, through the area’s well-painted and re-stuccoed facades in addition to its pristine streets.

However on the inside of the buildings —well out of the view of tourists— it’s another story. The walls are chipped and faded, and the plumbing is often broken or idle, because months sometimes go by without water coming out of the faucets).

This is why one can frequently see large groups of people with buckets circling water trucks. The government provides these supplies so area residents can at least take a bath and cook.

Statistics provided by the media affirm that a quarter of the water pumped into the city is lost due to leaks and ruptures in waterlines and pipes.  Since a solution to this problem has not been found, the government falls back on the repeated justification of the shortage of economic resources.

Joshua is lucky that his building is not a solar, though his also suffers a lack of water.  He told me about some of his friends in his neighborhood whose households are so large —and living in a single room— that they have to take shifts to sleep.

When he went to his friend Javier’s house one time, he was left staggered to see the beds, floor and sofa covered with people sleeping, while Javier, his father and five of his siblings were hanging around in the hall waiting their turn to go to bed.

2 thoughts on “Beneath the Rouge of Old Havana

  • Hmmm?! It has been 50 years now since the first Urban Reform alegedly solved the problems of arbitrary rent hikes, lack of equity for renters, etc., yet it seems that there was never programed into this reform the mechanisms for continuing and adequate maintenance of the houses and apartments that were transferred to their tenants. What seems to be the problem? What are they waiting for? ….the REST of the houses and apartment buildings to collapse, like so many already have done?

  • Shocking that this condition could exist after a half-century of socialism!

    In the US, rental housing is owned by a landlord class which is a major bulwark of the reactionary Republican Party–the Party of Bush. Rental housing is made available to the working people thru a sweetheart working relationship between government, banks and landlord entrepreneurs.

    50 million households are tenant serfs who pay for everything but get not one cent of equity. All equity goes to the landlord, so it’s like a saving account for her or him. Yes, you can get your building repaired, and the plumbing is kept in order, but still no ownership for those who pay of everything with their hard-earned money.

    What is needed–in the US and Cuba–is for people to own their homes, whether apartments or stand-alone houses. Equity should go to the working people.

    This means that a “housing market” needs to be in place. It should however be a cooperative socialist housing market.

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