House Swapping in Cuba

Osmel Almaguer

Havana home. Photo: Caridad

A few years ago I met a man whose name I can’t recall although the story that he told still astonishes me.

He was a man in his forties who was always dressed in shorts, with no shoes.  He never cut his hair, and when he smiled, you could see that almost all of his teeth were missing.

From the restaurant where I worked, I used to watch him leave his house next door.  We talked almost every day and he almost always stuffed me full of lies and exaggerations.  Nevertheless, one of his stories seemed pretty believable to me.  It had to do with what’s called in Cuba “se permuta” a type of home swapping.

The housing exchange is a typically Cuban phenomenon, an option within the limitations that exist in the buying or selling of homes (houses or apartments).

It consists of a legal way for two families or individuals to exchange housing.  The transaction is regulated by several institutions: the Housing Authority, the Notary, the Health Department, the Community Architect and the UMIV.  I don’t remember what the latter’s initials stand for, but it’s dedicated to urban planning, home addresses and other activities.

An exchange needs to be equal; in other words the interchange should be proportional. That’s the part that is regulated by the Housing Authority.  Of course all of this can be subject to corruption if someone with a lot of money bribes the lawyers, after offering the equivalent of one or two thousand CUC (1 USD = 0.80 CUC) to someone with a larger house than theirs and pays off whoever else they need to in this long bureaucratic chain.

The subject of my story had a very large, valuable and comfortable house many years ago and in the best sector of the city.  Since he didn’t like working, he kept exchanging his house for others, each time a smaller one.  He would lose a room and earn 1,000 CUC; he would move from Vedado to Alamar and earn another 1,000.

At the time I knew him, he had an apartment in Guanabo, right next to the restaurant where I was working.  He told me all this and at first I didn’t believe him.

One night he appeared, mounted in one of the taxis which charge in CUC.  He yelled to me from the window that he had made another of his exchanges.  Now he would only have one room with a small kitchen and bathroom, but he had earned another thousand.

From that moment on, I never saw him again.  I imagine, however, that at any moment I’ll run into him under a bridge.

One thought on “House Swapping in Cuba

  • Hilarious! And probably quite true, as well. The whole system could not have been better designed for bribery and fraud. Why can’t Cubans just buy and sell on an open Market that which is legally theirs? What great Fear do the Masters have? That someone might actually profit by their business acumen, and not through the graces of the Socialist system? Ay, Cuba!

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