By Osmel Almaguer
Starting from Cuba’s Special Period (as almost all official accounts lead off) the country has not been able to offer the necessary resources to satisfy people’s housing demand. New families are created, others grow. Meanwhile houses deteriorate, because there is a large number of neighborhoods that date back to the 19th century, and others not so old but having less than standard architectural quality.
This situation has unleashed numerous legal disputes and even violence between people. A kind of a residential phobia has come to possess most owners. Stories of housing dispossession and disputes are the talk of the day. Some owners, almost always men, speak of having married the wrong woman, only to wind up living under a bridge.
The cases most talked about are those of people who come to the capital from eastern Cuba (because the situation there is more difficult) without proper legal authorization and having to settle in quickly. In Havana, the immigrants from that region are called “Palestinians,” due to their inclination to spend the night in train stations or other make-do places, though they haven’t actually been robbed of their land.
The formula most repeated is marriage. The wedded immigrant will soon begin bringing almost all their relatives until the house is full, and the only one who lacks space is the original owner. In saying this, by no means I do I wish to imply that the people of eastern Cuba are bad. In fact, they’re known for their hospitality and sincerity, among other fine qualities.
Another form of acquiring a house or apartment, a less traumatic one, is taking care of an elderly person: someone who is close to death, doesn’t have relatives and is willing to leave their property as inheritance to anyone who assists them.
Though other legal ways also exist to acquire housing (including inheritance, assignment of a unit by a workplace or building one yourself), it continues to be difficult to obtain one through any of these three variants.
Rental rooms also disappeared with the Special Period, and now people only rent rooms at prices ($5 for three hours) that are unaffordable for most Cubans. Other people rent their homes to tourists for around $25 a day, generally reducing the owner’s maximum habitable space to only a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. There are those who surreptitiously manage several rooms, in this way making more money with less work.
I’ve spoken with many lawyers, but none of them knows of another country that has such contemplated laws such as Cuba’s permuta (exchange), which is nothing more than the swapping of houses between two families.
Buying and selling of properties became prohibited when the Revolution triumphed; it was argued that this prevented such business dealings and the enrichment of some individuals through that racket. Exchanges were created as a solution to the need for families to move or change their housing.
Despite this measure, given the situation of shortage, there exists the clandestine business of paying money if an exchange is unequal. Those who have the money can pay the difference for the value of a bigger home that they receive in exchange for their smaller one.
There are many other arrangements, including having someone in the Recorder’s Office register someone as a legal owner, after that official has been paid a tidy sum under the table. The variations of this are almost infinite, as are the needs and creativity that the situations of daily life produce.