The Fog around House Swaps in Cuba

Osmel Almaguer 

Havana photo by Caridad

Zaida exchanged her apartment for the one of a family that’s about to emigrate.  She moved all her belongings, previously located in the fourth floor of a building on the outskirts of Havana, into the newly acquired first-floor unit in the same building.

This type of transaction is known in Cuba as a “permuta” (an exchange or swap).  Since 1959 it has been practically the only option we Cubans have had for changing apartments or houses that, after all, are supposed to be ours.  I don’t know of any other country where this is the only way to be able to move.

Over these past 50 years, the panorama of house swaps in Cuba has been evolving.  We’ve seen everything from multiple exchanges (involving five or more properties), to the surreptitious sale of houses, with people disguising those purchases as swaps (as money is paid under the table).

People are sometimes able to trick the lawyers at the Municipal Housing Department by taking the most unsuspected actions, going so far as to get married as a means of transferring property.  However in the majority of the “more creative” cases, the steps taken — illegal up until now — are done through kickbacks and bribing lawyers and notaries.

In this way exchanges are carried out that are considered by law to be “disproportionate” (“non-equivalent exchanges,” as Marx might say).  This was how Zaida was able to get an apartment that’s three floors lower and has one more bedroom than the one she traded away.  Sure, to do this she had to pay a fortune: 3,000 CUCs (about $3,300 USD), a mind-boggling sum for the average Cuban.

The previous resident of the house that Zaida now occupies cared little about the loss of space in the house she obtained.  The chance to make that much cash before leaving made the decision a veritable no-brainer.

But where did the money come from that Zaida paid the aspiring emigrant?  What’s more curious than anything is that Zaida’s husband works for the Housing Department.  Though he’s not the director and is unable to sell off mansions and houses for his own benefit, the money that comes from under the table deals can be significant.

The next updating of legislation has been announced to address these types of undertakings.  In this, while exchanges will not disappear, the restrictions on them will be relaxed.  What has also been promised is the allowing of the sale and purchase of houses and apartments.

But until this happens, people like Zaida and her husband will continue slinking through the fog of house swaps in Cuba.

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