By Regina Cano
When my mother died, 15 years ago, my half-brother and I hadn’t gotten along well for quite a while. So we decided to make a housing swap within the family, as is done here in Cuba. This way he could live with his father -because blood ties deemed that the most logical step- in the larger of the two apartments, and, being single, I could live by myself in the smaller duplex.
That’s how I came to this place and became the owner of part of a duplex in the “Gingerbread Homes” subdivision. Once I moved in, however, I discovered that the material that covered the walls crumbled off with ease, and that from inside the house you could take a shower in the rain that trickled in through the ceiling; on occasions you can collect a bucket and a half of rainwater.
Some would suppose that it was depressing to experience the piling up and accumulation of such problems, but – despite all of these – I was steadfast in my unwillingness to return to an atmosphere of violence with my half-brother. So, I preferred my soaked independence to that dry war – “trading the cow for the goat,” as we say here on the island.
Also, back then, I thought I’d be able to find a solution to my housing problem “sooner rather than later.”
I first began by making complaints to the company that built these homes, and later to the Communist Party and to the city government that represents our area. Eventually the company wound up acknowledging the poor state of the home construction.
After my small victory, some of my neighbors got together with another group of owners of homes near ours that were in a similar state and built by the same company. These homes, however, were constructed with cement blocks and not with the “low cost brick” that I mentioned in my previous article about these houses Gingerbread Homes (1).
When I spoke with my other neighbors about the possibility of pressing on with this protest action as a group, some of them – lacking a sense of unity – didn’t show much interest, plus my emotional condition and my ego wouldn’t permit me to go it alone, which was how the inertia was broken. This all happened in 1996-97.
After that moment I truly began to understand why my neighbors were prompted to exercise their right to accept these types of houses:
First: They had previously lived as albergados* with their families (parents with two or three children) in shelters.
Second: For that previous reason, when they were handed the keys to their new homes, they didn’t hesitate for a second – despite the construction not being 100 percent complete. Their living conditions in the shelters had become horrendous. Their children went to school in a different neighborhood from where these albergues** were located, just as the family had to make purchases of subsidized food rations in their former neighborhood. In addition, they would have had to work many hours in a micro-brigade*** to succeed at getting their own home.
Third: My neighbors didn’t have confidence that a complaint of this type would meet with any kind of concrete response, since government-company-public relations fell apart during the economic crisis of the 1990s.
Fourth: The houses were new at that time, and the owners believed they’d be able to foot the repair/completion costs themselves.
At the end of 2005, we finally came to an agreement to restart petitioning to have the repair work done. By then, we had all reached the limit; the passing of time had revealed all of the house’s defects.
The great majority of their inhabitants now saw slim chances of their houses ever serving as the family birthright; moreover, their economic wherewithal was insufficient to even make the repairs demanded.
With ten years time over which the country’s economic situation has improved and the Low Cost Plan for housing had been recognized as a mistake, we reached the agreement that now is the moment to reinitiate our petition drive. We see it as having a relatively high likelihood of success compared to the previous attempts, though the issue of housing in this country has always been a “hot potato.”
That’s when I took on the task of representing us and I began what has been, and continues to be, a tremendous pain in the coccyx.
* Albergados (shelter resident): A classification one acquires when the place in which they previously lived is no longer in habitable condition, which includes it being subject to collapse.
** Albrergues: Places where one lives temporarily, which was built for that purpose or was adapted to that, and where they reside until (in the case of Micro-brigade members) the construction of their own housing is completed.
*** Micro-brigades: Housing Brigades that build apartment buildings for the albergados and others. These can take as long as 10 years or more to finish.