By Veronica Fernandez
—I have a neighbor who often drops by my house when the Brazilian soap opera is on. She’s over 55, but has continued working despite being past retirement age, having labored for more than 30 years as the secretary of a textile company here in the Cuban capital.
Yesterday she mentioned that she was feeling upset. When she arrived at work she was approached by a close friend who serves as the company’s gardener. She noticed that he seemed very depressed and asked him what was wrong and if there was any way that she could help him.
“I’ll share my troubles with you, but I know you can’t help me,” the man told her. “I need sand, cement, cement blocks, rebar, gravel and everything else to build a small room on my house. My family has grown with the birth of my twin grandchildren. Now we are eight people sharing one room, so none of us have any privacy.”
“I can’t stand being inside of my house anymore. I’m going crazy! The solution that I came up with was to build a little room in an area that forms part of the entryway to the house,” he told my neighbor.
When she suggested to him that he go buy the materials he laughed at her and asked “Where?”
She was left with nothing else to say because there is no place where those materials are sold.
My neighbor then told the gardener, “If these materials are produced in our country, then why isn’t there any outlet that sells them to the population, so that we can resolve this type of problem that so often affects us.”
“We agreed that according to the media, there are several factories in Cuba dedicated to the production of building materials. So why isn’t there any place where we can go and buy what we need legally, instead of having to resort to the black market,” [materials stolen from construction sites or storage facilities], she asked.
The gardener also told my neighbor that the Cuban government only offers cement in the hard currency shops, where each sack costs 9.60 Cuban dollars, (US$12.00), “the equivalent of almost a month of our salaries.”
“The average person can’t buy it at these prices, since we’d have to choose between buying cement and buying food,” he said. He also pointed out that even those who earn a small part of their salary in CUC, the Cuban hard currency, or receive help from family members abroad, can’t legally purchase the rest of the materials that they need because they aren’t for sale.
Listening to this situation, what came to mind is that there should be a way to obtain building materials with a loan from the bank, one we could pay off in reasonable installments. That’s what the government has done to make refrigerators, televisions and some air conditioners available with payments in proportion to the salaries of the workers in each family nucleus. Retired people get the money taken out of their pensions in small enough percentages so that they can buy the items.
My neighbor tells me about these things because we are close friends and I know that she also does it to get them off her chest. The housing problem continues to affect many people’s lives in Cuba. More than 50 years after the revolution began it’s still a critical issue. Why aren’t we looking for different alternatives for solving it, as was done with the sale of electrical appliances?