Architects Needed for Cuba’s Private Businesses

By Gisselle Morales Rodriguez  (Progreso Semanal)

Private restaurant. Photo: Gisselle Morales.
Private restaurant. Photo: Gisselle Morales.

HAVANA TIMES — In real life, la China is the owner of a restaurant that has an entrance hall, a bar, a room with 11 tables, a reserved area, a unisex bathroom, kitchen, a stockroom and another bathroom for employees. In the parallel universe of building licenses, la China’s restaurant was remodeled as a house with disproportionate rooms.

I’m telling this to you in the same way she explained it to me while she laid out sketches, blueprints and a list of materials on the bar: “It just so happens that you can set up a business, offer a public service and pay the ONAT tax office when you have to as a food producer and vendor; however, on the blueprints, the entrance hall appears as a room, the main lounge area is a huge room and the reserved area is a small room. Luckily, the kitchen is the kitchen, both in the restaurant and on the blueprints.”

It would even be funny if it wasn’t such a serious problem: independent workers – who for some matters are considered natural persons, are considered legal persons for others and in some instances, remain in a worrisome limbo between the two – can’t contract an architect of their choice to design and calculate their business space.

They can’t because, quite simply, because an architect isn’t authorized to work on their own instead of working for large state-owned companies, usually responsible for the State’s large building projects, or working for the Community Architect Offices network, a pipe dream which was conceived in order to meet the needs of these so-called natural persons.

Even the most basic small business needs to look good, upholds Mario Coyula. Photo: Vicente Brito.
Even the most basic small business needs to look good, upholds Mario Coyula. Photo: Vicente Brito.

“And you’re saying: aren’t we independent workers natural persons? Isn’t my need to set up a restaurant? And if that is what I need and the house is mine, why does the community architect tell me that I can’t change the usage of the rooms in my home?” burst out la China, a woman from Sancti Spiritus who resolved this matter like many others in the same tight spot; because whoever invented the law, invented the trap.

“You’re not allowed to do it, but we do it,” confesses an architect who, violating the formal process approved by the government, agreed on the project directly with la China, he distributed the rooms according to the owner’s business requirements and aesthetic preference, he charged her and only then did he knock on the doors of the Community Architect to bid on the job.

“Sometimes, you find yourself with people at the Office who tell you off for putting the cart before the horse, but at least in my case, they always end up helping me, because, among other reasons, they themselves know that in these new times, the way we used to take on an architectural project is out-dated, old-fashioned,” he claims.

And by saying “the way we take on a project” referring to going down the official route: a person who wants to make a building change in their home has to present this to the Community Architects Office where they are seen by a professional – not the one they want to see, but the one that they get given – who then takes on the project and is unable to change the use of this property under any circumstances.

“In Cuba, the figure of the independent architect doesn’t exist,” summarizes Leonardo Pizarro Zulueta, a young professional who is hurt by unqualified practices that have come to undermine this sector from within.

“That’s why a phenomenon is being born which I consider disastrous: this kind of work, that needs technical and aesthetic know-how, which we learn for five years at university, is now being carried out by people who haven’t been trained in the profession, who haven’t had to prove their basic skills to get a license as a decorator, which is something that independent workers are authorized to get. On the one hand, this all leads to the architect being depreciated, and, on the other hand, that there is a lot of building and decorating work being done of questionable aesthetic quality.”

The quality of the service includes the facility’s level of comfort. Photo: Gisselle Morales.
The quality of the service includes the facility’s level of comfort. Photo: Gisselle Morales.

However, there are some businesses who have found well-thought out architectural solutions.

“Yes, because many who hold a degree in Architecture and from the Advanced Institute of Industrial Design are woring in creative teams with decorating licenses. Others take part in these projects in their free time while they continue to work for state-owned companies. There are also some who belong to building cooperatives. However, as they aren’t recognized as architects and they don’t form part of the coherent and legitimate system, the final quality of their work is never guaranteed.”

A large part of the architects we interviewed also reached the same conclusion, word for word, of the statements that the well-renowned architect Mario Coyula made about the subject before he passed away.

“Even the most basic small business must have harmony and be aesthetically pleasing,” the expert warned. “The only reason they don’t is because architects aren’t allowed to work and offer their expertise privately (…). This Community Architects project was a great idea, a really great idea but it went bad over time. It’s become bureaucratized and architects are now only filling out forms for property transfer red tape, which is absurd (…).

The architectural projects carried out by DAG Architects confirm the talent of the professionals in this sector. Photo taken from his blog.
The architectural projects carried out by DAG Architects confirm the talent of the professionals in this sector. Photo taken from his blog.

“There isn’t any counseling service for people who want to build or remodel a house or a building for a business. If they decide to hire a designing company or a state-owned building company, then they are turned down because they tell them that they only carry out large projects and that they don’t have time to waste on these silly things. So the builder and the owner are the ones to design the structure, they do the math and carry out the project (…). It’s a very difficult subject nowadays.”

So difficult that some -even the most optimistic- claim that change is already around the corner, not only because logic demands it, but because an archaic procedure is unsustainable because it gives rise to parallel realities like that of la China’s restaurant: on paper, a home, and in practice, a restaurant that receives an average of 200 customers a day without anyone, inspectors or customers, questioning why there are 11 tables in a room, which judging by the blueprints, should only have beds, chest of drawers, fans and one or two wardrobes.


6 thoughts on “Architects Needed for Cuba’s Private Businesses

  • In the 1990s a Polish scholar/priest came to my university to talk about life under socialist rule. I recalled two things from his talk: that formula, ‘We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us,’ and something less clear about meaningless money, which I possibly misunderstand now, but do remember as, what good is money if there is nothing to buy?

    In the story above, the restaurant owner seems to have money in the eyes of the architect. He did work for her and accepted her money for his work. My understanding is that this is not a unique story. If so, then that’s the change I’m seeing. I don’t know how these stories square with official statements or intentions as I’m just beginning to study Cuba. And I do see ways this particular change could end up not benefiting Cubans in general but rather some well-positioned elites. During Russia’s transition, a handful of oligarchs, mostly former Party officials, took control and then ownership of the country’s productive resources. I’m not saying this story says much about that process, only that I’d like to know what happened so that a country could transition in a different way. So I notice the real but unaccounted-for economic aspects in this story, multiply them by others stories, and see a sizable informal economy in the making. Because it is unseen, certain kinds of actors can thrive in the informal economy as they work to consolidate it–more ruthless people.

  • Anyone who thinks that any change is occurring within Cuba for Cubans, should declare what those changes actually are. Otherwise, don’t believe them, for wishful thinking is not reality.

  • If the owner of la China actually owns the house, and if she has money to pay an architect for service, then change will happen. It already is happening as we see in this story.

    Yes, the bureaucracy does not capture reality and yes, there are real problems as a result. For one, the owner of la China will not be able to expense what she paid to the architect. Nor will she be able to capitalize the investment and then depreciate the capital investment over time. The architect cannot report what he received as income.

    The informal economy grows but to me the bigger problem is this: The accounting books (do they exist?) of la China’s owner will not reflect reality accurately. I don’t know how one comes to possess (own?) a business or a building in Cuba, but the informal system we see in this story is building inaccuracy into the valuation of activity. I’m cheered by the fact that the activity exists but concerned about what will happen. Yes, there is the threat of government shutting things down and punishing individuals, but there is also the threat that individuals, when they exchange with each other, will be mislead by false valuations and thus lose goodwill in each others’ eyes.

  • Well US citizens will be coming in droves and the old “see Cuba before it changes” BS is still upon us. It’s your country but as I’ve harped on for months now the regime better get its act together or they’ll be swimming to Venezuela and trying to find a can of sardines to live on, I’m not being sarcastic as story is both sad and sickening. Great people and living in squalor and those who are trying to make a go for it are being kicked around like an old boot!

  • This sorry tale which is worthy of inclusion in Alice In Wonderland, reflects the stupidity of a political system which is opposed to individual initiative and to independent thought.
    Professionals are supposed to conform as being part of the mass and architects, doctors, teachers, veterinarians are expected to be happy and content with being employed directly by the state and to receiving the equivalent of $1 US per day.
    There are those in the outside world who prattle on about undefined ‘change’ taking place in Cuba, but for Cubans there is no change and the type of nonsense described by Gisselle Morales Rodriguez reflects the constipated thought of ‘Socialismo’. There is no recognition of individual abilities by the Castro family communist regime. The duty of citizens is to conform to their dictates and whims.

  • Extreme socialism always fails. It lacks adaptability needed for an economy to evolve. The lack of a legal structure for small business shows the level of dysfunction.

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