HAVANA TIMES – Margarita Mora Ortega is seven months pregnant. She wasn’t expecting it at 32 years old: she already has a 14-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. “I wanted to abort the pregnancy when it was time, but it wasn’t possible,” she recalls.
Her situation is desperate. There isn’t any space for the baby, who will be born in August, in the 3 x 3 meter room where the family lives. They need at least a couple sheets of zinc roofing or fibercement sheets to cover in the front of the house, which has been built up to what would be the base of the roof.
For months now, Margarita and her husband Yosmani Lazaro have gone to every government office including the Municipal Housing Association in Cardenas, Matanzas, to apply for this help.
“We don’t want them to give it to us. We’ll pay for it bit by bit, but not at street price,” she says.
“The other day, a man came by here suggesting recycled Venezuelan roofing tiles, not new ones,” her husband adds. “But for 5,000 pesos each. And we need 10. You do the math. The reality is I can’t afford that.” (An average wage in Cuba is around 4,000 pesos a month although many earn less.)
Margarita and Yosmani’s family live in Maquinaria, a neighborhood near the Humberto Alvarez sugar mill, belonging to Santa Marta. They are just a short distance away from the major tourist destination of Varadero, although visitors have no reason to learn about these realities.
“The teenage boy and girl sleep back there, in my sister’s house,” Yosmani explains. “Her and my brother-in-law were able to build their house out of slabs and have more space. But they have four children. Her children and my two sleep in the living room. Have you ever seen school accommodation for kids in the Cuban countryside? Something like that. We also have the fridge at my sister’s house, it doesn’t fit here. I’d like to have my children here, I don’t care about the rest.
“The district representative, however, knows all about our situation.
“He’s the only person who has really been concerned about us, who wants to do something, but has no idea how.”
Bureaucratic obstacles are well-known, as is absurd reasoning and the lack of interest of officials, the people who are there to serve the population and deal with their problems. It’s as if it doesn’t hurt them or they couldn’t care less. “You have to do what we’ve been told, step by step,” they say. “Step by step. Slowly.” Timing is different for someone with a roof over their head than somebody who doesn’t.
According to them, we need to legalize the plot of land and house first. Margarita and Yosmani lived in Los Pozos, another neighborhood near the sugar mill. The wooden house belongs to Yosmani’s mother and they used to live there with his two sisters, who have also married and now have children. It’s unsustainable. One day, they agreed to clear the outlying lands where there was a dump. They built their homes with whatever scarp materials they could find, as best they could.
“Every day they’d tell us: ‘They’re coming tomorrow, they’ll demolish it, they’re going to kick you out.’ The children were frightened, crying… That was…! They said the chief of Police was coming, that everybody was going to be kicked out… it was terrible. That was in the middle of the pandemic,” Margarita recalls.
“All of us mothers went to the Cardenas Government with our children dressed in uniform, because our neighborhood has approximately 40 children. That caught their attention quite a bit. The Government said that we should keep calm, that they would give us the land. The state company that owned it transferred it to the Housing authority and nobody can take it away from us now. At the beginning of this year, we were told that it would be legalized. But now they are prioritizing the Torre neighborhood, because they’re afraid it’ll collapse and they want to get people out of there.
“They also say they can’t speed up procedures because they will legalize the land first and we’ll just have to wait.” But we’re last on the list. When we get the papers and are legal, the State will be able to help me. I would be eligible because of the law for mothers with three or more children, and this is what we’re told. But if we start doing something of our own accord, which we’ve started, then everything needs to be legal. I wonder: if they’re going to give us legal status in the end, why don’t they expedite a couple of cases like my own, in this dreadful situation? People from the Physical Planning office even came here and I asked them: “If I give birth, where do I put the crib? I’d like to wait for you, the problem is I don’t have any time.”
However, they were promised immediate aid: five sacks of cement and a cubic meter of sandstone for… not the roof, of course, but the floor. It seems the Government has a plan to get rid of dirt floors.
“I don’t know what they measured or jotted down, because the papers there say we have 15 m2, when we really have 28 m2. That’s for a prefabricated floor that is only three centimeters thick.
“They allocate you a state company for support, so they can help you with what you need and they can. We were given the Communal Services Company in Cardenas. The director would call me every day and tell me: I’’ll come tomorrow, I’m coming tomorrow, I already have all of your materials. They approved so many for you and I’ll give you more.’ We were told we’d have to pay for the materials at the yard where they are stored, at the State’s price, not for 5000 pesos which is what a bag of cement costs on the street. We gradually made this money and put it aside. He told us that we didn’t have to pay anything, that the company was going to donate it to us, that 1000-something pesos wasn’t enough…
“Summing up, he told me that he already had the materials on hand, that they had paid for them, and he was going to send them with the head of his brigade, and he’d even do the floor for us… But a few days ago, I found out from the local representative that this director was being investigated for corruption and never had any materials on hand. It was all a lie. He had even said that he’d look into getting some recovered roofing tiles to give to us. It’s all just been one lie after another, and there’s been no solution.
“I also asked about doors and windows, and nothing. “I don’t know who I have see to do this… That’s a different story,” is what people tell you. There isn’t any, zero, nothing. They tell you they’re giving priority to victims of last year’s hurricane in Pinar del Rio.”
Yosmani lets his annoyance be known:
“Compadre, the solution could be easy, very easy. You go to any building site in Varadero right now and there’s a huge amount of modern zinc roofing sheets, which are taken to outline the area. They stopped working there, and they went missing. Then, you see people selling them on the street. Compadre, give them to your workers. Sell them for a relatively cheap price so they can sort out their housing situation. I was working on the Oasis Hotel construction project, and I left because you earned so little.”
He’s now working as an assistant in a pastry shop, because that’s what is putting food on their table. The owner pays according to production. Sometimes, there isn’t any flour or eggs and you spend days without working.
“Someone from the Social Security office came here and one of the girls told me: “Take everything they give you. Yes, of course, take the assistance,” Margarita says.
“Then, they did the math, “Yosmani cuts in, “and they told her that based on what I earn at the pastry store, she’d only get 300 pesos. Isn’t that a joke? Tell me.
“The children are studying at the high school in Guasima, a couple of kilometers away. Every Monday, they have to pay 400 pesos to come to school and go home in a horse-drawn cart. That’s 1600 per month, plus their snacks…
“And you have to save everything for the basic rations. But Murillo’s latest calculation tells him that new wages were enough to cover everything,” Margarita points out. If they close off this space with a roof, I’ll divide it here. I don’t want so much space. I don’t want it anymore. Let them sell it to me in instalments.
An intensive care nurse, at Cardenas hospital, a Transgaviota driver and a girl who sells lunch at a hotel, were able to build their homes in another neighborhood. All of them are dignified workers. They get on well, they help each other. There aren’t any burglars or drunk people.
One of the Margarita’s neighbors comes along and is interested in the conversation. He wants us to go to his house too. With the courage of somebody who has nothing to hide, he tells us that he got all of the materials out of the dump. He doesn’t even have to say it. His wife is pregnant, and their other baby is sleeping. A fan on the computer blows a little bit of warm air over her. The other child is playing outside.
They did get cement for the floor. It’s not enough for the rest of the house either, but something is something. The worse thing is that the roof leaks when it’s raining. If there’s wind too. the boy’s bed gets wet. They have to move it and put a plastic bag up where the window should have gone.
There are thousands of families like this one across the island. Honorable people who only want to work and for their wages to cover the basics so they can live a dignified life. But seeing as this is impossible in Cuba today, they are waiting to receive support from the State.
Margarita will give birth in two months. If only the bureaucratic machinery, which has now rusted over, gets some oil so that her baby will at least have a roof to live under with its parents and siblings.