HAVANA TIMES – The latest news of a building collapsing in Cuba comes from Refugio Street, between Prado and Morro Streets in Old Havana, on November 3, 2022. These occurrences are becoming more and more common in the country. Even though no fatalities were reported at the time of publication, at least two people were rescued from the rubble.
Nevertheless, the country woke up to the news, on social media, of the death of another child from injuries sustained after a building in critical condition collapsed three weeks before, on October 17th.
Five-year-old Ismary Orozco was living in a three-storey building in Old Havana. An initial reconstruction of the events revealed that a slab from the roof fell down and hit the lower ground apartment in the building, which left four people injured: two women and another child, whose age is unknown. But this isn’t the first death from a collapse that has shook the population in recent years. The death of two six-grade students on January 27, 2020, when a balcony collapsed on top of them shook Havana and raised a public debate about the capital’s housing infrastructure.
These deaths aren’t isolated cases. Everyday life on the island is full of stories of neighbors who warn about the weakness and danger of buildings and other structures, that are classified as “unfit for human habitation” or “beyond repair”.
According to reports from the Ministry of Construction, national housing stands at over three million homes, 39% of which are in “average or poor condition”.. In 2017, 854 buildings were recorded in critical condition, 81.5% of which were located in Havana; affecting approximately 849,753 people.
With over two million residents, for decades the capital has been the scene for many and recurring collapses. This situation makes Havana the region with the highest housing shortage (185,348), followed by Holguin (115,965) and Santiago de Cuba (101,202).
In 2021, there were 83,878 homes in the capital that needed “partial repairs” and 46,158 that needed “major renovations”.
“Everything gets wet when it rains here, furniture, the refrigerator. We don’t have anywhere to move things (…). It’s a huge problem, because tomorrow a gust of wind could come and the whole building falls on top of us and we’re just two more dead bodies,” 36-year-old Ayala, told the Associated Press. Ayala lives with her brother in the second-floor apartment of an old building on Gloria Street, Old Havana.
On a national level, the housing shortage has reached 929,695 homes with 60,975 total collapses; a result of hurricanes such as Sandy in 2012, Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017.
“We go to bed afraid we won’t wake up in the morning. I lost a child (to a terminal illness) and I wouldn’t want to lose my little girl,” Elisa Bacyan, a single mother and tenant at the Edificio Cuba, in the historic district, told AFP. The six-story building built in 1940 is home to 92 families.
Heavy rains during June this year led to a slab of the roof falling onto Luvia Diaz’s bed. Diaz is a 50-year-old social worker who is living on the top floor of Edificio Cuba with her partner, three daughters and a grandchild. “If my daughter had been sleeping, it would have been a tragedy,” she told AFP.
In June, at least 290 partial and total collapses were recorded, as a result of Tropical Storm Alex.
According to Civil Defense, Havana was the hardest-hit province with reports of 148 collapses (2 total and 146 partial collapses); followed by Artemisa where 57 buildings were hit, Pinar del Rio (53) and Mayabeque (32).
Two months later, the situation got even worse with the arrival of Hurricane Ian, which touched Cuban soil in late September and hit 101,350 homes in its wake in Pinar del Rio: of which 10,474 totally callaped and 11,027 partially. Meanwhile, statistics show that approximately 38 buildings totally collapsed in Havana and 138 partially.
The catastrophic toll of hurricanes, tropical storms – with the rain and sea surges they bring – and other atmospheric phenomena have exposed just how precarious building structures are in the country.
Buildings that previously needed to be demolished or rebuilt from the foundations up, have ended up in ruins, especially in the capital.
Local alternatives aren’t enough
Cuba’s housing situation has been one of the country’s main problems, without a solution since the mid-20th century. The downward spiral of housing in many provinces, irregular shortages of building materials, excessive bureaucracy for processing and legalizing land and homes are some of the constant problems the population have been facing for many decades.
In December 2018, the Ministry of Construction calculated that it would take seven years to solve the housing shortage in Artemisa and Cienfuegos, eight years for Matanzas and Ciego de Avila, and at least a decade for Camaguey, Villa Clara, Havana and the five eastern provinces.
If you want to stop the decline of Cuban housing, individuals need to maintain and conserve over 240,000 per year.
However, the constant crisis of building materials subverts this objective, especially for those who are trying to maintain their homes by their own means.
Meivis, a woman from Camaguey who received a subsidy in 2020 to fix up the house where she lives with her parents and two children, has barely been able to make a start because materials are in shortage, fundamentally cement and rebar.
At the store which she is able to purchase them, materials come in so irregularly and not enough comes in to cover the demands of countless pending cases. Shortages also give rise to “hustling”, she said. “Luckily, the “law” referring to the expiration date of subsidies has been eliminated because many of us would have lost the money we’d been granted because materials were in shortage.”
Tens of thousands of families across the country are in a similar situation, according to a study by Parliament this year.
According to Edel, a private business owner – also from Camaguey – who specializes in making floor tiles and kitchen tables, “the problem stems from an undeniable reality: there are some things that can’t be replaced in construction. In order to make a basement, you need sand and gravel, cement and steel. The same goes for cement blocks and roof slabs, which seem like a luxury now, but in reality, are the only safe ones given Cuba’s weather conditions.”
Edel was one of the hundreds of “associate producers” who are organized by local and provincial governments, receiving supplies at a favorable price, and then selling the products they make via stores belonging to the Ministry of Domestic Trade. This system was in place while the State provided industrial raw materials.
“We can make gravel, sand… not concrete,” Edel says, who never formally left the program, as he still holds onto the hope “things will get better.”
Lime, sand and gravel, bricks, clay and plastic pipes, and wooden doors and windows are the main things local businesses supply, without having to depend on materials that aren’t manufactured locally. Anything else means using “imported” raw materials, coming from larger industries.
Are temporary shelters more than temporary?
Hours before Hurricane Ian swept through Pinar del Rio, the regional government had traveled to areas where people were living in “temporary homes” that were set up after previous hurricanes. Residents at these ‘homes’ were asked to self-evacuate and seek shelter at the homes of neighbors, friends or family members.
A “temporary home” is a term used to refer to the constructions that have the basic conditions, so people aren’t sleeping out on the street, and are built as temporary accommodation.
However, many years after a hurricane hits, many Cubans are still living in these “houses” that they’ve been able to build with wood or other building materials that are less resistant to wind. In more critical cases, these houses have even been built with the rubble that is left after their homes collapse to the ground.
Temporary shelters have become definitive housing and thousands of people are still waiting for a solution to their housing problem.
Up until 2021, 60,975 total collapses caused by hurricanes were left pending in Cuba: before Sandy, this stood at 24,891, after Sandy (2012), 13,960 more; after Matthew (2016), 7311; and after Irma (2017), 15,083.
The situation has got worse after Hurricane Ian hit the west of the country, leaving many buildings in ruins, especially in the municipalities of Pinar del Rio, Consolacion del Sur, San Juan y Martinez and San Luis.
According to a news report, many families in Vueltabajo “have spent five hurricanes in temporary shelters and still don’t have a robust home. These temporary shelters are the first to fall with strong winds.”
However, this problem isn’t only concentrated in the West. In Punta Alegre, a town in the Chambas municipality, the “home” Angel had built “with four sticks” after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, is still the only home he has.
His home was one of the 2,592 total collapses still pending in the central province up until 2019. “At this point, I don’t have any hope that my situation will change,” he says.
In the case of Pinar del Rio, Andres Martin Carmona, the provincial director of Housing, admitted that out of the over 5,000 temporary shelters that many families live in for the past 20 years, approximately 3,200 have suffered some damage.
“In Pinar del Rio, heavy duty trucks appear with tiles and they go to the Tabacuba warehouses, not for homes,” Yoelkis Torres Tapanes critized on his Facebook wall, just over 10 years since the hurricane hit.
The Ministry of Finance and Prices said it was willing to cover 50% of the price of materials assigned for rebuilding homes damaged by Ian in Pinar del Rio. However, one of the main problems has been that only half of the victims have had access to this.
“The people who lost everything can’t even afford to pay for materials at half their price,” Ernesto Calviño says, who has gone to deliver donations on more than one occasion.
“Lots of people who lost their homes are the elderly or low-income families. They can’t even ask for a loan from the bank,” he laments.
Even though the Government’s appeal is for friends, family and workmates to collaborate towards rebuilding these homes, these pep talks aren’t enough.
The situation in Cuba’s far-western province is only part of the housing shortage problem that affects the entire country.
Those responsible for drafting the Housing Policy were aware that the ambition of giving “adequate housing” to every Cuban – which is a right stipulated in Article 71 of the Constitution – would be costly. It will be very difficult for the Cuban Government to resolve the housing shortage before 2030. Eight years is too optimistic a timeframe for a problem in Cuba that doesn’t seem to have any solution in sight.
 Figures come from the updated 2012 Population and Housing Census and evolution of housing up until late June 2017.