New Film Reveals Critical Havana Housing Conditions

Facade of Elena, the building in Centro Habana which inspired Marcelo Martin’s new documentary

From Café Fuerte

From the documentary film Elena

HAVANA TIMES — While Havana’s old town continues to experience a visible architectural and socio-cultural renewal, unattended buildings in the neighboring borough of Centro Habana languish and deteriorate before the eyes of its tenants and the inertia of government authorities.

The area was once a zone of transition between Havana’s colonial-era settlements and the more modern buildings that were being constructed in the fledgling neighborhood of Vedado. Its magnificent edifices profited from an urban development program undertaken between 1827 and 1840. Today, nothing but a decaying image of these achievements remains.

Elena (2012), a documentary by filmmaker Marcelo Martin Herrera, affords us powerful images of the collapse of Centro Habana, which continues to crumble and offers no hope of ever becoming a habitable neighborhood again. The 42-minute film takes its title from the name of one of the buildings located on 117 Vapor Street, between Espada and Hospital Streets, built in 1927.

The result of three years of investigative journalism and interviews with the tenants of the ramshackle building, Elena is one of the most compelling testimonies about Havana’s architectural debacle produced in recent times.

A graduate of Cuba’s Higher Institute of Industrial Design (ISDI), screenwriter and director Martin Herrera (Havana, 1980) began his career making graphic designs and animated publicity for television. He is currently a filmmaker and publicist attached to the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).

230 buildings collapse each year

The film was screened at ICAIC’s 12th Young Filmmakers’ Festival this past April, where it received an honorary mention. To date, it has not been scheduled for screening at any of Cuba’s movie theatres or shown on Cuban television.

With 163,763 inhabitants and covering an area of five square kilometers (a mere one percent of the capital’s total surface area), Centro Habana is Havana’s most densely-populated neighborhood.

According to official figures, the neighborhood is made up of 46,277 residences, 22,712 of which are in poor condition and 4,198 of which are in a critical state. Some 230 buildings collapse within the boundaries of Centro Habana every year.

A total of 24,311 of its residents are currently living in “temporary shelters”, a government euphemism used to describe facilities where large numbers of homeless people are lodged, usually for long periods of time.

“I haven’t seen a news report that captures the country’s debacle as honestly and as unflinchingly in years,” a Cuban State journalist told CaféFuerte. “Though Elena is a documentary about a concrete, everyday reality, it also captures, through metaphor, the irrecoverable ruins of Cuban history and of an architectural heritage that is vanishing all around us.”

No stairways

Our source (who asked to remain anonymous) believes that now, when the assemblies in preparation for the 9th Congress of the Federation of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) scheduled for July 14 and 15 are underway, Elena ought to be shown to communications professionals.

The fascade of the Elena Building in Centro Habana which inspired the documentary of Marcelo Martín.
The fascade of the Elena Building in Centro Habana which inspired the documentary of Marcelo Martín.

Martin opens his documentary with a screen showing Article 9 of Cuba’s Constitution: “The State shall work to ensure that no citizen is denied comfortable housing.” He closes the film with a dedication: “To Havana, a city that is still waiting.”

The documentary began to be shot in October of 2009, when a work brigade from the Salvador Allende Contingent was expected to undertake the building’s renovation. Repair work had actually begun earlier, in 2000, but had been suspended.

“The building’s stairway collapsed, like New York’s Twin Towers,” an interviewee who identifies himself as “Manolo” remarks in the documentary. Elena’s tenants were moved to a shelter, but many returned to the building, the victims of daily thefts and despair.

“Everything I owned was stolen from me at the shelter. I lived in the shelter for eight years and I have absolutely no hope of getting anywhere,” a woman says.

Though Elena is not suitable for residence, it is still inhabited, like many other buildings in Centro Habana. To access it, tenants use a corridor built between the edifice and a neighboring building. Many apartments and rooms have no kitchens or bathrooms, and leakages and sewage, full of excrement and worms, are a common sight.

A never-ending lie

“All of this is one big lie, an insult…I have devoted my entire life to the revolution, in Cuba and abroad,” tells Gregorio, an elderly gentleman who took part in internationalist combat missions when young.

Gregorio lives surrounded by putrid waters that overflow into his quarters constantly. He is forced to take out bucketfuls of sewage regularly. He tells that a public official offered to unclog his drains, but asked for 40 dollars for the service (about one thousand Cuban pesos).

“I don’t have 40 dollars. I can offer 100 or 200 pesos (4 to 8 dollars), at most, because I can’t afford anything else with my pension,” Gregorio explains.

Emilio, another tenant, brings a crushing reality to the fore: “A person can’t go 25 years without a bathroom or kitchen.”

Elena documents the telephone calls to different State institutions and the headquarters of the construction brigade, which were unable to offer an explanation for their evident neglect of the building. All they secure are evasive replies and promises which, at the close of 2012, had not yet been fulfilled.

“The documentary opens with nightmarish images of unnamable bugs moving in the waste water that floods the building’s quarters every day, and closes with the photographs and addresses of other buildings in Centro Habana – a small sample of buildings as deteriorated as Elena, or already a pile of rubble,” filmmaker Eduardo del Llano wrote in his blog. “Elena is one of those critical pieces which, in addition to being rigorous and energetic, reveal imagination and even a sense of humor. It is a protest piece, but it is also cinema.”

22 thoughts on “New Film Reveals Critical Havana Housing Conditions

  • June 9, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Anyone can qualify for the housing scheme as long as they have been resident in Marinaleda for two years.

    The Spanish Government doesn’t have anything to do with the scheme. It is done at the Municipal level with some support from the Regional Government.

    The future owner contributes over 450 hours to help build the property but gets support from architects, builders and materials supplied by the scheme. The future owner comes to an agreement with the other stakeholders as to the installment amount and period of repayment eg 75 years. During this period the owner can’t sell but can pass down to their children or give away to someone else.

    This may amount to subsidy, but who cares, they don’t have higher taxes or lower wages in Marinaleda than anywhere else in Spain. It can be covered by savings in other areas. The town is based around an agricultural cooperative and one or two factories where everyone is paid an equal salary so no need for massive directors’ fees or shareholders to pay off. The municipal authorities including the mayor don’t accept any salary and being a modern day Shangri la the town decided they could do without a municipal police force.

    There is no unemployment, capital flight, drowning in debt, forced evictions etc as the rest of Spain and the mayor is so popular he has been reelected every four years since 1979.

  • June 6, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Not all my tears Grady, just the ones appropriately expressed on HT. You offend me with your accusation that I would uphold ‘mass-death dealing’. I would not lay at your feet all the evils and destruction done in the name of socialism. As a socialist, should you be stained with Stalin’s murders or Mao’s massacres I do not share your manner of reasoning, which is my right, that capitalism is to blame for all that is wrong in the world. I do believe strongly with my brain and my heart that the Castros have caused the Cuban people more than a half-century of unnecessary suffering and have destined future generations to the burdensome task of rebuilding a once beautiful but flawed island.

  • June 6, 2013 at 9:03 am

    There was a lot of detail left out of that report. The people are given free land, that’s nice, but who qualifies for it? Anybody?

    What about the unsustainable economics behind the crazy scheme?

    The people are given free building materials, which are paid for by the state government, and the labour is performed by state employed workers. How does the state pay for these materials and wages? The Spanish government is already drowning in debt, and the attempts to increase revenue by raising taxes is prompting massive capital flight out of Spain. Capital flight contributes to the growing economic crisis by reducing investiment and increasing unemployment. By increasing spending and adding more debt, the Spanish government is feeding a vicious cycle of unemployment & rising debt.

    And the happy new home owner is going to pay off the cost at 15 euros per month? Given an estimated 50,000 euro cost of materials, that will take him 270 years to pay back the cost. With borrowing costs for the Spanish government over 4.5% and rising, the 15 Euros per month wont even cover interest on those loans.

    So your idea of a Communist utopia is one where the government loans out money nobody will ever pay back, paid for by a government drowning in debt. Unemployment, debt and taxes continue to rise until the economy grinds to a halt.

    The mayor of this town stole food from a supermarket as an election stunt. What’s he going to steal next when there are no more supermarkets?

  • June 6, 2013 at 8:39 am

    The Ontario Landlord Tenant Act includes a number of significant protections for renters, making it extremely difficult for the landlord to evict a tenant, and limiting rent increases to annual rates set by the government.

    In Canada, 69 percent of people own their own homes. As you might expect, the rates vary from the lowest income quintile at 38% home ownership to 93% at the highest income quintile. But that’s quite a remarkable statistic, isn’t it: 38% of Canadians whose income places them below the poverty line actually own their own home. A large percentage of those in the bottom quintile who rent receive government subsidies or live in rental subsidized public housing.

    Are you suggesting that those people with middle-class to affluent incomes who choose to rent are somehow being hoodwinked and robbed against their will? Can you back up that bizarre claim with any evidence? Does this secret coercion exist in all other forms of commerce and contracts freely entered into by the citizens of a free and democratic society? Was I somehow robbed by an evil capitalist when I walked into a bakery of my own free will and bought a loaf of bread?

    You may continue to talk about your Cooperative Republic idea as much as you like. You passionately argue for it on the basis of it’s purported benefits. Saving civilization and the environment are laudable goals, but merely having those goals doesn’t explain how your scheme would achieve them.

    You have not yet explained how any aspect of your cooperative republic, including your novel banking system, can actually work in practice. Yet you react to any mild criticism I have offered as if I murdered your child.

    You expound on the alleged amazing benefits of your scheme, while avoiding any realistic explanations of how it works in practice, and then you insult people who disagree with you. Are you sure that’s a good way to go about building a movement?

  • June 5, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Yes, it is sad. But, Moses, thousands of men, women and children die in the US each year, due to a lack of healthcare services. Why are all your tears for Cuba?

    You focus on incidents in Cuba to prove certain points, but you uphold and advocate the mass death-dealing monopoly capitalist system which is a horror.

    If only you would use your brain and your heart to know the truth, and stop spewing all this venom against the Castro brothers.

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