An Old Sign in Downtown Havana

By Ivett de las Mercedes

The sign announcing the building of apartments for veterans.

HAVANA TIMES – Cuba’s housing situation is a thorn in the flesh for many Cubans. Magda Espinosa, 74, and a resident in Central Havana tells us about the unease a sign that reads “Homes being constructed for soldiers” causes her. It hangs above a house in ruins on Animas Street.

HT: Can you explain what it is exactly you feel when you see this sign?

Magda Espinosa: It’s sad to see how projects in our country get left behind, year after year. In Cuba, we have lots of good intentions, but something always ends up happening and everything comes to a standstill. This sign is a living reflection of our situation, constantly in my eyes.

HT: Might good intentions not have any real material support?

ME: One hopes that there is someone somewhere who is ready to do what needs to be done for everyone’s wellbeing; economic plans exist for a reason, while it’s true that many people leave the country, those who stay behind need to have better lives.

Walking down Animas Street

HT: Why do you think we aren’t seeing improvements in housing despite it being clear that more and more people are leaving every day?

ME: Logic indicates that the more people leave, the more chance people who stay behind have to live a better life, but everything goes against logic here. Sometimes, three or four generations live under the same roof, if the youngest leave, then the rest stay. There are very few empty homes.

HT: What do you think will happen in Cuba?

ME: The same thing that has been happening up until now. Human relationships will continue to deteriorate, with shouting, threats, beatings and silence. Living with grandparents, children, parents, grandchildren and great-grandchildren isn’t easy, and if there is only one bathroom or a single TV or fridge, well just imagine what it’s like to wait in line to use the bathroom in your own house. All of these people have to get to school or work at the same time, add to that the fact that some homes only have running water on alternate days, sometimes even longer periods; you have to look after every cubic centimeter that is pumped. It’s very easy to walk down a street and hear people shouting, insulting others, and judging when you ignore the fact that life pushes people out of bare necessity.

The front of the building.

HT: Can we say that the lives of Havana residents are a daily battle and that the housing crisis is detrimental to society’s wellbeing?

ME: Of course. Violence begins at home and grows alongside other needs that jump out at you when you close the door behind you. The country is suffering an international and national blockade, there aren’t any resources, and the few that we have end up in the hands of people who exploit them. It’s a chain of hundreds of links, the only thing that people in need can do is pray and hope for a miracle.

HT: So, do you think this building for veterans will ever come to be?

ME: Don’t be silly. I’ve been living here for so many years, and that sign stays in the same place it always has. To tell you the truth, it makes me feel sad, it’s like a constant reminder that everything will continue the way it is. Sometimes, I walk another way home so I don’t have to see it, it really does put me in a bad mood. You try to face each new day with optimism, they say that something is going to change, you avoid dramas, tough situations, you adapt to living with little, but the reality is that sometimes I talk to a friend and I end up walking this block; that really does my day in.

Inside the building.

HT: This building was originally meant to be for a group of specific fighters. What do you think has happened to them?

ME: I believe that they and their families must have also lost hope a long time ago, some would have passed away or left the country because of financial reasons, like so many others do. Maybe this sign has been here a little longer and refers to the first fighters of the Revolution, although I hope that’s not the case.

What I can tell you is that wherever you go, there are houses and buildings in a dreadful state, some of them on the brink of collapse. It’s become fashionable to give some places to leaders; one day you go to a bodega store or a store, the next day you see builders building a luxury mansion. It would be great if there were apartment buildings where people could rent for once.

I’m not against people having money. It’s a complete myth that money corrupts, I don’t believe it does. There are people who work very hard and deserve to lead a good life. I believe it would be a very good idea for whoever has money, acquired via their own hard work, as well as their family’s, to send it from abroad. You could rent an apartment or buy a piece of land and build your own home. There are many plots of land waiting to be lived on.

Another view inside the apartment building designated many moons ago for veterans.

Then there are people who don’t have any money and live in squats: homes made out of sheets of plastic, cardboard, rough boards, recyclable materials, without electricity or water. The State needs to open its eyes and think about these families in need. Family is the most important thing in a society. It’s really easy to talk about violence, a loss of values, judge our youth, but what previous generation has ever lived in the overcrowded conditions we do today?

HT: What conditions do you live in?

ME: My family is one of those families I spoke about before. My son is a hard-working young man who is making sacrifices to get ahead in life, I know that he will leave soon to start a new life far from here. Cuban mothers have learned to support our children even if their absence causes us great pain. We all want what is best for them.

HT: So, you aren’t at all hopeful that things will get better?

ME: No, hope is like grass and the goat already ate it.