From Housing Inspection to Snow Cones

Osmel Almaguer

Havana building under restoration.

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 16. — This was an interview granted to me by a regular guy: Luis Medina Saldivar (43), a native of the capital city’s municipality of the Old Havana.  A civil construction technician by training, Luis worked for 19 years as an inspector with the Old Havana Municipal Housing Authority (DMVHV).

Luis, why haven’t you ever practiced as a construction technician?

Well, Osmel, that same question has been posed to me by a lot of people… When I graduated as a mid-level technician I immediately joined the military service.  I came out at 20.  My father had died when I was still just a boy, and my mother never worked outside the home; she supported us on her widower’s pension, plus a little work she would do as a seamstress on the street.  So the university was not really an option for me.  But I didn’t really like civil construction either.  I asked to go into it so that I wouldn’t be left without a profession.  At that time our next door neighbor Julito worked at the housing authority.  He told me that at his job they were giving courses for people to become inspectors.  I showed up, was approved, and dug my roots in there.

How were those first years on the job?

From the very beginning I received support from all my co-workers.  That was 1987, and still —apart from all the inevitable problems that exist on any job— people were generally supportive and serious.  I learned a lot.  I joined the workplace committee of the Young Communist League (UJC) and I always tried to do the right thing and get along well with everybody.

It wasn’t hard for somebody like me, instructed in the strictest principles of honesty and justice, to integrate myself into that collective.  Any wrongs or acts of corruption would be quickly reported by any one of us, and disciplinary measures did their job.

You said “fulfilled” – have things maybe changed since then?

Sure, but the blame has to be laid on the Special Period economic crisis.  When the ‘90s hit, suddenly there wasn’t anything wrong with stealing.  People who stole said they were “luchando” (struggling).  It’s true that you had to practically be a magician to make ends meet in those early first years, but people went for the easiest thing to do, which was to grab whatever you found close at hand.  Clerks began to steal in the stores; policeman started allowing certain crimes in exchange for money or sex, and so on.  Everybody began to turn corrupt.

On my job, co-workers would ask for money to speed up the paperwork or to carry out illicit actions.  Sometimes the higher-ups would allow people to sell houses which is illegal.  Everybody, I repeat, everybody was in “the business.”

And you, what was it that made you different?

Nothing…or almost nothing.  The fact was that my mother and I begin to feel hunger pangs too.  Sometimes I felt guilty for not doing like other people, but there was always a voice inside me that kept me from selling myself out.

How were you able to subsist?

It’s true that what they gave you in the ration book barely allowed you to under-eat for one week of the month, but we held on.  My mother would sometimes sell some item of clothing that she made, and through this and that we managed to make do.

Havana bread vendor.

Other inspectors accepted gifts from tenants in buildings, though I advised them not to.  They were careful to not let me see what they were doing because they knew that I wasn’t involved in that mess.

In 1997 I joined the ranks of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).  While its members are obligated to report any misdeed, during those years people resuscitated a concept from prior to the 1959 revolution: that of the “chivato” (informer), and informers back then were always given beatings.

Did you ever report a crime without fear of being attacked in some dark alley?

Corruption was so widespread that it was impossible to successfully struggle against it.  There was what was known as the “clan.”  These were closed groups of co-workers who do illicit business activities abusing of power conferred upon them by their institution.  To me, seeing all of this first hand, I was deeply hurt.  What was worse was that I knew that most of these corrupted individuals were not bad…not deep down.  But I couldn’t fight everybody.

So, it was about enduring the situation and reporting it only when there was no other choice – when a case was really serious.  I had to try to stay away from those places where most of the illegal actions occurred.  Nevertheless, I earned fame as a “chivato,” and I had my share of enemies – even many bosses.

Is this why you asked to resign in 2006?

Despite still being relatively young, I felt tired.  The ‘90s had worn away my health, which was never that good.  Also, there was a manager who I always rubbed the wrong way, and he didn’t stop messing with me; and got me sanctioned.  Then I thought about it and I decided: After serving my sanction I asked to quit, and I’ve never set foot in the housing authority again.

And since then?

It occurred to me that I could apply for a license to become a self-employed worker and I could live more comfortable selling anything from my house.  I buttonholed a friend who worked at the licensing office to see if he could get me a license to sell light foods.  I took advantage of the fact that there’s an elementary school in front of my house and the kids never have any real snacks.  The first thing that came to my mind was to sell snow cones.  And believe it or not; things haven’t worked out bad for me at all.