HAVANA TIMES — Like a giant wrestling with the strong winds of a sea-storm, the Riomar building rises next to Havana’s urban coastline, in the residential neighborhood of Miramar. Built in the 1950s, it is currently inhabited by only 14 Cuban families. Elsa Torres Camacho is one of its residents.
HT: Who built it and when? Who were the original owners?
Elsa Torres: The building was owned by the company Propiedad Horizontal Miramar S.A. It was designed by architect Cristobal Martinez Marquez. The first stage of construction was completed in 1957.
HT: Did it start out as apartment building and hotel?
ET: No, it was simply an apartment building. Many of the apartments had already been paid for when building began. This is the reason the way the different spaces are organized and the materials used to finish each apartment respond to the tastes, financial possibilities and demands of the different owners.
HT: How long have you been living in the building for?
ET: Since 1960. I think I’m the person who’s “lived” here the longest, if you can call this life.
HT: What apartment did you live in, originally?
ET: The 852.
HT: Tell me a bit about what the building was like at the time.
ET: In 1960, the Riomar was an elegant building. In addition to the 11 apartment floors, it had a lobby area with a reception desk and mail slots and a telephone switchboard with an intercom system connecting the different apartments internally and with an outside line. It has a reception area (where a pharmacy is located today), three ballrooms (between the lobby and the pool area) and two swimming pools (for children and adults) fitted with sunshades, loungers, showers, sanitary services for both men and women, pop and snack machines and other comforts. It had six elevators (4 in the building, 1 at the pool area and 1 freight lift), underground parking, closed terraces with doors and lattice windows for each apartment, garbage chutes on each floor and an incinerator in the basement.
The tenants paid a monthly maintenance quota that covered (immediate) repair work of every kind, including plumbing, electrical work, carpentry and more. There was a staff of cleaning ladies who cleaned the hallways and all of the building’s common areas every day. We also had maintenance employees who cleaned the pool and outdoor areas.
HT: Exactly how many apartments are there in the building?
ET: There are 201 apartments.
HT: When were foreign experts lodged in the building, and when did they leave? When did Cubans move back in? Or did Cubans and foreigners live together? Tell me a bit about that.
ET: Foreign experts began to arrive around 1960. In the beginning, there were many people from Latin America, particularly Chile. There were some people from the United States, but the majority were from the socialist bloc, mainly the Soviet Union, though there were also people from Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. They were given the apartments vacated by the Cuban owners who were leaving the country at the time. They also gave the apartments to a number of prestigious Cuban professionals who lived in the interior and who had to move to Havana for work-related reasons and Cubans who had left for the United States and had returned after the revolution. They are four of the families that still live here.
HT: After the foreign experts left and Cubans began to live in the apartments, do you know whether these were assigned to anyone who didn’t have a home or whether you had to meet certain requirements? Were all of the apartments reassigned?
ET: No, no one new moved in here. On the contrary, those of us here have been dying to move out of this place. Over these past 20 years, the tenants haven’t stopped writing letters to EVERY imaginable institution requesting to be relocated. We’ve even attached reports drawn up by structural engineers, alerting authorities to the urgent need to carry out repair and maintenance work around the building, but they haven’t paid us any attention. On one occasion, they listened and repaired a column in the basement. I have copies of all the letters and reports we’ve written.
The apartments vacated when the foreigners moved out are still empty. There are 187 good apartments that have been empty for more than 20 years (the building’s got 201. 201 minus 14 is 187). It would have been extremely discriminatory to have brought in Cubans to occupy the apartments when the building was no longer habitable, don’t you think? Leaving those of us who were already here behind wasn’t so obvious, right?
When the huge 1993 storm struck, 16 Cuban families were living here. One managed to get a house in Nautico and the other left the country. The 14 families who remain became owners of an apartment through one of these means:
-They are in some way heirs to the original owners;
– They were renting an apartment here when the Urban Reform Law was passed at the beginning of the 60s and they were given ownership of the property through this law;
– They are professionals who lived in the interior and, for work-related reasons, were relocated to Havana, where they were given an apartment at the beginning of the 60s;
– They are repatriates, who were given an apartment in the building at the beginning of the 60s.
Clear enough? Does that answer your question?
HT: How long did the building’s golden age last for?
ET: “Golden”? Well, we could call the time when the pool was still there that. That was until about 1980.
HT: Did the building deteriorate gradually, because of a lack of maintenance, or did something else bring this about?
ET: Yes, the building deteriorated gradually, as you would expect of any building that goes without maintenance for decades, particularly a building that’s next to the ocean. That’s why the water “had its way” with the building when the coast flooded.
HT: Over time, different companies and firms agreed to repair the building, but then things changed. Why did they all abandon the project?
ET: The only company that took on any kind of repair project here was Cubalse (which actually owns the building). It didn’t have enough money to invest in the repairs needed. In 2001, they said there was enough money to repair the entire building, so they fixed up the apartments in the building’s central block and moved us there. They were planning to start repairs in the other four blocks, which is where most of our apartments are. After they moved us, the money ran out.
HT: So, of the building’s five blocks, only the central one is inhabited. Has any civil engineer or architect suggested that this block could be affected by the surrounding structures, given their deterioration?
ET: Of course. In addition to the different blocks that make up the building, there are two that are the most deteriorated and the most likely to collapse – the ones you don’t see from the front, the ones next to the water.
HT: How many families are living in the building today?
ET: Only 14 families.
HT: Have you or any of the other tenants ever been offered a place to move to?
ET: No. Despite the innumerable letters we’ve written to “all levels” of government, we’ve never gotten a reply.
HT: Have you contacted any State institution to inform them of the decay of the building recently?
ET: We’ve contacted COUNTLESS institutions. We’ve been writing the presidents of Cubalse, Palco and even Cuba letters for 20 years.
HT: Do you think the people who live in this building have in some way become used to this situation? Do you know of anyone planning to move or looking for other alternatives? What are your plans for the future?
ET: Well, we can’t exactly interest anyone in trading homes with us, for obvious reasons. What’s more, most of us are the legal owners of apartments that aren’t the ones we’re living in today. They haven’t legalized our status and aren’t even giving us the property titles for these apartments in exchange for our former ones.
Elsa’s face shows signs of weariness, so I hold back my other questions.
HT: Thank you for your time and good luck.
The hopes of Elsa and the building’s other tenants have turned into resignation. There may be some who still cling to the hope that someone will do something to repair the building, which had every imaginable comfort in its day. Such repairs, however, would cost millions, and the building may well be beyond salvation. The question, however, remains: what company would risk investing so much money in a building that will not secure them any kind of profits in the long term?