From Riches to Rags: Havana’s Riomar Building

Irina Pino

Part of the Riomar building
Part of the Riomar building

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.

Back side of the Riomar apartment building.
Back side of the Riomar apartment building.

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.

Side of the Riomar building.
Side of the Riomar building.

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.

Swimming pool and part of the building.
Swimming pool and part of the building.

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?

12 thoughts on “From Riches to Rags: Havana’s Riomar Building

  • August 17, 2021 at 1:32 pm

    from 1974 till 1976 apt343 above the “supermarket”, from Poland with my uncles

  • April 5, 2019 at 5:02 pm

    Exactamente ese es el único blockeo y huracan e Cuba en los últimos 60 años

  • July 20, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Estimado(a) señor(a),

    Me llamo Fernando Mitjáns, soy un productor audiovisual cubano residente en
    Europa. Desde ya hace algún tiempo vengo investigando la historia del edificio
    Riomar, reuniendo informaciones, contactos y ‘pistas’ sobre el Riomar, bien
    como localizando a gente que vivió en el edificio o tuvo que ver con el de una
    forma u otra. En estos momentos estoy en la etapa de investigación y
    pré-producción de un proyecto de largometraje documental sobre la historia
    del edificio y todo lo que este simbolizó en los diferentes momentos de la
    historia reciente de Cuba. Estamos empezando a presentarle el proyecto a
    productores y funders tanto en los Estados Unidos como en el Reino Unido y
    hemos recibido diversas manifestaciones de interés y feedback positivo.
    Investigando el tema del Riomar en internet, encontré un texto en Havana Times,
    en el cual usted comentó y brindó su testimonio y experiencia. Le he pedido
    encarecidamente a Circles Robinson – editor de Havana Times – que le haga
    llegar este mensaje con la finalidad de que pueda usted entrar en contacto
    conmigo. Tenemos gran interés en contactar con usted y oír/conocer más sobre su
    experiencia en/con el Riomar .

    Le agradeceríamos si pudiera entrar en contacto con
    nosotros cuando reciba este mensaje, a través de la dirección de correo [email protected] (o a través de
    mi dirección personal – [email protected]).
    Muchísimas gracias por su interés y ayuda con relación a nuestro proyecto sobre
    la historia del edificio Riomar. Me mantendré al tanto de su respuesta.

    Le dejo un cordial saludo,

    Fernando Mitjáns

  • July 11, 2017 at 6:26 am

    I lived there with my parents from 1973 to 1976 in apartment 312. People from communist block countries lived there mostly but some families from France, England, Spain and Canada lived there as well. In the seventies the Rio Mar building was in good condition but as far as I know this building had been devastated during several hurricanes later. I think that the building is unrepairable now due to the corrosion of steel rods in the reinforced concrete.

  • July 10, 2017 at 6:40 am

    From 1973 to 1975, apartment 582 (my memory faints). We where the only family from “capitalist” country, from Spain. By the time a dictatorship ruled by General Franco. Great place, great people and very sorry on watching this poor conditions where we had a very happy childerhood. Never to forget watching 70´s Russian films on the open air cinema. So boring. And watching American ships blockading Havana´s port. The best love for Cuban people.
    Manel Hernandez (Barcelona)

  • February 9, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    A building in as bad a condition as the one described should be razed.

  • February 9, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Ugh! What a heap! It should be razed, in my opinion. That’s the only thing to do with a building in that bad a condition.

  • February 5, 2014 at 1:25 am

    from 1969 till 1971., apartamento 1051

  • November 24, 2013 at 9:47 am

    When will Cuba be freed from the Castros? Does a suffering nation have to wait until the last despot takes his last breath? Once gone will they be replaced by new Castros or will the Cuban people breath free for the first time since that oh so brief moment in the early days of the revolution. its all so very sad.

  • November 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Not hard to imagine the situation. Every building in cuba is in poor condition , even the tourist hotels where many rooms are canabalized to keep others open. No money , no motivation ,no materials ,no care or concern .ive been to almost every city and town in cuba and its all the same.get a life , nothing is going to change as long as communism and the castros keep the country in a strait jacket .

  • November 23, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Yet another piece of Cuba destroyed by hurricane Fidel.

  • November 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    I have a friend who lives in a building on the Malecon near calle Aguila. Cubalse also owns her building. She believes that the Castro oligarchy is waiting for the day when a new capitalist government will simply “gift” these properties to its corporate owners in the same way properties were gifted in the former Soviet Union after the collapse. These corporate owners, it is believed, will quickly sell these properties to foreign investors reaping millions of dollars in profits for once beautiful ocean-side properties. In the meantime, Cubalse does nothing to maintain the property in the hopes that existing tenants will eventually move out. My friend’s building partially collapsed in 2008, yet a small group of families remain in the part of the building still standing. Anywhere else on the planet, an apartment with uninhibited ocean views located in the capital city would fetch prices at the top of the market. Like the building highlighted in this post, my friend can barely give away her apartment because of the damages to the building. Believe me, she has tried. Anyway, just another rumor about why some of these buildings continue in disrepair.

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