The State of Housing in Cuba

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

An apartment building in Centro Habana built in the capitalist period and which was taken by the State and distributed in the urban reform.

HAVANA TIMES – Cuba’s housing situation and infrastructure on the whole are in a critical condition. This country is almost entirely falling apart. Of course, this is the result of many factors, but they all directly or indirectly relate to the country’s economic, political and social system which has proven to be dysfunctional.

The idea that every family has their own home is a beautiful utopia, but that’s all it is. In reality, it’s a sprint between the State’s ability to invest in housing and the growth of never-ending needs. And the State has never been able to fulfill such a purpose, not even the most economically advanced socialist/extreme experiments in Europe were able to do so.

Aside from a lack of investment or poor management, or the dependence this always zigzagging political system creates, with its highs and lows, this utopia leads to other social evils. For example, excessive redtape and tedious bureaucracy, which cause delays and corruption.

In a normal country, a million houses might be owned by 100,000 owners and they can have legal representation in the form of a lawyer or representative because they have money and pay for these services. Less people doing the redtape and less movement of properties or at least more plural movement. However, in Cuba, there are a million owners with a great deal of movement of properties, causing huge lines at offices even if these people are old and don’t understand the first thing about housing laws.

You have to also take into account the very real fact that it isn’t the same thing to demand a million owners (most of whom are poor and even worse yet, poverty-stricken) to keep their properties in excellent condition. This means that this colossal responsibility falls upon the State’s shoulders, especially if miserable wages aren’t even enough to do up one square meter.

It’s easy to demand “homeowners” who own several homes and make money out of them to invest some money into maintaining them, not to mention the natural sense of ownership that drives them to upkeep what is theirs. And when buidings are collectively owned, there should be an administration and every neighbor should pay a monthly fee to cover what belongs to everyone. However, here in Cuba, everything belongs to everyone and no-one at the same time and if a building is “collectively-owned”, it’s understood that the State is the one responsible.

It isn’t the Cuban people’s fault, it’s the system’s fault, a system which quite frankly doesn’t work. In larger cities and especially in Havana, you can see the results of the Urban Reform law more clearly, which served revolutionary “justice” by handing out what belonged to someone else. It took place in the early years of the Revolution and involved stripping property-owners of the houses they rented out and giving them to the rentees. In my opinion, this was nothing but plundering.

And many of those properties became ruins. Not only now after nearly six decades of neglect, but they were in a dreadful state in just half of this time. And even though quite a lot has been built, construction projects have been poor quality and aesthetically poor; and nothing was done where old buildings were built, which has meant that many buildings thankfully hold onto their heritage value. Havana is a great example, but it is a widespread phenomenon throughout the country.

Here in Mayari, where I live, every new neighborhood lacks paved streets and a sewage system. And don’t even dream about running water and gas. Only areas that were inhabited before the Revolution have excellent pavements, paved streets, storm drainage systems with fire hydrants and well-planned streets. Of course, they haven’t been maintained, but they are still the best.

Statues in parks “from before” are made out of marble and alabaster and statues today are made out of cement or plaster, covered in stains because of rain. Benches six decades ago were made out of granite and remain intact, while recent benches are made out of cement and are wearing away. The number of neighborhoods with alleys, without any symmetry in its street planning, without basic infrastructure and paved roads, is on the rise.

Beautiful towns in the past which were predominantly made out of wood because of US businesses (such as Guaro and Preston) remained intact for five decades and it only took twenty or thirty years of the Revolution for them to be on the verge of collapse. There are more than enough examples of this in every province.

It’s a dysfunctional system without any feedback which breaks away from what works in order to achieve fleeting justice and it isn’t replaced by anything better. It’s a boomerang that comes to hit the State back with even more complex social problems.

As a socialist, I have given the issue of housing a great deal of thought. I believe that having your own home should be every individual’s choice, but it should be accessible and never a State policy. Many people don’t like to own their own homes and it doesn’t suit them to settle in one specific place. I consider the Cuban government’s take on this issue and many others, feudal in nature.

Homeowners are necessary in any society and I don’t believe it’s a good idea for the State to become a homeowner because this implies more bureacracy and greater corruption. In short, it’s too much power for public servants and another breeding ground for abuse against the population. The private sector needs to take part in social investment for housing and infrastructure and so ownership limited to only one property needs to be revoked and ammended so that the current problem can be solved, which more than dysfunctional is outright stupid.

For the most vulnerable in society, if municipalities were autonomous then they would be able to build affordable housing with their budget, or supported by the national budget, which would be “lent out”, never handed out, to people in urgent need and if possible, people who are in not so desperate need. Many things can be done but it has to work, not what has been done up until now.

Socialism can’t be a system that saves people and kills cities. However, unfortunately, this is the image that radical socialists have painted with their dysfunctional populism.

2 thoughts on “The State of Housing in Cuba

  • One would wonder why they don’t auction or sell off the properties, giving the populace reason to improve these residences as the need to compete arises. It would help with money, as they would need to maintain less property, while receiving money from the populace in return.

  • Osmel Ramirez Alvarez, as a socialist of course you should care about the availability and quality of housing for everyone especially the elderly and the vulnerable. And having seen quite a bit of the housing particularly the lower income and collective housing in Havana, I have seen the good and the bad.

    I have also seen many examples of successful efforts to refurbish and preserve housing and communities. Now I haven’t been back to Cuba for over 10 years and I know things are constantly changing, but I did see plenty of examples we’re both government agencies and the residence we’re not adequately taken care of the housing they lived in and we’re responsible for. As you say there are many reasons for these conditions, but the solution is not going to be to privatize or to return to the Past. If you are interested in learning what works and what doesn’t work, study the housing in other countries with mixed economies and a purchase.

    There are actually some very instructive and helpful successes, particularly in countries which benefit from having low level of government and social corruption. In the opposite direction there are huge number of failures that are equally instructive not only exposing the horrors of corruption far worse than anything in Cuba, but the human suffering resulting from the callus greed a private ownership and investment.

    In many parts of the world not only are there fast and deadly slums crushing the life out of the young and old, but even in the better off countries, citizens literally sacrifice years of their lives simply to have a place to sleep.

    I urge you to study the consequences and conditions to learn what my help and might hurt in Cuba.

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