Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Handling of the Cuban Housing Crisis

"The Handling of the Cuban Housing Crisis"
Alberto N Jones
October 16, 2009

An article published in the Miami Herald on 10/15/09, "Cuba cracks down on unlicensed home improvents" cannot or should not be true, because that would be the be the most outrageous, counterproductive way of dealing with that country's most sensitive, painful, conflicting, unresolved social problem.

Among the multiple, crushing reasons presented by Fidel Castro in his dramatic self defense during the trials for the attack he lead against the Moncada garrison on 7/26/53, was the inhumane living conditions of 90% of our peasentry in primitive shacks, over 50% of the urban population living in beyond reach, overpriced rented homes and thousands of apartment buildings in the hands of a handful of rich homes moguls, which became a powerful argument justifying the need of changing the status quo.

Immidiately after the truimph of the revoltution, Pastora Nunez was given the near impossible task of solving the nation housing problem. She began aggressively substituting peasants shacks with comfortable cinder blocks homes. Thousands of modest, functional, beautiful homes were built in cities across the country applying a suburban concept, which up to this moment, was limited to the middle and upper class neighborhoods, turning this venerable woman overnight, into one of the best known faces of the revolution, leading the population to spontaneously name these communities Pastorita.

An enormous sense of pride filled these neighborhoods, in which most homes literally competed against each others in the upkeep of their gardens, planting of fruit or ornamental trees, creating vegetable gardens and raising chickens in their backyard.

Simultaneously with education, health, sports, job creation and the enormously popular Housing Reform Act enacted in 1959, which gave ownership to all renters, sent a clear message of what a triumphant revolution was all about. Mass euphoria blanketed our country with a thick pride that could be touched by all.

For unknown reasons to most, this wonderful Pastorita project ended in the mid sixties when this colorful, enthusiastic lady was transfered to other responsibilities in the agriculture ministry. I saw her for the last time during my residency at the National Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Havana, as her inquiring mind brought her in search of answers for some unknown pathology affecting a herd of cattle under her responsibility. We later learn about her passing.

The Pastorita type houses, were supplanted by similar looking, modal type, non functional, pre-fab, four story apartment buildings, that spread across the country like a wild fire and which were quickly renamed Pigeon Cubs by the population. In order to spead-up the output of aparments to address the growing needs of the population, Gran Panel, a Soviet type, similar pre-fab apartment buildig was introduced, creating thousands of look-alike, poorly ventilated apartments in Santiago de Cuba, the warmest section of Cuba.

This new style of living created by dense concentrations of multiple apartments buildings, brought with it, many unforseen, negative transformational changes to our 500 year old block-style neighborhood culture, in which everyone was seen as neighbor, their names was known, their children, activities, personal relations and friendship became a village, was suddenly frayed, as people in a same building or across the streets, were transformed into strangers.

Another important missing component of the conglomerate living leading to its failure, was the supression in the name of savings, of the Super or building supervisor, who historically had taken care of all the building needs. Some housing genius presumed that a neighborhood collective administrative board, would be able to sweep stairs, fix leaks, cut lawn, forbid hanging laundry on the balcony or the maximum decibels tolerable on individual boom box.

With all the negative results outlined above and many more which would extend unnecessary these arguments, the Cuban government have stubornly adjudicated itself the sole responsibility of solving the huge housing demands. In a population that have gone from 6 to 12 millions inhabitants, construction of new buildings are far from addressing the needs of 10% of this growth, to which we must add, a unbelievable lack of maintenance of all structures during the past 30 years, which have created a pathetic scene of crumbling, hazardous buildings nationwide.

For years, the Cuban government have made its most serious miscalculation, by not assigning 1-2 of its 5-6 cement factory production to satisfy the needs of its population. Ten years ago, while touring Cuba's largest cement factory in Cienfuegos, at the end of the presentation the manager proudly told us about how his upcoming trip abroad in search of markets for his product.

Stunned, speechless, I could barely bring myself to ask him, what was wrong with our internal high-demand, unsatisfied, overpriced cement market, for which Cubans have been willing to pay 200% more for his product exported to neighboring countries.

Increasing overnight the output of sand, stone and other basic construction material, should be easy. Importing lumber, plumbing, electrical, paint and other building supplies from countries with which Cuba has a friendly relation, should not be a problem, having a monopoly of the sales prices, which could additionally, create thousands of jobs and contribute large sums of hard currency to the economy.

Yes, everyone knows, that in order for every individual to solve their otherwise intractable housing crisis, every Cuban have had to bend the rules, find shortcuts, pay bribes, purchase stolen goods, as the only existing way for dealing with the monstrous overcrowding in places such a Centro Habana and across the country. Obtaining a housing renovation permit is near impossible, if an ordinary person do not have an inside connection, is willing to pay a hefty bribe or sexual favor. Why should we pretend this is not happening and are now willing to kill an ants with a sledgehammer?

Although no mistake, abuse, crime committed by any citizen in the past, as the sole way of addressing their family desperate living condition, should never be punitive or retroactive. I plead with everyone, to draw the line today, make all of these material readily available to everyone at large for a price, encourage everyone to build a new home or repair or expand an existing one and stop a failed paternalistic idea of giving away homes, household goods.

Solving this social calamity in Cuba is within reach. Venezuela, our closest friend produce infinite amount of petroleum derivate plastic homes. Rather than the present thinking, why not import a few millions of these structures, put them on sales with a 10% interest payable in 20 years, adress our citizens needs and incorporate millions of hard currency to our public funds, instead of silly discussions taking place within the housing department, if these houses should have two or one bathroom.

Cubans will never grow up, as long as they hold to the false notion that government is there to solve their personal problems, not to pave the way for them to solve their needs with the sweat of their foreheads.

For those who wish our country the best, those who believes that Cuba must survive for the wellbeing of the developing world, can no longer pretend that everything is OK and pretend to keep them in the cellar or assume an opportunistic, super revolutionary attitude, denouncing as anti-government activity, by anyone daring to make public these unpleasant family stories.

Doing otherwise is a prescription for disaster.

Our love for our country must express itself in our critical denounciations of what is wrong. From the clerk who overcharges, the bus conductor pocketing the public fares, the office receptionist not picking up the phone, the pizza parlor cook stealing the tomatto sauce or the baker stealing the lard, should and must be our daily work in defense of our beliefs.

Still, if this and many similar pleas to the highest level of the Cuban government from us, from tens of friendly nations around the globe and from millions of our loyal friends in every city, country and continent would go unheard, we would not only have repudiated one of the most important pillars of the revolution, we maybe unwittingly inviting everyone to the wake and death of 50 years of the most honorable, unparallel, desproportionately uneven struggle in defense of justice, dignity and values of humankind.