The Housing Problem: the System’s Autotrophic Phase / Miriam Celaya
The Housing Problem: the System's Autotrophic Phase / Miriam Celaya
Miriam Celaya, Translator: Norma Whiting
Those of us Habaneros who were already adults in the 90?s witnessed the
dismantling of the so-called "hostels" or INIT shelters, which — for the
younger readers — were something like the tropical version of a cheap
motel in which, for a small fee, couples who had no other adequate space
rented a room for a few hours to have sexual relations. As a "solution"
for the impossible task of sustaining the housing construction
micro-brigades in the midst of the crisis known as "the special period
in peacetime", those hostels were fully adapted to housing and
distributed as tiny apartments to families that did not have a place to
As a consequence, far from solving the general problem of housing, given
that there were never enough hostels to provide homes to so many who
needed them, they created another problem: couples without private
spaces were stripped of their seedy but single possibility of having sex
behind closed doors, without emptying their pockets. There has been
little discussion of this, but since they closed the inns, sex was
another item that became significantly more expensive and even became
part of public spectacles in parks, dark corners, and stairways of
But such dispossession was not something that concerned government
officials. After all, this only hurt the poorest and, besides, no one
would even think of bringing up such a problem in an assembly, lest they
be labeled obscene or be subjected to ridicule. Mockery is already known
to be the national tendency. On silencing the issue, the problem would
"disappear". Curiously, Cubans, who often boast of being sexual
athletes, get very picky when discussing issues related to this. And so,
the hostels, like other morally questionable sites, ended up red-listed
among the many useful institutions that disappeared under this government.
The fact is that twenty years later, with the growing housing crisis,
the steady deterioration of housing stock, and the chronic insufficiency
of construction, the authorities have opted to appeal to a supreme
source: turning into housing many of the local houses and offices
recently used by their institutions, plus factories that have been
closed due to the regressive economic effect of the system. Of course,
this is not about institutions that are strategic to the government, but
those that do not produce earnings, but expenses: The Ministry of
Education, of Housing, small factories, etc.
Thus, while the construction of new buildings with better dignified
façades are intended only for the sectors for the faithful ("atypical"
buildings for Armed Forces or Interior Ministry officials) or beautiful
homes are built for the anointed with closer relationships with the
power in exclusive neighborhoods of the city, such as the "frozen" area
in the vicinity of the hospital popularly known as CIMECQ, near Ground
Zero, a neighborhood that was for the previous highest bourgeoisie; the
disadvantaged get an ancient building or an austere narrow office space
turned into an apartment, where, slowly, as construction materials make
their appearance, they are building, with their own hands and with
moving illusion, what will be their home the day that they finally
install the last coat of plaster.
Those who want to verify this can simply pick out a sector of the city
and set their eyes on the details. The old tobacco factory located at
Carlos III and Árbol Seco is getting the final push to be transformed
into a kind of new type of rooming house which will accommodate 21
apartments for families. The old building of the micro-social in the
Casino Deportivo (3rd Street, between Entrada and 2nd) is also being
turned into small apartments, while the house that was a branch of the
Ministry of Education on the same block was given to a more lucky
family… maybe an official who is devout from one of the sacred,
untouchable institutions, those that don't get mutilated.
Mind you, I don't regret the disappearance of the offices of so many
obsolete units which, like the marabou weed*, have spread throughout
Cuba for over half a century. In fact, I would love to see their return
to their original condition as family homes, for example, four
comfortable mansions which for decades, after having been expropriated
from their rightful owners, have been used as headquarters of the
provincial committee of the Communist Party. That, and not to mention
the overwhelming number of buildings also occupied by other parasitic
organizations: CTC, CDR, FMC, DC, Popular Power, and an endless list.
The mansions of the leaders and their privileged neighborhoods, are, of
course, not linked to the housing program for the poor.
Given the lack of new construction, the inability of the state to build,
and the reluctance to allow work to develop from the initiative of
private contractors and private enterprises of Cubans, the government
has chosen to draw on the outgrowths of their own outdated institutions,
a kind of social autotrophy that, somehow, looks like a graphic
manifestation of the system's malnutrition.
Dichrostachys cinerea. In Cuba, the plant is known as El Marabú or
Marabou weed. It has been estimated that it occupies close to five
million acres (20,000 km²) of agricultural land.
Translated by Norma Whiting
October 28 2011