I told him they should study the evolution in the looks of new houses and apartments for the people, as they moved away from the ugly Russian influence to more aesthetic styles. They could all do papers on socialistically relevant architectural trends. I think meticulous scholars could create a chart showing annual home design progress like revolutionary tree rings. They could then connect the various phases to social, economic, political, philosophical, and even ecological realities, antecedents, and future implications. They might start a new department of contemporary architectural anthropology. He said he'd mention it to his professor.
I'd been quietly disquieted by him and his companions so completely out of place in that dark, broken-pavement corner of Havana, "dude"ing each other, and "fuckin'" this and "fuckin'" that and gloating in the voices of manly youth over awesome beaches and chicks and where they'd been told the waves or diving were "bitchin'."
But when his friends left and I talked to him, he turned out to be more politically aware than I'd have bet money on, in spite of my notebook speculation that, not counting tour bus or Airforce One passengers, travelers are generally more sophisticated than other people, even those who dismay me by traveling to revolutionary Cuba to study the past, so I gave him one of my hand printed cards.
By pushing 20 keys, he can find out my dream for Old and Centro Havana: a bulldozer followed by a rototiller followed by a lot of thinking and planning leading to a new communist village made of sub-villages designed not to fulfill the architect or to warehouse excess population, or to encourage tourism, but to facilitate and enhance human life.
The world is full of old and ancient museum cities, maybe even some at the bottom of the sea. There is only one revolutionary Cuba, a concept hatched in an old nest, now growing (with a lot of evident thought, but still too much blind groping) a new nest around itself.
Between Cajobabo Beach, at the foot of the jungle mountain road from Baracoa, and Guantanamo last year, I saw at least hundreds of identical, well spaced new casitas with a designer Mexican look, of maybe 1000 square feet each, in all the towns and in isolated groups like seeds for new towns. When I tell Cubans about this, I don't forget to say they all looked alike, because that means the state built them. In spite of a general faith in Fidel and socialism in Cuba, there is a lot of cynicism about the state.
That afternoon, after dropping off a passenger in Santiago, I saw a lot more new houses of the same style as I asked my way past Biran and other small towns toward the Mirador de Mayabe through a maze of back roads, where I gave a ride in the rain to a wildly exuberant youth actually named Hanoi on his way to see his girlfriend in Baguano. He told me there's almost nothing but girls in that town and I should go there.
Two days later, as I dozed on and off in the back of a rumbling 50's "maquina," while the driver and a Cuban fellow passenger endlessly shouted what must have been ebonic Cuban over an endless salsa tape, from under my hatbrim I saw even more of the same house in towns along the freeway between Havana and Santa Clara. Obviously, I was seeing the current state-built casa style.
We saw new fishermen's homes in Castillo de Jagua in '00 that were wide and low, big-windowed and open inside, with porches like extensions of the living decks and asked a woman sweeping a porch in a group of four such houses if it was her house.
"Not this one," she told us, stopping to get a look at us, "that one over there." She told us the other fishermen's wives all worked all day somewhere else. It was her job to tend to the four houses.
"Who built your house?" we asked.
"El estado. It's all from the state."
Four years later (in June '04), on the ferry from Cienfuegos, coasting along the same village's waterfront porches (addresses there are Avenida del Mar) toward the dock, where even the old cafeteria is being rebuilt, everything looked new, and I was told every fisherman in Castillo now has a good house. This took time, so there's no uniformity. It still looks like a fishing village.
Cubans describe places like Castillo de Jagua and Nueva Gerona, as "muy desarrollado," which means "very developed," but which can be made by a certain tone of voice to mean "very privileged." Confidence in the state's intentions, which I think is real, is often tainted by cynicism and impatience.
The importance of housing is underlined by the apparent absence of cynicism in Castillo and in a farming community west of Pinar del Rio where in '01 we saw ranks of houses very like the flat deck style in Castillo, but a complete set, like a new town just taken out of the box. As we pulled off the highway and parked, workers there invited us to an awards ceremony for El Dia del Campesino, and we rode in a big-wheeled cart with them pulled by a tractor out across the fields along a row of trees to where a party official on a platform by a barn made a canned speech to a standing crowd and gave out certificates.
Two of the honorees were an old man and an old woman about to retire who took a lot of kidding in the jolting, tilting cart-ride back. Maybe now that they had all that out of the way, they should get married. He thought that was funnier than she did.
A quiet worker braced beside me in the cart invited us to coffee in his mother-in-law's house. He had asked why I was in Cuba. He may have thought we were some kind of delegates. "Pa' aprender," I told him.
"I wouldn't say JUST to learn. To me, learning is a lot."
"Cierto," he agreed and passed the point on to a guy standing easily, no hands, on the rolling cart floor beyond him.
I learned from his mother-in-law that she had paid for the house for 17 years, so it wasn't as new as it looked. But her pride still was. She'd lived in a dirt floored bohio before, and this house was big, one-floor, but spacious and almost luxurious for the small extended family living there. The state obviously wants happy farm workers.
In their large back yard, surrounded by flower and vegetable beds, they had a neatly-built cook shed, where her daughter made our coffee using the small cafetero everyone in Cuba seems to have, in which the water starts at the bottom and ends up as coffee on top.
Looking across back fences that seemed to mean nothing to the ducks and chickens bustling everywhere, all the houses I could see looked alike, all light and airy with big windows and open interior's, like solid-floored modern double-width mobile homes made of plastered block instead of plastic.
I saw approximately the same houses again, driving the northwest coast in '04, but scattered, as if replacing only the worst bohios. Campesinos I picked up there and elsewhere, maybe sincerely or maybe just putting on a good front, have repeatedly told me they'd rather not replace their thatched homes because they are "fresca." Even city dwellers, who may not really know, always assure me that's true.
"But don't bugs and spiders drop onto your face at night when you're trying to sleep?"
"Yes," the campesinos always enthusiastically laugh. That may be a conventional put-on.
The bohio, a palm thatched wooden hut sometimes far bigger than a hut, sometimes as big as a Dutch farm house, is the classic Cuban country home. I've been told (and I think I once saw an example from a bus window near Camaguay) that a picture-perfect bohio, shaped like a loaf of bread with it's heaping palm thatch roof ideally shaded by a giant Ceiba tree, may be so prized by its owner that he refuses to spoil it by adding a floor, living on a neatly swept carpet of authentic dirt, like a '56 Chevy owner who refuses to change his engine.
From a moving bus or car (maybe a '56 Chevy), you can easily see the edge of a concrete pad, like an underline, if it's been added to a house without skirts, and with doors and windows open in the heat, you can see back-light reflecting from concrete floors. Driving the north central coast east of Caibarien in '00, we saw rows of clearly new roadside cottages all with concrete floors but also with new thatched roofs, each with an almost identical buffalo hump in front, like little burger-kings. Surely people getting new houses there must have insisted on keeping their cool thatched roofs.
I'm not sure many on the southwest coast would. The first settlement I came to after crossing the unbroken jungle of the Guanahacabibes peninsula coming back from Playa Maria la Gorda at the west tip of Cuba was a cluster of very small bohios in a jungle clearing that looked like huts with floors. Two hitchhikers I'd picked up on the coast, a young man and woman of nearyby La Fe, told me that, besides floors, the bohios had plumbing and electricity from an end-of-the-line plant that operates only during the dark hours. They said the people there cook outdoors on wood or gas hotplates. My riders had perspective because La Fe, where we enjoyed a pargo dinner in a fisherman's house in '01, though lacking any shopping or nightlife, is totally updated, the entire town looking like a middle-class California tract from the 50's.
I didn't talk first hand to the people in the jungle bohios, but after my and my riders' roads diverged in Manuel Lazo, I drove around town striking up conversations and then picked up a local hitchhiker going to Las Martinas and found I'd struck a pocket of unhappiness maybe equal to Surgidero de Batabanò. Houses I saw in and out of town there are of various sizes, but too many aren't much bigger than the Nicaraguan shanties I've spent a number of summers touring (though much, much, MUCH solider; I can't overemphasize this).
I've lived comfortably, with a girlfriend or alone, in a series of 500 square foot (50 square meter) homes, and I think that's big enough for one or two. But that morning I was looking at some places as small as 200 to 300 square feet, maybe even less. I saw a number of new houses going up, and the homeowners working on them acknowledged the state's hand in their good fortune as proof that everybody's time would come.
But apparently some people around there think they have waited too long. Most people I talked to were sourly cynical about the list they were supposedly on, and the hitchhiker was so vocally bitter, I was glad to drop her off in Las Martinas. Also, she was making uncomfortably urgent suggestions about my need to take a Cuban wife home with me. Her replacement was an almost equally bitter campesino youth who wanted me to tell him about California. By the time I dropped him off, I was getting depressed.
Then, about 9 or 10 kilometers north of the town of Cortes, I saw what may have been the only real shanty town I've ever seen in Cuba, a scattered cluster of dreary hutches in a dirty clearing. I thought at first it was a work camp, and I still hope it might be. But one prominent hutch was labeled as CDR headquarters, so I then hoped it might be the beginning of a new agricultural settlement, an asentamiento, with real houses to come.
Some men I'd passed a few minutes south had been working on a ditch. Except for several goats, there was nobody in sight among the hutches, and, already thoroughly depressed and wondering if other roads between there and Surgidero de Batabano, which I had no time to exhaustively follow to all their coastal dead ends, led to places like the towns I'd been passing, or even more places like this, for once, since I couldn't see anyone to talk to anyway, I copped out. I took a picture from my car window (which my camera gremlins erased), and drove on, reminding myself that what I'd seen was unique and that, unless the wrong people begin dominating the government, Cuba does intend to eventually put everyone into good houses.
In every town I visited in '04, I saw new houses being built and old houses being torn apart and replaced, most of the work being done by the owners themselves, usually re-using a lot of material from the wreck, usually, hopefully, with material aid and guidance from the state. Then everything's fine, and I hear that's happening more often now.
But materials and expert aid are also often bought on the black market with money from Miami or from lucky connections to the tourist industry, and that makes people impatiently waiting their turn mad at the state. And sometimes the money for materials has been saved or borrowed by determined and impatient people biting the bullet, who might know what they're doing or be getting help from savvy neighbors or from the state, or who might be making a mess and inviting trouble with inspectors and fines, which also makes them mad at the state.
But I've seen new or fairly new housing units everywhere recently, casitas or four to eight unit condos definitely built by the state and aesthetically light-years ahead of the older Russian inspired edificios that the whole government should have been hung for allowing.
What this means to me is that, even though the list is still moving too slowly, an increased profit flow from tourism is doing some good. Cuba's chosen brand of tourism offends me, but in '02, Cienfuegos artist Eugenio Perez, after hearing my criticism, showed me a group of beautiful, glistening white fourplexes that would be called condos in California completely tiled and air conditioned. The 28 new units, he told me, would go to people living in the city's 28 poorest "viviendas" (dwelling places). He told me the profits from tourism built the homes.
American media have been forced to recognize Cuba's health care delivery system only because so many doctors have praised it (doctors being religiously respected in America because they're rich and see us naked), and Americans are also, though rarely, told all Cubans are educated, because so many educators (begrudgingly accorded slight status by American media) insist on the point. But, beyond that, the American media are almost as stubbornly evasive about Cuba as they are about overpopulation, and Americans are left to imagine that Cuba's marvelous medical and educational systems grow in defiance of the "regime," like flowers in a garbage heap, in the midst of a vast, nightmare landscape of squalid huts and hovering helicopters.
You are urged to click again on "Misconceptions About Cuba," on this website for a very short list of Cuban realities American media have criminally refused to cover. One of those realities is that the Cuban state's revolutionary crusade to put all Cubans into good homes has been as heroically pursued, though not as successfully so far, as universal health and education.
In 1989, when all I saw was part of Havana and some nearby beach towns, though appalled by Centro, I was amazed not to see any shanties. I'd already seen a lot of Mexico and Central America, and I was amazed enough to ask about it and was amazed to hear that among the revolution's first moves (along with the abolition of racism) had been the razing of Havana's aura of shanties, making it perhaps the only Latin American capital not even partly ringed by such ghettos.
I don't think any embedded American reporter has ever been amazed enough by that to tell his American readers about it. Writing this after traveling to Venezuela, where Caracas, for instance, is like a stadium with the stands made entirely of poor "ranchos," and to Colombia, where the entire bottom half of Medellin's visible north-side mountain backdrop is solid red with the vast brick "Choza" ghettos there (one named Fidel Castro), I am even more amazed at the near complete absence of dismal shanties in Cuba.
When we drove in '00 from Havana to Santiago, criss-crossing the island on the way, the thickets of edificios (institutional apartment buildings) offended us (even after we toured one and found it OK inside), but we didn't expect to see shanties and we saw none. So when, back in America, we read claims by "licensed" (thus publishable) travelers that Cubans live in shanties and even saw, showcased and thus endorsed on network TV, an "exile's" home video of a visit to the shanty of a weeping, ostentatiously ragged Cuban, we knew these reports were blatantly misleading, because we knew we weren't that blind, but to check our own sanity we asked everyone we knew who had really spent time in Cuba and they all corroborated our experience.
So, in '01, we (meaning I and a different companion, a thoroughly bilingual Mexican American) made it our main mission to find a Cuban shanty and, if it existed, an explanation for it. We found several, along with their explanations, and I've found several more since then, in '02 and '04, along with most of their explanations (but please notice that "several," in spite of it's seven letters, is a very small word), and I know absolutely that shanties in Cuba are not only rare, unlike in the rest of free-enterprise, democratic Latin America, they are definitely not systemic.
Because a teacher who worked with me building schools in Nicaragua told me she'd taken a ferry across the Havana bay to a shanty town, I've hiked both Regla and Casablanca and found no such thing in either place, though in '01, we talked to people from other parts of the city newly occupying new homes in Regla that must have replaced some kind of previous structures.
The dissident building guard featured in interview number 2 in "Cubans Choose Socialism" (see index) insisted her neighborhood, Diez de Octubre, was horrible and we (and I again in '04) walked all over it and saw no dirt floors. In fact, in spite of a lot of rubble and decay, architecture there is largely like a neglected and maybe originally cheaper, downsized version of Vedado. The guard couldn't claim to have seen anything like what we were looking for. She thought it was bad enough that her grandfather's roof leaked.
Pushed to the wall, she told us not to look in San Miguel de Padrone. She claimed it would be dangerous for us to go there. But, though she didn't know, she had been told, etc. So, unable to find either a bus or a taxi to bring us back from a visit to Santa Maria del Rosario, we hitched a ride with some young guys in a 50's "maquina" who knew what she was talking about and took us there.
It was actually on a slope just south of San Miguel Padrone and it definitely wasn't systemic or even legal. But there was/is a small cluster there of actual, hand-made, Nicaraguan style shanties. It was visible from the main street passing below, but we couldn't have found it without help, and tourists led there by jineteros past miles of solid homes have to be really willingly stupid to accept the proposition (followed by a request for a donation) that this is how poor Cubans live. I've since learned (or heard anyway) that there is another such settlement in Marianao, a larger one somewhere along the Rio Almendares, and maybe some others scattered around greater Havana. In his excellent 2001 city guide, Havana At Your Door, Mark Cramer says there are several pocket Palestines in south Cerro, and I trust him, but they must be truly pocket sized because I've walked that area street by street and didn't see them. I did see a lot of new houses there, though, so maybe what he saw had been replaced.
The cluster we saw wasn't large, and we pretty well covered it. We walked from shanty to shanty looking for dirt floors. Most had concrete. We located 5 or 6 without floors along our path. Path is the right word. Since it was an illegal settlement, there was no street. They had no water and electricity was stolen. Some claimed they'd been there for years, and it would make historical sense if they'd come during the depth of the depression. So, over time, some had accumulated concrete and others had not.
An 18-20 year old girl we met had been there only a few months. She was proud she'd built her own shanty. She seemed happy to be there. It was an adventure. She had left home to be independent, she told us, and to seek fame as a singer in Havana.
She claimed there was no work for her in Santiago, which we didn't believe. The principal fuel of a budding communist state has to be participation and there's a ton of work to do. But, also, her parents didn't like her boyfriends. She was pretty, healthy, well dressed and actually had a pocket full of money she'd brought with her.
Her shack had rubberized plastic car mats all over the floor covering the dirt. Her roof was so low, we couldn't stand up. She had 3 rooms in enough space for one. Her only furniture was a wooden platform she used as a bed. She said she was supporting herself by buying and selling things in the street.
The man of another shanty claimed to have been there for ten years, obviously since the depression. His family of four were also clean, healthy, and well dressed. Nobody looked like a beggar. His excuse for not having a floor was the cost of a bag of cement. But if they'd been there 10 years, that didn't make sense. They were among the closest houses to the street, though, ideally situated as a model home for dumb tourists who want to see poverty but are too fastidious to venture any further into the settlement, an advantage worth more than a floor.
This place isn't hidden from the government. A cop walked by while we were there. But during the depression such places had to be accepted, accepting this one must have become a habit, and bureaucratic prejudice against refuseniks may delay any decision to condemn the place and replace it with a new tract or edificio. These people obviously present a serious logistics problem for organizers, who, to keep their cooperative socialist state working efficiently, have to get the people and the jobs together. This is already complicated by allowing people to pick their own occupations, which leads to wasted surplus labor while people wait for jobs to open where they are. That many are willing to take different jobs or go where their skills are needed helps. The shanty builders we met, by squatting in Havana where they aren't and won't be needed, both fail to contribute to the resource base and drain unearned resources from it. Everyone we talked to there admitted they had left good houses in the east to come to the city and hustle.
Other Cubans call these people gitanos (gypsies) or flotantes (floaters). In another chapter, I'll deal with them and the unknown number of "flotantes" who live not on the streets but as eternal visiting relatives or in dens they've created in the rabbit warren of the ancient city. But their homes, for this chapter's purposes, aren't really relevant, except because there are so few of them. They're a totally unnecessary aberration, and they're not systemic. The Latin American shanty, "casucha" in Spanish, is not a typical Cuban house style.
Starting with the 1959 razing of shanty towns, Cuba's housing project has moved relentlessly forward, and the evidence in 2004, what I saw and what I was told, is that more new homes were being built in Cuba than ever before. People like Eugenio and a Mexican reporter who lives in Casablanca when he's in Cuba, who told me he thinks the revolution is booming, have a lot of confidence, because this IS a government whose primary mission is not to facilitate business but to make everyone's lives better, and I don't think all of the leaders have forgotten that yet.
But I think too much money is being reinvested and over-invested in tourist sector construction which should be used to build a lot MORE houses. I think the renovation of Old Havana, for instance, and all the hasty looking glitter rearing up along the waterfront between La Rampa and the Rio Almendares is ill-conceived and ahead of the need. Tourism isn't a sure thing. Its growth can stop suddenly, and in spite of happy reports in Granma, most Cubans I talked to in 2004 thought it had already stopped. Some Cubans go so far as to suspect Granma's eternal happiness about tourism of being at least partially just expedient propaganda. Of course the end of the embargo could change that.
Meanwhile, the most serious cause of unhappiness I've encountered in any and all of my 5 very deep visits to Cuba is the continued inequality of housing and inability to repair houses. Whenever I run up my idea that they should suspend work on Old Havana one month out of every six and use the money to build and improve houses, everybody cheers.
I think the house - a good house for every family - is the most important building block of a communist revolution. If I live in a good house, even if I'm hungry, I won't feel hopeless. But even if I'm well fed in a bad house, I'm going to feel hopelessly unhappy. I'd like to see all the substandard houses AND edificios AND mansions in Cuba razed and every Cuban bachelor and couple and family living in a beautiful, practical, modern, comfortable, solid casita, with a patio and a garden in back, very much like in the farming community near Pinar del Rio. I think anyone who doesn't want exactly that needs to re-examine his revolutionary integrity. In fact, every time I run that idea up, everybody cheers.
"All equal," people invariably and enthusiastically amen.
"Including for the president and the council of state," I always drive my point home, and nobody has looked nervous or accused me of subversion yet.
Anyway, every time I see a large percentage of a Cuban community living in good houses, I feel good about the revolution, while every time I see a large or even substantial portion of a Cuban community, or even a few Cubans, living in worn-out, tilting, paintless, inadequate houses or in ugly edificios, or in the dark old graveyard of Centro Habana, I feel bad about the revolution.
Besides building houses though, they need to teach people to live in them. I think the ability of the people south of San Miguel Padrone to willingly live in the dirt is more remarkable than their shanties.
Two years after Eugenio showed me the new condos in northwest Cienfuegos, I went by them again and found that one family had lushly landscaped their small yard and, inside too, the place was neat, personalized, and as comfortably furnished as the family could manage. Some other units were being kept up at least, but most looked neglected; they were already starting to look old, and one was only being occupied, people living like bears in an extravagant cave. In Havana, I've seen subdivided parts of old Vedado mansions, or even entire mansions turned into pigpens on weedlots by residents who must have brought their deeply ingrained lifestyle with them from their former shanties.
Anyone with enough taste to know what I'm talking about, who goes to a lot of garage and estate sales, knows this isn't a matter of money, and it's not a matter of cultural integrity or personal freedom either. It crosses that line. Due either to a bureaucratic failure or a vacuole in the educational system, some people need guidance to make the most of a good home.
That's not the norm. Many formerly house-poor Cubans live very gracefully in relative mansions they won by being good workers or fell into as people were redistributed. And those worthy, lucky ones might not appreciate my dream of universally equal casitas. But when people ask me about poverty, about classes in Cuba, I have to say there's house poverty and house wealth, and there are, therefore, house classes.
The best or, rather, most luxurious homes in Cuba (like the worst, most appalling) are inherited from the past when the benefits of the island's resources were concentrated in fewer hands and could be more lavishly used. Ideally, such places shouldn't be part of revolutionary Cuba, but they are and, because they are the places most likely to rent rooms, I have, with mixed feelings, enjoyed a number of them.
I once stayed two nights in a Vedado palace, the home of a lawyer and his only slightly extended family, so spacious, many-roomed, and large-veranda'd, with the ambience almost of a museum, that it almost upset me. And in Gibara, I stayed in a colonial mansion so long that, standing at the high and wide front doors looking back through the sala, the patio, the dining room with three tables in a row to accommodate three sets of guests at once, and into another large room past that, and then, more dimly, into the kitchen (bed and bath combinations being strung out beside the grand paseo) I had the sensation of looking forever through a series of reflections of reflected mirrors.
There are a flock of houses like that in Gibara. Some have been turned into museums, clinics, schools, the library, and government departments. But the rest are still the homes of a lucky few. Most Gibarans live in very nice houses, picturesque, often with verdant and shady yards, little only by comparison to the now inappropriate downtown mansions. But many others live in well spaced out, generously landscaped, but still stark edificios, and the triple contrast, though a matter of history not systemic privilege, annoys me.
But I'm hypocritical enough to appreciate the beauty and ambience of Cuba's grand old houses, including the tall wooden relics, no longer so swell, in Gibara, Baracoa, and everywhere, but especially Banes, which have beautiful tile floors and often extravagant furniture and volumes of space and the freshest interior air. The center of Banes is filled with such homes, and their nearly done-for frames and paint-starved walls tilt so crazily on the verge of collapse that, looking in doorways at the beautiful interiors, I doubted my eyes. I stayed in an old wooden house there, though, that had been kept in perfect shape, the owner said, principally by conscientiously keeping it painted.
I also effectively zigzagged through a lot of newer, solider Banes neighborhoods following the bicycle of a well mannered jinetero who'd spotted me looking for a peso hotel with an exotic name mentioned by Lonely Planet, the possible current existence of which, as a kind of on/off flop house, has become ambiguous. The kid led me to 5 or 6 licensed casas, all full because tourists of a kind the government didn't anticipate are shunning the ridiculously extravagant new Guardalavaca hotels and looking for cheaper, homier rooms in Banes.
In fact, we'd just about reached the old downtown before the kid on the bike found me a room in the old wooden house that was surviving the tropics in perfect shape because it had always been cared for. It was a lot like my 50-year-old memories of my grandparents' house in the San Joaquin Valley, and had a touch of the Winchester House, too. The old couple there, who didn't really want to rent the room that night but relented because they had several times rented it to a guy from Canada also named Glen Roberts, had whimsically added a second country kitchen behind an already large kitchen, and my room, having once been something else, had enough sealed doors to suit Poe and a bathroom as big as a small bedroom. The garage was a tunnel, a two-+-car garage by virtue of length rather than width.
My interest in architecture tends to be literary, and my preference for one house in Cienfuegos over all the houses I've known anywhere is based very much on its resemblance to my imaginary versions of the guest houses in Somerset Maugham's planter stories.
It may be the smallest house on Fat Point, being only one story, with a small front yard facing the western bay across the point's only street and a veranda not quite as wide as its narrow lot between the sprawling Victorians on both sides. Inside the big front doors, an ample hallway leads past two spacious guest rooms on one side (i.e. rooms rented to tourists) and a club-sized parlor on the other, all under open beams so high (well above the tops of the inner walls even) that the owner, a revolutionary hero and one of my best friends in Cuba, was about to install a ceiling when regular guests there at the time begged her not to.
Then the hall goes outside and becomes a wide walkway with outdoor chairs dividing an ell with two more bedrooms and a big, two-room kitchen from a patio garden lush with banana plants, fruit trees, and flowers, and finally goes out a rear gate to a brick-floored deck on the edge of the eastern bay on the other side of the point, where, in June, leafy vine umbrellas were starting to grow over two round tables.
Though I've demonstrated how to make pasta in the kitchen and enjoyed its primitively grand ambience, it's the parlor that I feel perhaps too much at home in. There's room near the patio windows for two small tables to accommodate two sets of guests without crowding the family's (the owner and a house keeper/handyman couple's) rocking chair cluster in front of the TV, plus more for pacing about late at night, wine glass in hand (the wine home-made in an edificio apartment by the housekeeper's sister's neighbor), while my hostess tells me about the battle of Cienfuegos and afterwards in the mountains or we argue about what communism should be.
The bases of two odd Greek columns that divide the coordinated brick and plaster wall decor of the sala from the dining area's casual walls sporting whimsically selected posters also provide brief counter tops where transient things like a half bottle of rum may sit as if posing for a still life. On the guestroom walls there are pin-up posters of the kind you saw in working garages and gas stations in America in the 40's.
I prefer the front guestroom, though it is too big for one person, because it has a hanging overhead fan, but the owner insists I take the second room with its big patio windows because, having installed air conditioning, she thinks it is the best. I'd give a lot to have been there at the right time to talk her out of that.
In '00, we stayed for 5 nights with a retired schoolteacher in the Santa Barbara neighborhood of Santiago who had earned the right (by being a good worker) to "buy" his 50's ranch-style home, just about like the best of the type in California. It surrounds a patio with vines growing so thick on a crossed string ceiling they look dangerously like a solid yard from the flat roof top, where there is enough space for two penthouse cottages he has built to rent to tourists. My companion and I rented both of them and each had a kitchen and a sitting room for visiting back and forth.
I never liked 50's styles, so I didn't envy that family, but it's hard to believe families living in the colonial row houses along the narrow streets of old Santiago by the bay don't. Revolutionary hero Frank Pais's home, now a museum, is pretty but tight. Some of the downtown houses are more extravagant than they look from outside, though. We stayed in one in '01 that, in spite of its forbidding little door on a dark and narrow street, surrounded a two-story patio, with plenty of space for us and the family and a large top floor country kitchen and dining room crossing the interior behind the patio well.
Maybe the nicest house I know well in Baracoa was awarded to an obrero for his work record, but preferring his small old house, he gave it to his daughter. It's actually a top-floor flat with a building-wide veranda in front, a rare second floor extravagance that makes it easy to find. One of the two large guest rooms is virtually joined to the veranda by an enormous step-through window, while the entire center, front to back, also part of the veranda, is a beautiful, open living room, dining room, and kitchen with sinks, stove, and cabinets running under a wide row of rear windows. The family's bedrooms are on the other side, and the only drawback to this designer home, besides a shared bathroom off the kitchen, is that guests in the big front guest room have to close enormous wooden shutters for privacy. If I lived there alone, I wouldn't have to, but if it was in California, I'd be paying $2000 a month for it, instead of $10 a night.
There are a lot of nice homes in Baracoa. I've stayed in four and explored several while looking for a room. But I've never actually seen the rooms of the rambling colonial house that surrounds the already very large porch and patio restaurant (or paladar) called El Colonial, though I usually eat there. But with it's huge street level veranda and enough bathrooms to give two to the restaurant, it's obviously in a completely different category from the row of motel-room sized stalls subdivided into kitchens, baths, and bedrooms at the foot of the steep main street from the airport that starts climbing right there past the welcome-to-Baracoa mural painted by an artist friend who lives in one of the stalls. His bathroom is an enclosed platform, and when it's really hot, he lives in a chair on the street in front of his door. Of course, he's on the list and often talks about his future house with a garden in back. He's never told me though that he wishes he lived in an edificio.
Whether or not conflicting tastes can be equally valid, some people have bad taste and the bureaucrats running things aren't bound to have any. I once knew a Russian militant with contempt for parks, which she thought should all be converted to rice and bean fields. It must have been Russians like her that got Cuba to stow so many people in edificios.
An edificio is an institutional apartment building. Most Europeans live in them. I took a picture of a red brick graveyard (a real graveyard) in Valencia, Spain, where the bodies were stacked inside multi-drawered brick cubes surrounded by littered concrete, and I don't know if the drawers had carpets, air conditioning, microwaves, and TV, but it looked exactly like a miniature of most of Valencia or Pamplona or Salamanca, though postcard makers still write those romantic names in bright script on pictures of tiny historic enclaves you need a guide to find in the vast cemeteries of redundant brick walls that are the real contemporary Spain.
Up-to-date American planners who have always preferred the euphemism "development" to "destruction," and who now use "sustainable" as cunningly as adolescents use "fucking," are also learning to unctuously pronounce the phrase "high density housing," which means a lot of money is going to be made turning places like Santa Barbara into fucking Valencias, which is why no Cuba critic ever calls Cuba's edificios a human rights abuse.
But they are. Newer ones, including some near skyscrapers in Cienfuegos, Santiago, and Holguin, look a lot classier, but most of them, all the earliest ones, are grotesque concrete slabs, like gigantic tombstones tackily adorned with balconies. Ambientally, a typical thicket of edificios in Diez de Octubre equals Centro Habana for sheer dreariness. Even the well scattered edificios of Nueva Gerona, cleverly painted to mask their ugliness, are ugly. And, even with all the mansions and shanties gone, the edificios would still be counter revolutionary, because a family warehoused in an edificio isn't equal to a family living in a house. And if I'd been in Cuba in 1959 and had Fidel's ear, I'd have shouted in that ear, "Don't build a single edificio! Not one!"
Edificios in America and Europe and everywhere have one purpose: to neutralize and warehouse excess people. They are a mute admission, taboo to utter, that there are too many people, a cowardly cop-out that helps save the world's almost always wrong leaders from facing their religiously and politically incorrect, desperately suppressed obligation to START drastically reducing the size of the human race and restoring life to the planet.
Capitalism insists on growth. In Cuba, there is no excuse. But while 100 people crowd every square mile of America, there were 125 per square mile in Cuba in 1959 and there are almost 235 now, only 1/3 of the 750 per square mile that have smothered Haiti to death, but two, three, four, five times too many for an island of limited resources blessed with a system that doesn't require growth. In fact, if the 1959 population of 6 million had never grown at all, given the organizational potential of communism and the clearly benign intent of Cuba's leaders, by now, all of Cuba could have been as well housed as that farm community west of Pinar del Rio.
Cubans living in edificios aren't as unhappy with them as I am. They have everything, after all, usually. Some I've been in are inexcusably primitive. But most apartments are modern enough apartments, if their inhabitants make an effort. Touring one in Cienfurgos in '00, we saw identical, across-the-hall, two bedroom apartments, one a cave because the owner was a slob, the other as nice as any $1000 a month apartment in California.
The housewife there told me that, long after the revolution, she'd still lived in a shack and carried water from a stream in a bucket. After 20 years, she owned her modern apartment with its balcony she'd turned into a lanai, with every service imaginable within walking distance, and she considered it perfect.
Two chicas I gave a ride home to Moa from Baracoa, where they'd been living it up, were glad to get back to what they considered their much homier home town, an edificio thicket by a smoky nickel factory which I consider possibly the ugliest town in Cuba. But everybody I've talked to in Moa claims everybody in Moa is a militant revolutionary because they all used to live in cardboard shanties and their edificio apartments are perfect. The roofs don't leak and "they have everything."
Not everybody in Centro Habana is that happy, though if Arthur Miller had been able to speak Spanish and hadn't been led from dissident to dissident by a reverse minder, he might have been amazed. There are a lot of happy people in Centro and there are even some nice apartments. But the streets ARE ugly, it's not a good ambience for kids, every family can't have a garden as every family should in a communist state, a 7.0 earthquake would reduce the whole place to knee-high rubble, and there are a lot of unacceptable homes there.
I've been in several holes in the ancient walls. One is the home of a woman with two kids, who works, saves her pesos, gets a few tips, gets some help from her ex, has friends who know the black market, and has been trying to make her hole in the wall better on her own. She used to live in something better, but when she split with her husband, she moved in with her mother in an unrestored corner of Habana Vieja. Then they walled off one end of the ground floor home, giving her and her daughters a private 18 1/2 square meters (she says; I doubt it). That's about 181 square feet.
Since the ceiling of her slightly windowed cave was very high, just before I first saw it she had installed a wooden platform, supported I don't know how, which became the upstairs bedroom, which shares a window with the kitchen under it, and which, not subtracting the hole for the ladder, supposedly doubled the space to 37 square meters or 362 square feet (she says). The downstairs ceiling is still high enough, and the small kitchen and bathroom work, though cooking smoke and fumes get around and the bathroom door has to be kept open.
She'd done much of the work herself. Friends and family helped her. Some albaniles had to be paid. They got materials somehow. I don't know about permits. Her theory about the government is that there are 31 too many members of the council of state. One man like Fidel can think clearly and make good, coherent decisions, she thinks. Thirty two pull in different directions and, even if they have a coherent point, by the time it filters down through all the levels of bureaucracy to her level, it is lost in confusion, which translates into oppressive bureaucracy.
The last time I was there, a staircase had just gone in and the bottom of the platform had been sealed and plastered to make a ceiling and it was obvious her idea of putting the table under the stairs wasn't going to work, so there'd be no room for the sofa she wanted. Still, it was starting to look like a real home, a bit tight, but her oldest daughter might marry soon, and if and when the restoration of the tourist zone reaches and transforms the dreary street outside, "tight" may magically become "quaint" and "cozy."
She'd just been notified it was all substandard (I didn't say so, but I agreed with the inspector) and she had a big fine to pay. She refused my help, but when the dinner we had the day before I flew to Caracas in La Terraza in Cojimar cost more than the fine, she may have looked a little ruefully at the check.
We got to Cojimar by ferry to Casablanca (a peso each), and by local bus to the highway above (20 centavos each), and were trying to hitchhike when I flagged a taxi instead, which almost had a wreck stopping. After lunch, we sat on the seawall platonically spooning for awhile, watching kids playing around the rocky edge of the bay, and then came all the way back to Havana in a full people's cab, a 50's maquina, which she snuck me the pesos to pay for and told me to be quiet.
She made a point of finding me a cab on El Prado to Vedado and I watched her in the mirror watching me disappear from her world. If her ex won't help, she'll somehow pay the fine, and I don't think they'll make her tear everything out.