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Gentrification: another face of Cuba's socialist equality

Differences in access to economic resources have begun to transform the appearance of some neighborhoods.

La Habana

If there is one issue the Cuban Government has failed to resolve in over 50 years it is, undoubtedly, that of residential spaces. Cuba's "housing problems," as Government officials refer to them, cut across all the Island's socio-cultural strata.

Overcrowding, as notes psychologist Yanet Cruz Hoyos, "besides being a factor associated with domestic violence, is identified by most Cuban families as one of the main problems that affect their daily lives," as "many people are forced to share small physical spaces."

The rhetoric of social equity, upheld by the sole party and promoted by its ideological affiliates, has never squared with the economic reality of everyday Cubans. And the "housing problem" manifests more clearly that the reform of laws allowing the sale of houses and apartments has not yielded equal opportunities to acquire decent living spaces.

According to the figures in the 2014 Statistical Yearbook, in its chapter on construction and investments, completed homes in Havana during that period came to a total of 4,090, of which 3,096 were built by the State sector. But the data did not specify for whom, for what purposes, and where these "finished homes" are located.

The writer Arsenio Castillo Martiatu notes that Havana has become "the capital of gentrification" (a process of neighborhood transformation that involves the implementation of new social and economic applications and the displacement of traditional residents, who cannot afford the rising housing costs. These areas become homogeneous in terms of their social composition, populated by more affluent people).

It is no secret that for most Cubans, "if it was previously impossible to legally sell your home, it is now almost impossible to legally buy a property. At current prices – tens of thousands of CUC for an apartment or house – the possibility is nil. There are no saving mechanisms, no loans of this magnitude, or wages making it possible. Neighborhoods undergoing gentrification are usually located near the center of the city, including the coveted Vedado, where owning a good house or apartment means one must have the opportunity to run a rental business, or a restaurant or bar," says Castillo Martiatu.

The introduction of the "new economic model," designed with more with a view to political power than promoting the entrepreneurial spirit of citizens, has been a failure in its empowerment of civil society. The ownership rates for Cubans, both on the Island and those in exile, are low.

"The flourishing of the construction of homes through one's own efforts is proportional to the growth of social inequality," says Euripides Barrientos, an architect and the founder of Contingente Blas Roca. The same applies to the sale of properties.

Gentrification or recolonization?

"We do not sell ideas, we make them reality." This is the slogan of a private construction sector group in charge of remodeling, among others, the local Bar 911 (in 27 corner 4) and Piano Bar H and 23, both in Vedado.

One of its masons, Leonel G. Rodriguez, explained that the group also offers interior design services. "We focus on creating residences reflecting the current trends of minimalism and brutalism," he says.

"It's almost impossible for an everyday Cuban to afford our services, due to the high cost of investment in quality materials and work. Both the houses and business locales that we have designed or remodeled are for people with affluent relatives living abroad, or foreigners who come to invest in Cuba and acquire these properties through Cuban owners."

Although the Government has not yet implemented a law allowing foreigners to buy property directly, both residential and business, foreign capital is being invested through Cuban owners living on the Island.

"Gentrification in Cuba began long before the current reform measures undertaken by the national institutes of Physical Planning and Housing," says Iznaga, an economist and ex-manager of the Caracol chain.

"This reform also served to justify what was already obvious: a country that was being bought up, piece by piece, by private foreign investors and the Government's military elite," he says.

"One example of the people who will have the opportunity to empower themselves is the GAESA's ‘coup’ against the Havana Historian's Office. Cubans who, thanks to their own efforts, manage to acquire luxurious properties or businesses are few, and the important thing is to ask how they acquired the capital, because gentrification in Cuba is also the result of a third factor: internal corruption."

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