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Gentrification in Havana: The military employs forced 'relocations'

Housing officials inform a group of Havanans that their building has been bought to open a hotel, and that they will be evicted shortly.

La Habana

They were told that the building had been sold and that they would have to move out because it was to be turned into a hotel. In the summer this was the news issued by Municipal Housing Directorate officials to dozens of residents of one of the buildings next to the downtown Payret Cinema in Old Havana.

The neoclassical building houses families that, generation after generation, have forged lives there. However, "they did not previously notify anyone that they would be moving us, nor did they consult with the residents," says G, an owner who - like almost all the interviewees - asked not to be identified.

She fears that talking to the independent press would affect her forced move; that is, that they might "send me to a house in bad shape, or far away." Her latter fear, at least, has already materialized, despite G's anonymity.

Mario, who is studying Geriatrics and is the nephew of another tenant, explains that "the housing options are in San Agustín and El Cotorro. The houses seem to be in good condition, according to what they have said."

However, he fears for the health of his aunt, whom he cares for due to her advanced age: "When the elderly are moved from the place where they have spent most of their adult lives, they can experience episodes of depression."

The case of AG, although younger, is somewhat similar. He knows that he will miss his friends from the neighborhood, and will be far from the places where he lived his life, and where he has been happy, and sad. Changes always break emotional ties, but when they are compulsory, lives are shaken up in a violent way.

Part of a larger plan

"I don't want to leave," B blurts out, as she approaches a window overlooking the street. From there one can see the National Capitol, the center of republican power until 1959, now remodeled in order to house the National Assembly of Popular Power.

"Don't you think that, just for its location, this apartment just might be worth four times what they are going to give us outside of Havana?" she asks in a sardonic tone. "But I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse."

Precisely what makes B's home value is its location in the capital, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 80s.

Faced with the difficulty of remodeling or acquiring buildings in the Historic District to be used as hotels, the blocks around the Parque Central represent new opportunities.

Now this area, which attracts millions of tourists annually, is in the crosshairs of the military conglomerate GAESA. A few years ago it absorbed the shops and hotels of the civil company Habaguanex, and is now opting for forced removals to expand its accommodation capacity.

Almest, GAESA's construction company, has several contracts in the historic area to build luxury hotels that, in many cases, will be run, totally or partially by Gaviota, the military's tourism company. It seems that it is now the Payret block's turn.

In addition to ending up in less valuable houses, the current inhabitants will not even be compensated, while GAESA will benefit from their relocations.

According to official figures there are 12,488 hotel rooms in the capital, but only 2,615 are five stars. In December of 2018, during an appearance on the TV show Mesa Redonda, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero stressed plans to build more hotels in this category in Havana.

Cities whose economies revolve around tourism have seen the charm of entire neighborhoods succumb to plans like this. The area known as the Ciudad Amurallada, or the Walled City, in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, preserved its architectural heritage, but at the cost of removing its poorest inhabitants. It is full of hostels, bars and shops, but lost its authenticity, the soul of its people.

"There is no Rule of Law"

The state portalCubadebaterecently announced that the destiny of the Payret Cinema would be decided by the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR). But B says that at the meetings held with residents of the block the idea of turning it into a theater was discussed.

MINTUR's General Director of Development,José Reinaldo Daniel, said that the investment project related to the Payret Cinema is still in the study phase and "will undergo all the necessary verifications necessary for its approval".

However, the requisite "verifications" for the construction of the Pasaje and Payret hotels, right on the corner, across from the Tribunal Popular de Havana (TPH), have, apparently, already been completed, as announced by signs posted on metal fences.

"We are quite close to the TPH, but it is as if we were miles away," says B. "It is true that the building on the corner collapsed, but they're not going to repair the housing those families had there. Instead, they're going to build something for tourists. And here, in my building, nobody was asked whether they wanted to leave. There is no Rule of Law, or anything about what the new Constitution says."

"They even told us the type of housing they will offer us: duplexes, built by the military," she added. “It is going to be the Ministry of the Interior that will be responsible for the moves, at no cost."

B works very close to the building. She believes that, given the difficulties posed by public transport, it will not be long before she has to quit. "We have already had seven meetings, up until December (2018), about the move, but they always postpone it."

Some tenants have lodged complaints with the representative of the Popular Power in the area, but thus far they have received no response other than confirmation that the moves will happen.

According to José Reinaldo Daniel, the MINTUR development plan includes 136 projects in Havana through 2030. The buildings of B, G, and Mario's grandmother, are just small drops compared to the deluge about to fall.

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