Sunday, February 08, 2009

Couple's home a monument to the Cuban revolution

Ray Sanchez:
Couple's home a monument to the Cuban revolution
February 8, 2009

HAVANA - For 40 years, Rodolfo Montenegro and his wife have lived in a
cramped, windowless, toiletless apartment within the magnificent granite
and marble monument to Maximo Gomez guarding the entrance to Havana Bay.

"People have taken millions of photos from these steps," Montenegro
said, standing at the base of the four-story structure. "The view is

Home to 11.3 million people, Cuba suffers from a severe housing crunch.
The state acknowledges the need for half a million additional homes.
Critics claim the need is twice that. More than 40 percent of Cubans
live in housing listed in average-to-poor condition.

Montenegro and his wife have no complaints. They believe they're the
only monument dwellers on the communist island.

Nonetheless, their home has obvious drawbacks. The old man shrieks in
pain from arthritis as he steps gingerly around the garage-sized living
space. It is divided into three small rooms and painted mint green. A
tiny bed is squeezed into a 5-foot-wide sliver that also functions as a
closet. There are framed pictures of the couple and a daughter who lived
in the monument with them before she grew up and moved to Spain.

A small refrigerator sits in one corner with a color television hoisted
on top. A wooden table holds an electric stove with two burners. The
three small appliances were gifts from former President Fidel Castro,
Montenegro said. The bathroom consists of a bucket and water pipe.

"Having no bathroom is an enormous sacrifice," he said. "You have to
climb down those stairs with the bucket. But it's very quiet here. The
air is good. There is no loud music. No arguing neighbors."

The view from his doorstep includes the opulent presidential palace of
Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who Castro overthrew in 1959, now the
Museum of the Revolution. Around the back, there is the glistening
entrance to the harbor, behind the castle of La Punta.

Montenegro said he earns 480 Cuban pesos, or about $20 a month, as
caretaker of the monument to the Dominican soldier who fought for Cuban
independence. He pays no rent, and his food is subsidized by the state.

"My job is to make sure people respect this place," he said.

Those people include groups of teenagers who play baseball in the park.
Montenegro said he keeps a cell phone inside to call for help in case of
an emergency. Mostly, he sits around and enjoys the view.

As he described his life and work, a doctor jogging in the park called
out. "How are you feeling?" the doctor asked. "Are you taking your

"I'm well," Montenegro said.

Some tourists stopped to take pictures. Others sat on the marble stairs.

Mie Sloth Carlsen, a 34-year-old visitor from Denmark, watched her two
daughters, ages 4 and 8, play at the base of the monument. She thought
Montenegro's wife, who was sitting outside the monument's wrought iron
door, was a bathroom attendant.

"It must be weird to live in a public monument," Carlsen said. "There is
no privacy in a sense, but they live there secretly because no one knows
it is home.",0,4445198.story

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