A socialist vision fades in Cuba's biggest housing project
Inequality is growing in Cuba, threatening the legacy of Castro's revolution
Story by Nick Miroff
Published on December 29, 2015
HAVANA — In the Alamar neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, the
streets don't have names. To find an address, you need to know the zone,
the block number and the apartment, because all the buildings look the
same. Long and rectangular, five stories tall, their facades have been
stripped by the ocean air and re-pigmented in curlicue patterns of mildew.
Alamar is the largest public housing project in Cuba, if not one of the
largest in the world, with 100,000 residents. In a country sworn to
socialist equality, it is arguably Cuba's most equal place, because
everyone pretty much has an identical apartment.
Above: Horses feed near the Alamar coastline; the city's signature
buildings can be seen in the distance. (Photo by Lisette Poole for The
"It was a model city," said Román Pérez, 76, a retired bus driver who
lives in Zone 8, block D52, apartment 21. He helped build D52 and two
others with his own hands, as a member of a communist worker
"micro-brigade." This was Fidel Castro's idea.
"We had everything then," Pérez said. "Everyone looked after each other."
That was 40 years ago. Today, with U.S.-Cuban relations on the mend,
this island has come to the edge of a new post-Castro era. The country's
ideological foundations are cracking, and new uncertainties are coming —
perhaps none larger than whether the egalitarian values of Castro's
revolution will be swept away by rising inequalities and the breakdown
of Cuba's socialist welfare state.
Communist Party elders want to keep a lid on market forces, but with
every incremental opening, yawning income gaps emerge. The owner of a
small private restaurant can earn hundreds of dollars a day, or more, in
a country where three-quarters of the labor force works for the state
and the average government salary is $20 a month. Tour guides and hotel
chambermaids make more than scientists and doctors.
Younger Cubans do not seem too troubled. But these disparities,
authorities fear, bear the seeds of social tensions, resentments and crime.
"Men Die, But the Party Is Immortal," says a billboard in Alamar, trying
to reassure residents who may wonder what will happen after Fidel, 89,
and current President Raúl Castro, 84, are no longer around.
Cuba remains a society of unusual social and economic parity in Latin
America, a region beset by deep class divisions and the world's worst
homicide rates. A fraying system of cradle-to-grave benefits keeps
Cubans living in a kind of state-administered, socialized poverty,
earning high scores on U.N. human development surveys but little for
On the surface, Alamar looks like the kind of peripheral urban slum that
a visitor would not dare enter in Sao Paulo or Bogota or Mexico City.
Yet it is a place with no gangs, and essentially no guns or drugs, where
neighbors know each other and parents send children out to play in the
cracked stairwells and weedy lots. Social and economic equality — and
political conformity — have been reinforced by the monotony of the
Old-timers such as Román Pérez say they would not want to live
elsewhere. But most of the other members of Pérez's micro-brigade have
died or moved away. Their children are impatient to get out of Alamar,
to somewhere better.
They see Cuba's model city, and the country's revolution, as running on
'City of the future'
Before it was a neighborhood, Alamar was an argument.
In capitalist countries, governments built housing projects that gave
shelter to the poor but failed to fix the root causes of poverty and
marginalization. Fidel Castro's proletarian city would be different. It
would endow residents with a sense of ownership and belonging by
enlisting them in the construction of their own homes.
The idea came at a low point for Castro. In 1970, he had mobilized the
entire island in a drive to achieve a sugar harvest of 10 million tons.
Students, factory workers and nearly all other able-bodied males were
sent out into the sweltering cane fields with machetes.
The whole thing was a disaster. The sugar harvest fell short, shredding
Castro's veneer of invincibility.
The Cuban leader pivoted to a new fixation: Havana's housing shortage,
the product of a 1960s baby boom and the mass migration of Cubans from
poor rural areas to the capital.
There were few undeveloped spaces big enough for his ambitions. But the
completion of a road tunnel under the Bay of Havana in 1958 had opened
up the city's eastern coastline to developers. Their blueprints had
contemplated an American-style suburb. The rebels' takeover a year later
iced those plans.
"We were living in a one-room apartment," said Luis Castillo, who had
migrated to Havana from Santiago in eastern Cuba. He came to Alamar in
1979 on the promise that his family would receive an apartment in
exchange for his labor as a mason.
"We slept out in the open, in the foundation of the building," said
Castillo, 88, who still lives in the apartment he helped build. "We even
worked on Sundays."
Castro visited Alamar often in those years, dropping by to inspect
progress and show off the project to visiting foreign dignitaries. State
television reports hailed the rise of Cuba's "city of the future."
In an era of right-wing military rule in Latin America, at least one
apartment in every building was reserved for foreign revolutionaries and
activists who might need a refuge.
Alamar today is becoming a different sort of refuge, a destination for
rural migrants from Cuba's interior who can't afford to live anywhere
else in Havana. Four years after Raúl Castro allowed Cubans to begin
buying and selling property, Alamar apartments list for $5,000 to
$10,000, a tenth of what they would be worth in parts of the city that
[$75,000 will get you a lot of house in Havana — if you're Cuban]
Like the great sugar harvest, Alamar's grand ambitions fell short.
Building materials and budgets were diverted to meet construction quotas
for residential units, leaving little or nothing for parks, recreation
areas and stores, let alone upkeep of the buildings.
The neighborhood's 25 "zones" are laid out in no particular order, and
the apartment blocks too were positioned in haphazard fashion. Open
areas between buildings have since been filled in by weeds and debris.
The disarray is compounded by the lack of a downtown or central plaza.
One part of Alamar is so remote it's known as "Siberia."
"Alamar became the reference point for what happens when you remove the
concept of architecture from the construction process," said Miguel
Coyula, a Havana architect who is an authority on the city's history.
Such criticisms sting for Humberto Ramírez, who was assigned to Alamar
in 1972 as a young architect. He eventually became the project's top
technical engineer. Despite the inexpert labor force, he said, most of
the buildings remain solid. The Alamar buildings did fail as an example
of urban planning, Ramírez acknowledges.
"But they achieved their goal," he said. "They provided housing. And
they created a place of equality for the socialist society we were
Hard times set in
When Olga Mederos moved to Alamar in 1986, there were strict rules. No
pets. No exterior alterations. No religious believers. She tried to put
some potted plants on her balcony and got a reprimand.
"Alamar wasn't so run-down then," said Mederos, 55, who lives in Zone 8,
D54, with her adult son. "People followed the rules. They took better
care of the common areas. On weekends, everyone would volunteer to pick
up trash and sweep the stairwells."
Alamar was then like a gated community, except that the homeowners
association was the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR),
the Communist Party watch group found in every neighborhood on the
island. It enforced the residential rules and the political ones, too.
It aimed to create a community of model workers, devoted revolutionaries
and altruistic neighbors.
It worked, in a sense, for a while.
Cuba was more prosperous then, floating on generous Soviet subsidies.
Bus service to the rest of Havana was plentiful. So were the food
rations at government bodegas.
When the Soviet Union folded, Cuba fell on hard times, but Alamar fell
harder. The power blackouts were constant. Gasoline shortages meant
six-hour lines at the bus stop. Mederos remembers taking her children to
the rocky shoreline to cool off and watching neighbors push off on
makeshift rafts bound for Florida.
The apartment blocks of Alamar still have CDR watch groups, but
neighbors rarely volunteer anymore to pick up trash or work on Sundays.
After 25 years of economic austerity, a collective exhaustion has set
in, the toll of steady emigration, corruption large and small, and the
knowledge, from the impossible-to-filter influences of globalization,
that Cubans live better in almost any other country than their own.
Mederos came from a family of committed revolutionaries and had moved
her parents into the building adjacent to hers. Her father, Aldo, 82,
was a photographer for the Communist Party newspaper, Granma, and what
was then the Ministry of Communications.
He was the first Cuban to print the grisly photos confirming the death
of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. "The
photos were still wet when they took them to Fidel," he said.
The egalitarian ideals of that era are lost today on Aldo's grandson,
Alejandro, 28. He has an American flag in his bedroom but little else.
Trained as a veterinary technician, he was laid off during Raúl Castro's
campaign to downsize the state bureaucracy. Sometimes he drives a taxi.
His mother says he is desperate to leave.
"He says to me, "I don't want to turn 50 in this country with no car and
no house of my own,' " Olga Mederos said.
Mederos's daughter, Wendy, 33, studied for a career as a social worker.
But she grew disillusioned a decade ago when Fidel Castro responded to
chronic pilfering at state gas stations by assigning young social
workers to operate them. She had not gone to university to pump diesel.
She works today in the sales department of the state telecommunications
As elsewhere in Cuba, many of those who sacrificed the most for the
Castros' revolution are today struggling to survive. Mederos's
80-year-old mother, Olga Chang, earns $2 a day selling pastry and candy
in the street. Nearly half of her $15 monthly government pension goes
back to the state for her small-business license.
Olga Chang's husband, Aldo, keeps thick manila envelopes of old photos
that tell the story of a life in the service of Cuba's socialist dream.
There is one of him and Olga on a motorcycle in the early 1960s, when
his little photography studio also afforded them a Chevrolet coupe. Aldo
has photos of a youthful Fidel Castro speaking in Moscow, Hungary,
Brazil, back when Aldo traveled the world to document El Comandante's
A few black-and-white prints show Aldo with a machete in the cane
fields. He volunteered for 12 sugar harvests.
"When I show these to my grandson, he says, 'What good did it do? Look
at you now. You've got nothing,' " Aldo said.
He shuffled the image to the bottom of the pile, looking away. "Maybe
it's true," he said. "Maybe he's right."
Source: A socialist vision fades in Cuba's biggest housing project | The
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