A socialist vision fades in Cuba’s biggest housing project

A socialist vision fades
in Cuba’s biggest housing project

Inequality is growing in Cuba, threatening the legacy of Castro’s revolution

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 Washington Post)

“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 Cuban wallets.

[Facing new test, Cuba’s revolution circles back]

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 architecture.

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 fumes.

A classic car drives by an Alamar building. Sisters Chaveli, right, and Yenisleidis Martinez Sarduy, standing, live in their family's apartment in Alamar, which is home to six people and two pets. The family moved to Alamar from Villa Clara province when they inherited the apartment from a family member. A mural showing Che Guevara in Alamar quotes his famous saying “Until Victory, Always.” The revolutionary hero's image is ubiquitous on the island. (Photos by Lisette Poole for The Washington Post)

‘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 attract tourists.

[$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 building.”

Children play at the Alamar apartments on a rainy weekend day. Aldo Mederos at his home in Alamar. (Photos by Lisette Poole for The Washington Post)

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 company.

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 sojourns.

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.”

Olga Mederos at the ruins of Alamar's Giant Pool. (Photo by Lisette Poole for The Washington Post)

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