“These buildings are earthquake resistant,” says the owner of an apartment for sale in a Havana neighborhood. The potential buyer listens incredulous, looking out from the balcony at other concrete blocks in the surrounding area. What was once a working-class neighborhood, where work and political “merits” were needed to get an apartment, is now becoming the scene of an emerging middle class.
Across the whole country, especially in the provincial capitals, tall buildings were erected in the decades of the seventies and eighties. Twelve stories is most common, followed by those with 18 or 14 floors, constructed from prefabricated pieces. The highest, at 26 floors, were built using the then novel approach of sliding formwork technology.
The so-called Microbrigade* Buildings, have become synonymous with the socialist architecture of Eastern Europe, transplanted to the tropics. It came to be predicted that these giants would replace Cuba’s traditional architecture, and shelter the New Man. Today, despite their exterior ugliness, many of the apartments are bought by an emerging middle class that aspires to see Cuba “from above.”
In 1979 Orestes Figueroa won a three-bedroom apartment he now wants to sell for 25,000 convertible pesos. “I won it because I had spent almost seven years working as a bricklayer and they awarded it to me based on my merits,” he says wistfully. Located near the Rancho Boyeros Avenue, the colossus in which the home is located is still maintained with a certain dignity, unlike others plagued by hydraulic problems, broken elevators and deteriorating construction.
Now retired, Figueroa has never forgotten the moment when they read out at an assembly the number of volunteer hours he had amassed to obtain that apartment. It was an afternoon of questioning glances and whispers among those vying for a roof. His Communist Party membership and participation in political activities helped him to rise on the list of those deserving an apartment. That night he couldn’t sleep he was so happy.
Those were the days when “loyalty to the process” functioned as an invisible currency with which one could acquire things ranging from appliances, to the right to a vacation in tourist facilities, to the allocation of housing. However, the happy owner had to pay 6,000 Cuban pesos for their new home: 10% of a 250 peso monthly salary for 20 years.
With the legalization of the dollar in the early nineties and the subsequent appearance of the convertible peso, a new form of “natural selection” emerged, where money regained its value for transactions. However, it was not until late 2011, when the buying and selling of homes was legalized, that thousands of apartments in proletarian neighborhoods hit the market.
The microbrigade members of yesteryear, like Figueroa, now weigh the possibility of exchanging the homes they won for the hard cash that would allow them to buy a smaller place and have something level over to supplement their very low pensions. They dream of finding some nouveau riche willing to pay cash for what was once acquired through labor and ideological efforts.
Lizbeth is part of the growing sector of Cubans with access to hard currency. She has always dreamed of living on a high floor, but does not have enough resources to buy a property in one of the buildings built “under capitalism” – i.e. before the Revolution. In a country that grows more horizontally than towards the clouds, the number of apartments in the heights is limited and there is not much to choose from. In 2014, over the whole island, just 25,037 homes were built, of which more than half were built by their residents’ own efforts.
“I didn’t want the Alamar neighborhood, east of Havana, because I don’t like the haphazard crowding of the buildings,” says Lizbeth. With family abroad and a thriving interior design business, the professional inquired in Vedado, looking at the buildings constructed by the microbrigades from the Ministry of the interior, the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television and other state entities. However, prices are higher in areas like Vedado, closest to the Malecon.
Her next choice was the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, where most of these piles that were built in Havana are concentrated. Properties built by sponsors as diverse as the Ministries of Transport, the Armed Forces, the Interior, Labor and Social Security, or Basic Industry, among others.
“This is neighborhood of bosses and Party fanatics,” says the buyer scornfully, looking at prices that start at 25,000 convertible pesos and go up from there. She finally found something in Alta Habana that fit her budget, between the Electric Company building and the National Poultry Company. Despite the prejudices against housing constructed by the inexperienced microbrigades, the young woman believes that, given its recent construction, it is unlikely to collapse or be declared uninhabitable.
These concrete giants, once the symbol of revolutionary architecture, have not been maintained for more than three decades. Water pipes have given way in several places and countless apartments are marked by ceiling leaks, while neighbors complain that their new concrete colossus has become “a great big tenement.”
The initial inhabitants, like Figueroa, leave slowly. While Lizbeth makes plans for what color she will paint the walls of her new home, the LED lights she will place in the entryway, and the tub she will install where now there is only an inconvenient shower. The earthquake safety measures built into these tall buildings did not foresee the earthquakes of the economy.
* Translator’s note:
For more information about microbrigades see page 26 of this report by Cuban architect Mario Coyula.