Building a Home in Cuba, Without Bank Loans, Without Legal Supply Markets

08/09/2013 05:12 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2013
  • Yoani Sanchez Publisher of 14ymedio, independent newspaper in Cuba
Photo: Silvia Corbelle

She gets up and has a little coffee. The concrete of the counter is still fresh. Magaly, her two sons and her husband live in a house under construction. They've spent seven years like this. Little by little raising the walls and installing some pipes. Every day that goes by they get closer to the end of the job, but they also live through another day of anxiety and risks to get the materials. Today they need stone dust and washed sand. They get their money together before heading out to the state supply center, inviting me to accompany them. We arrive at the central warehouse, but at the door an employee delivers the bad news. They haven't stocked up, we'll have to wait until next week.

We then dive into the world of resellers of cement fillers. Finding them is easy; haggling, impossible. The area around the Cristina railway workshop is the best supplied hardware black market in the whole country. You just have to walk through the doorways and gates for voices to call out asking, "What are you looking for?" We're cautious, it's not recommended to go with the first offer. Swindles are everywhere. One man, with a little table where he's fixing lighters, looks at us and whispers, "I have everything for construction." In a conjurer's gesture he passes us a much-handled sheet that contains a list of prices: gravel and sand, 1.50 convertible pesos (CUC)* per sack; Jaimanita exterior stone, 7.00 CUC per square meter; and granite tiles, 10.00 CUC, also per square meter. "If you buy a large quantity transport is included," he points out, while dismantling a lighter with an Italian flag drawn on the plastic.

My friends do the accounting. Acquiring surfacing for the entire floor would cost their combined wages for 20 months. The costs of the bathroom fixtures are enough to elicit a little scream from Magaly, but it's barely audible, covered by the noise of the road. They decide to prioritize. Today they'll take only some blocks, several sacks of sand, and two wooden doors. The vendor adds it up and rounds it off to everything Magaly and her husband earn for half a year's work. "It will always be a cheaper option than the legal stores," she says out loud to console herself.

Night falls and everyone's fingers are covered with a gray layer of cement and dust. The children go to bed in the only room that has a roof. The counter has hardened and the dirty dishes are left on its rough surface because there are still no pipes to deliver the water to wash them. Tomorrow they'll have to go out and get steel and some electrical switches. One construction day less. Twenty-four hours closer to having their house finished.

*Translator's note: One Cuban convertible peso (known as a CUC and convertible only in Cuba), is worth roughly one US dollar (before exchange fees). The average monthly wage in Cuba is less than $20 US, and is generally paid in Cuban pesos (CUP); 24 CUP = 1 CUC. Many everyday items, and most "specialty" items are only sold for CUCs, including in State stores.

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