Fidel Castro’s revolution promised Cubans a socialist paradise, and instead delivered oppression, misery, poverty, and a systemic housing crisis. And if anyone wants to blame this on U.S. sanctions, they would have to explain why the Castro dictatorship can’t afford to build or maintain housing in Cuba, but has plenty of money and materials for hotels and resorts to serve their apartheid tourism industry.
Housing crisis in Cuba: A systemic reality
The housing crisis in Cuba is more than just a simple problem; it is a systemic reality that permeates Cuban society, said Cuban architect and University of Miami professor, Rafael Fornés. In statements to the program Martí Noticias AM, Fornés emphasized the severity of the problem and pointed out there is little discussion about it on the island.
One of the most evident manifestations of this crisis is the so-called “barbacoas,” an improvised solution to the shortage of housing. Fornés explains that Cuban families take advantage of the high ceilings of colonial buildings to create new living spaces. This practice, while not exclusive to Cuba, becomes particularly concerning in the Caribbean country due to the lack of technical solutions and the structural risk it entails.
The architect recalls the collapse of the Pasaje Hotel in the 1980s, attributed in part to the load and weight of improvised constructions. The “barbacoas,” along with the placement of water tanks on rooftops, are examples of how the housing crisis manifests itself in the daily lives of Cubans.
The expansion of Havana inwards over the last six decades is another worrisome symptom. The architect describes it as a unique phenomenon in the world, a city that has regressed in its development, encapsulating its inhabitants in a maze of “barbacoas” and rooftops converted into rooms.
For Fornés, the housing crisis in Cuba is an irreversible process. Although some buildings can be restored and improved, the subdivision and concentration of housing in the capital are monumental challenges that will persist over time.
Limited access to construction materials and restrictions of the Cuban political system are identified by the architect as the main causes of the problem. Without the existence of private property and a free market, the situation will remain unsolvable. For him, the solution lies in a profound change in the Cuban political system, where the dictatorship must disappear to make way for new forms of development and progress.
From exile, Fornés and other experts have studied the situation for decades and have concrete proposals to address the housing crisis in Cuba. However, these solutions cannot materialize due to restrictions imposed by the regime. Meanwhile, the Cuban people continue to face the difficulties of a reality where decent housing is an increasingly unattainable privilege.
Housing Crisis on the Island
As Cubans well know, year after year, the regime fails to meet the proposed housing plan. In October of the recently concluded 2023, only 13,300 properties had been completed in the country, accounting for 54% of the annual plan.
As an example, the province of Guantánamo ended 2023 with 58% of the total predicted. According to official data, “it was impossible to finish the 1,679 homes planned on time.” Localities like Baracoa and Maisí barely reached 35% and 36% compliance with their respective plans.
According to the state-run press, the main causes of non-compliance are attributed to severe deficits in steel, cement, electrical components, floor and roof elements – difficulties that the (national and local) construction materials to which the industry has not yet found an adequate response.
The housing crisis in Cuba is accompanied by an even worse catastrophe – collapses that, besides leaving hundreds of people homeless, often have fatal outcomes. Such was the case of the collapse of the multifamily building located at Lamparilla No. 362, between Villegas and Aguacate, in Old Havana municipality in October 2023. The building’s collapse resulted in the death of three people buried under the rubble.
However, amidst this scenario, the hotel infrastructure seems unaffected by the same reality that hits the Cuban people. Although tourist occupancy in Cuba is low, and the sector has not even recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the government continues to remodel and build hotels.
In Sancti Spíritus, for example, out of the 390 million pesos allocated to the province by the Ministry of Construction (MICONS) in 2023, about 227 million went to tourism, especially to the works of the Meliá Trinidad Península hotel. The figure represents approximately 60% of the territorial budget.