Cuba for Sale
18 February 2016
Half a century ago, when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces entered the
Cuban capital Havana, the new leader pledged to improve the lives of the
poor by putting an end to capitalist excess.
One of the revolutionary government’s key measures was the elimination
of the property market as a lucrative business. Housing was declared a
human right, private rental was abolished and the majority of Cubans
were given free properties to live in.
But with a US embargo declared on the revolutionary island and its
finances dependent on an inefficient state-driven economy, the
government ran out of money and vast parts of Havana fell into decline.
In a radical move, Raul Castro opened up the economy in 2011. Property
laws were reversed and Cubans were allowed to buy and sell their homes
The government says its revolutionary vision hasn’t changed and that the
reforms are aimed at safeguarding rather than dismantling socialism. But
will the re-introduction of private property make Havana’s urban poor
worse off? And how will the government deal with the growing, wealthy
new class that the regime once fought so hard to defeat?
In Cuba for Sale, reporter Juliana Ruhfus and filmmaker Seamus Mirodan
investigate the impact of the country’s recent economic changes and
whether the re-introduction of private property heralds an end to Cuban
By Seamus Mirodan
Havana is often described as a time capsule; its architecture unchanged
though much of the 20th century. Outsiders walking the streets of the
city’s old town find themselves harking back to a time when monolithic
skyscrapers, new builds and concrete tower blocks were but a glint in a
1940s architect’s eye.
They are transported back to something that feels like a purer era,
characterised by a plethora of architectural styles – colonial,
neo-Gothic, Baroque, Beaux Arts and Art Deco mansions sit side by side,
resplendent in their differences and the unique cityscape they create.
It was a perhaps unintended side effect of Fidel Castro’s revolution
that the capital city was preserved in this way. His predecessor, the
capitalist and US-centric President Fulgencia Batista, planned to
demolish major portions of the old city to make way for what he saw as
modern development: the building of high-rise apartments, offices and
roadways aimed at connecting the rest of the city to the previously
undeveloped lands to the east.
But when the revolutionary rebel forces arrived in Havana in 1959,
ousting Batista and sending the president and his supporters, including
much of Havana’s economic elite, packing into exile, new leader Fidel
Castro turned his fledgling administration’s attention away from the
urban setting and focused his finances on developing agricultural land
in a bid to better the conditions of the “campesinos” or rural peasant
After all, it was the woeful and abject poverty suffered by these
campesinos that had provided the major stimulus – and troops – for the
As a result, the streets and buildings of Old Havana remained frozen in
time, but their inhabitants changed dramatically. When the original
owners of the city’s colonial mansions fled, it was in some cases their
servants who remained behind, taking their properties over. In others,
poorer residents simply moved into abandoned houses or were given such
properties by the government which had officially expropriated all
housing from previous owners.
But such huge living quarters for one nuclear family was seen as
bourgeois, so many of the new inhabitants invited relatives from the
countryside to come and join them. Over the years, mansions that had
once housed a single family, came to be home to tens of people living in
overcrowded conditions, allowing once glorious architectural gems to
fall into dilapidated decline.
The unplanned structural modifications made by the new inhabitants to
create more room, coupled with damage caused by high humidity and a lack
of maintenance, have made many of these buildings unsafe. So unsafe that
last year alone, one building collapsed in Havana every second day,
sometimes with lethal consequences.
It is precisely this sense of unique architecture, densely populated by
thriving communities amid a distinct lack of polish that has come to not
only characterise Havana, but also attract a stream of foreign tourists
to visit each year, even during the times when gaining a visa required a
bizarre and convoluted process that could take months to engineer.
Source: Cuba for Sale –