Metaphor of these times

This is the story of a building – Yugoslav model – that was built in the 1980s by excited microbrigadistas.* For the first time they built their own homes and along with this came a lot of new experiences from the fact of having one’s own roof (very few in “Generation Y” have experienced this sensation). Each of those improvisational builders had to work between four and seven years to build their apartment and later made an installment payment which, after twenty years, gave them the opportunity to have title to the property.

In this building is the story of the all the core managers who are the owners of their own homes. They went from the dreams of builders – eager to have a place to live – to the frustrations of limited ownership in a half-finished property. What was once a shining example of the construction we were promised is now a modern ruin; a metaphor of the immobility and decline of these times.

For the last four years no one has taken on the responsibility of “manager” nor of “cleaner” because it’s not worth the wages and the fourteen floors, with long hallways and many stairs, demand too much work for too little money. The elevator survives, thanks to the expertise of some of the residents who, in recent years, have faced up the dilemma of learning something about mechanics or taking the stairs. The water pump also has its own team of “water-pumpers” who repair it each time it breaks down. This self-management keeps the building from total collapse, but is not able to stabilize it.

Its proximity to the Plaza of the Revolution means that this fourteen story block is in a “frozen zone” where any apartments that become vacant fall into the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) or the government. The grilles are proliferating and some neighbors take it in turns to clean the hallways of their floors or the small area in front of their own doors. The common areas suffer from the indifference engendered by a form of ownership that does not make it clear who owns what. In theory, the common areas belong to everyone, but in reality this community of 144 apartments cannot decide what to do with them.

They cannot, for example, open a needed coffee shop to raise funds to invest in the building itself. Also, they are forbidden access to a wholesaler where they could acquire the hundreds of meters of pipe that are needed to fix the many leaks. The neighbors must hope that the Institute of Housing will designate funds for the needed repairs.

Trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, the microbrigadista visionaries of yesterday see their dream with its plaster falling, its steel oxidizing, and its paint fading. Their children are not interested in the saga of the construction or the assembly of the prefabricated parts; that is all a distant “preoccupation of the old folks.” The youngest tease them when their parents tell the stories of the crane or the scaffolding and conclude, with the pragmatism of this time, “So much sacrifice for this?”

* Translator’s note:

Microbrigadista = “In 1971 a novel form of sweat equity, the microbrigades, accompanied government investments. Under this system groups of employees from given workplaces would form brigades to build housing while other employees agreed to maintain production at current levels. Housing units were then allocated among the employees from that workplace…. Microbrigades experienced a revival in 1986 due to several social forces.”

Source: Kapur and Smith, Housing Policy in Castro’s Cuba, 2002

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