A Fraying Promise: Exploring Race And Inequality In Havana : Parallels One of the revolution's core promises was an egalitarian society. But as Cuba opens up, one of the unintended consequences may be more inequality.
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A Fraying Promise: Exploring Race And Inequality In Havana

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A Fraying Promise: Exploring Race And Inequality In Havana

A Fraying Promise: Exploring Race And Inequality In Havana

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And this week, I'm reporting on a trip I made this month to Havana. Today, a glimpse of two intersecting problems. One that everyone there talks about - housing. And one that's typically discussed only with great discretion - race. First, housing.

Miguel Coyula is an architect and an economist. He was my guide through the streets of Old Havana. We walked past hundred-year-old buildings. Many have marble stairs inside with chips and chunks missing. The shutters may have been replaced on some windows but hang broken from others.

MIGUEL COYULA: Look at this. Look at that.

SIEGEL: Everything needs work. Everything we look at is cracked or...

COYULA: Exactly. As you see, lately, there have been a lot of modifications, a lot of do-it-yourself (laughter).

SIEGEL: Revolutionary Cuba made tenants owners of their apartments. But people couldn't actually buy and sell their homes until two years ago. One unintended consequence of those policies is a large class of homeowners who can't afford to maintain or repair their homes.

COYULA: We estimate officially today, the average salary is about 450 pesos - Cuban pesos - or about $20.

SIEGEL: $20 a month?

COYULA: $20 a month, yeah. If you want to paint your house, a gallon of paint will take 30 percent of your salary. One gallon - that's it.

SIEGEL: A new toilet, he told me, would cost an average Cuban worker just over two years' pay. The disrepair of Havana's housing stock is catastrophic.

COYULA: You stand in front of two buildings. One is good. The other one is crumbling. And you wonder, why this contrast between two buildings next to each other? Money - suppose for a moment that the people who live in the good house remembered that they had a relative in Miami who can send them money. If we take an example in which the neighbors are earning the average salary - $20 a month - think about having a relative in Miami who can send you a hundred dollars a month. Immediately, the gap between you and your neighbor is 1-to-5. But sometimes the gap is 1-to-50 or more.

SIEGEL: And when Miguel Coyula talks about disrepair, he's not just talking about appearances.

COYULA: Remember that every day, at least three houses collapse - at least.

SIEGEL: People in Havana typically have stories of seeing a balcony fall off a building or a wall collapse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

SIEGEL: This is not what tourists see in the restored historic part of Old Havana. It's now packed with tour groups and multilingual guides. There are grand squares like the Plaza de las Palomas with its 16th-century basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, its sidewalk cafes and an array of licensed historical re-enactors, street musicians and living statues.

YUSIMI RODRIGUEZ LOPEZ: My life is, like, more real, you now? This is, like, staged for tourists.

SIEGEL: Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez is a 38-year-old writer and journalist.

LOPEZ: I still live with my mother, and I share the bedroom with my sister and my niece. I mean, three generations living together because there are no houses.

SIEGEL: Yusimi, you said that your life is more real than what we're looking at here, obviously. You've written a lot about Afro-Cubans and race in Cuba.

LOPEZ: Uh-huh.

SIEGEL: You're black. Is real different for black and white Cubans?

LOPEZ: Well, we have the same opportunities. And that cannot be denied. That is, in fact, one of the achievements of the Cuban Revolution is that we Cubans have universal access to education and health. But one of the mistakes that our government made was declaring no more racism in Cuba. That's a big mistake. And then they just silenced the problem, the issue in the name of national unity. But racism has remained there.

SIEGEL: She says statistics show that black Cubans are more likely to live in the worst circumstances and more likely to go to jail. The definition of an Afro-Cuban is squishy. So the reported numbers of Afro-Cubans are equally so. There's a Cuban census estimate that 35 percent of Cubans are Afro-Cubans. And there are independent Cuban estimates that run twice that high. Here's a problem posed by the prospect of deeper reform - more of a market economy in Cuba. According to U.S. Census data, 85 percent of Cuban-Americans are white. If family abroad is going to count even more, then the gap between whites and blacks in Cuba will likely grow.

We went with Yusimi on a ferry to Regla, a poor and largely black neighborhood across Havana Bay. Several ferry passengers carried flowers. They were bringing them to the landmark church just across the water. We went a few blocks farther in Regla, down streets with very few shops and hardly any cars or trucks. And then...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: A group of Afro-Cuban women, hoping for some public attention to their plight, wanted us to see where they lived. It is transitional housing. It's for people who are homeless, often because their home collapsed. They can spend years here. Their rooms face the courtyard of an old factory. Families of two, three or four live in these spaces, which have the feel of a refugee camp.

I'm inside a room. It's about 8-foot square. And there's a refrigerator in it. There's a fan overhead, wobbling. And the little space upstairs that's been added - this is where Qurian Betancourt and her young daughter - a daughter she says has breathing problems - this is where they live. It's where they've lived for years because her old home in Regla, this part of Havana, collapsed.

QURIAN BETANCOURT: (Through interpreter) This is the house that the state gave me.

SIEGEL: How many people live in this building?

BETANCOURT: (Through interpreter) There are 21 apartments and one million sick kids. If you keep walking, you'll see more shelters. You'll see many more. There's tons of them.

SIEGEL: But the old house that you lived in before fell down?

BETANCOURT: (Through interpreter) One day, we wanted to hammer something in the kitchen. The whole living room came down. And we didn't have a home.

SIEGEL: It must've been terrifying.

BETANCOURT: (Through interpreter) It was terrible. What can I tell you? I came here as a girl, and now I'm a woman and a mother. I'm not against Cuba, but I'm against these conditions. They're letting us die here.

SIEGEL: Qurian Betancourt's daughter, who was born here, is now over 6. Calling this transitional housing is a euphemism. Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez told me that this illustrates what she was saying. The fact that the women are black does not surprise her.

LOPEZ: You see, this is - completely different picture from what you were seeing across the bay.

SIEGEL: Are you surprised by what you're seeing here?

LOPEZ: No. I was - I'm surprised that it just corroborated what I told you. I was thinking about that when I was speaking to you - that maybe I could sound exaggerated. And suddenly, we find this. We are confronted by this. And sometimes, I complain because, oh, I live with my mom. But compared to this, I'm privileged.

SIEGEL: But people must have to devote a tremendous amount of energy to coping with everyday life.

LOPEZ: Yes. But, you know, before you said, you get used to it. You manage to live every day. These people manage to live every day. They manage to survive. That's - I mean, I think Cubans are specialists in surviving.

SIEGEL: Afro-Cuban writer Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez - she's published a collection of short stories that has not been translated yet from the Spanish. But its title is English - "The Cuban Dream."

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