Cuba: Domestic Pressure

Lygia Navarro, for the Pulitzer Center


After work one afternoon, Alejandro finally takes me to his tiny one-room apartment. A few blocks before his house, we pass a large apartment building that once filled most of a square block; half still holds families, while the other half has disintegrated into heaps of rubble. As we turn onto his block, dodging jagged potholes, Alejandro stops and sighs heavily. "The majority of the time when I'm coming home I feel depressed," he says. "That I don't want to come home. That I wish I could stay away."

It isn't his parents, who are in his 80s, who upset Alejandro. He gets along surprisingly well with them, considering they've all shared a single room for more than 40 years. Alejandro knows it isn't their fault they are stuck in the apartment, although his mother has railed against his father off and on for Alejandro's whole life, blaming her husband and not the revolution for their predicament. Their story is the converse of Marta's: Instead of losing their property, the government actually gave them an apartment.

This was not just any apartment, but the dark tenement rental they'd moved to in the mid 1950s thinking that, by moving closer to downtown, they were sure to move up in the world. Instead, once Fidel took over, the building's owner was dispossessed, and the renters were granted deeds to the apartments. Now, because of Cuba's housing shortage—which even forces couples to live together for years after divorcing—Alejandro's parents have no way of getting a larger place.

Entering their building is like stepping into a wholly different level of industrialization. The front door opens onto a steep, rickety marble staircase, at the top of which is a neighbor's one-room-apartment. Then, a few steps down an open-air hallway, is Alejandro's home. The bottom half of the room serves as living and dining room; above is the small loft where Alejandro's parents sleep. When we arrive, his parents sit eating a dinner of chicken and rice cooked in the small outdoor kitchen at the end of the hallway, which they share with another neighbor—the only person in the building luck y enough to have a telephone. Everyone keeps their heavy wooden doors open all day. Even so, the lack of space is stifling.

Just past their room is the communal bathroom, which, like many across Cuba, lacks running water. (Directly overhead is the platform—right next to his parents' bed—where Alejandro sleeps.) This dim bathroom, covered in a patina of green-gray corrosion, plagues Alejandro. Their neighborhood has running water only in the evenings. So every day he comes straight home to cart bucket after bucket from the building's sole tap to fill a small tank with water to bathe, wash dishes, and flush the toilet until the next evening. This takes, Alejandro tells me without the slightest hint of irony, just 40 to 50 minutes out of every day.

The harshness of this fact, and Alejandro's resignation to it, plagues me for days. I think of him again walking through Centro Habana one afternoon when I stop to read a propaganda slogan. "To be young and not be revolutionary," the slogan reads, "is an even biological contradiction."

Days later as Alejandro and I meet to talk about his depression over beers, he smokes cigarette after cigarette. Around us night begins to falls. The tables fill with men, in office dress and factory uniforms, off work and ready for a drink. As we talk, I keep pondering what illegalities they have had to commit—or how many receive money from family abroad—just to be able to afford a beer.

When we get up to leave, I ask Alejandro why the waitress hadn't brought him the drink I just watched him pay for. When I went to the bathroom, he tells me, the waitress told him he owed for one I'd already paid for. He knew she was wrong and told the waitress so. But she insisted, and so Alejandro paid a second time for the same beer—cash that went right into the waitress's pocket. This is the reason why retail jobs are the most lucrative in Cuba, and why people lucky enough to get one are pudgy while everyone around them is rail thin.

Complaining in Cuba gets old fast: try protesting poor service, bureaucracy or any other breakdown of the country's long defunct infrastructure, and the most common response is a bored glare and a shrug of the shoulders, which says, simply, That's not my problem. Dealing with the waitress, Alejandro tells me sheepishly, takes more energy than he has tonight.

For days I've watched the elaborate habanero dance of cheating each other out of what little they have—stiffing patrons on restaurant bills, selling adulterated products, intentionally miscalculating change at stores—and I confront the waitress. I see that she can tell I won't back down, and she quickly opens her register to return the money. As we leave, Alejandro apologizes again and again, although I repeatedly tell him it isn't his fault. "I feel so ashamed," he says. "After all, I am Cuban, too." He thinks for a moment. "That's what bothers me the most. We are so used to being screwed."

Walking into the muggy dusk, we pass an elderly woman in a bright green and pink dress, a plastic bag slung over her shoulder. She digs through the shop's trashcan, slowly, in search of scraps of food.