By Gerry Bill
Cuba is a poor country by most measures. Yet that statement is, in a way, very misleading. Poor though they are, the Cuban people don’t suffer a lot of the same deprivations found in other poor countries.
For example, you may have heard of Cuba’s accomplishments in health and education. Cuba’s health statistics are excellent, by some measures better than those of places like the United States and Canada. Of course, that is because healthcare is not only free but also readily available to the Cuban people.
When it comes to education, Cuba has a highly educated population, including large numbers of people with graduate degrees. The high level of education makes sense because education is free all the way through graduate school. Another measure—the literacy rate—is effectively 100%, according to UNESCO.
These are not the conditions that would be found in your typical poor country.
Well, there is one more way in which Cuba differs from most other poor countries in the world—the tiny island nation has virtually no homeless people. There are many reasons for that accomplishment. First, although housing is not free in Cuba, the government does take steps to keep the cost of housing low. That leads to a high rate of homeownership—around 85%. By way of comparison, the Census Bureau says the rate of homeownership in the United States was 66.9% in 2010.
Highly subsidized housing, however, is only part of the story. There is also a cultural factor that helps reduce homelessness. Call it family values. In Cuba, people take all kinds of extended family members into their homes because no one wants a family member to be out on the streets. Multigenerational households are the norm in Cuba.
That cultural preference for keeping extended families together helps to keep the official statistic on homelessness in Cuba at zero. Everyone in Cuba has someone they could stay with, in theory, at least. So, as it turns out, almost everyone has an official address.
Whether they choose to stay at their official address is another story. They aren’t required to stay there. They are free to go stay with a friend instead—couch surfing, we might call it. Some might even choose to sleep on park benches once in a while rather than return to their official addresses. They would still have a place to keep their personal belongings, of course, but for various reasons they might prefer to sleep outdoors rather than sleep at home.
Not that you see much of that in Cuba. In July, I went on a trip to Cuba with the Pastors for Peace aid caravan. This was my sixth trip to Cuba with Pastors for Peace since 1994. Never, on any of those trips, have I ever seen any evidence of homelessness. Poverty, yes, but homelessness, no.
As I walk the streets of Havana at night I never see someone in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk. In the daytime, I never see a collection of boxes or blankets or other signs that the place is someone’s bedroom in the night time. I have seen these things in London, Paris, Mumbai, Beijing, San Francisco and, yes, in Fresno—but not in Cuba. I can’t swear that it never happens in Cuba, but it certainly is not a common occurrence.
I don’t mean to imply that Cuba is some kind of paradise. Housing is indeed a problem in Cuba because it tends to be overcrowded. Cuba has a housing shortage. Sometimes, there are three or even four generations living in a two-room apartment.
Cuba has improved the housing situation a lot since the time of the revolution. The shantytowns of the 1950s have been eliminated. In keeping with Cuban values, no one was turned out onto the streets when the slums were demolished. Cuba built a lot of new housing units after the revolution, both high-rise apartment blocks and individual houses. The former slum dwellers were moved into these new structures as they became available, but their shanties were not torn down until the occupants had been put into other housing units.
Unfortunately, Cuba does not have the resources to build houses as fast as it would like to. Construction materials are the bottleneck—not the labor. Part of the reason is the U.S. economic blockade, still in place after 50 years. The blockade makes it difficult to bring in badly needed building materials, whether they come from the United States or from other countries. When Cuba can obtain building materials from third countries it is at greatly inflated prices. Even paint is in short supply, so a visitor to Cuba will see a lot of buildings in need of a fresh coat of paint. I have to add, though, that the number of places needing fresh paint has decreased significantly since my first visit to the island in 1994.
An increasing number of extreme weather events, namely hurricanes, have further complicated Cuba’s housing situation. Perhaps this is the result of global climate disruption, perhaps not. But, for whatever reason, the number of powerful hurricanes hitting Cuba has been increasing in recent years.
In 2008 alone, there were three devastating hurricanes that hit the island within a three-month period. Cuba is good about evacuating its people, and almost no one was killed by the storms. The effect on housing, however, was catastrophic. The three hurricanes damaged or destroyed half a million homes—20% of the nation’s housing stock—in just one year. No wonder there is a shortage of housing.
The condition of Cuba’s housing stock is not great, but it is adequate. It certainly is better than it was before the revolution. A 2002 Harvard study found that the percentage of urban housing units in bad condition decreased from 47% before the revolution to just 13% 40 years later. That is a laudable achievement.
The bigger problem is that there just aren’t enough housing units. Housing is especially difficult for young couples getting married. They will most likely end up living with one set of parents rather than having a house of their own. Housing for divorced couples can also be a problem; sometimes a divorced couple has to go on living in the same house with one another. You can’t just go out and find an apartment for rent somewhere.
In the United States, we might consider these to be insufferable hardships. In Cuba, it is seen more as a normal part of life than as a hardship. The situation might not be ideal in their eyes, but at least they are housed and they are thankful for that.
All of this has to do with the values of socialism. Cuba has worked hard to try to prevent class differences from developing in its society. The effort has not been 100% successful, but there is still more equality in Cuba than in most other countries in the world.
According to socialist values, if there isn’t enough of something to go around, everyone does with a little less, rather than some people having more than they need while leaving others with nothing. In the realm of housing, this means everyone has a place to live, but it is quite possibly a crowded place. In Cuba, that situation is preferable to one in which part of the population would live in un-crowded housing while others were living on the streets. That would be the capitalist approach. Just look around Fresno and you will see what I mean.
So homelessness, as such, is not really much of an issue in Cuba. During my recent trip there, I raised the issue several times with Cubans I met and they were all surprised at the question. No one to whom I spoke knew of any homeless person, and all insisted that everyone in Cuba has a place to stay. They would acknowledge that it might be a crowded place, but at least it is a place. That’s the socialistic way, and that is how Cuba, with its limited resources, deals with the housing issue.
Sources: 1) “Updating the Cuban Economic Model,” a panel of three Cuban economists who presented to the Pastors for Peace Caravan in Havana on July 23, 2011; 2) conversations with English-speaking Cubans, July, 2011; and 3) “Housing Policy in Castro’s Cuba,” Teddy Kapur and Alastair Smith, May 2002 (www.jchs.harvard.edu/education/oustanding_student_papers/kapur_smith_cuba_02.pdf).
Gerry Bill is emeritus professor of sociology and American studies at Fresno City College. He traveled to Cuba in July of this year with the 22nd Pastors for Peace aid caravan to Cuba. This was his sixth trip to Cuba with Pastors for Peace. He is one of the founders of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, and is on the boards of the Fresno Free College Foundation, Peace Fresno and the Central California Criminal Justice Committee.