Latin America & Caribbean

The Cubans without a stable roof over their heads

Collapsed building in Havana on 24 September 2013
Image caption Ten families defied the risks and lived in the old convent before it collapsed

In the Vibora suburb of Havana, a vast yellow building now has a gaping hole at the heart of it.

On Monday morning, a column collapsed bringing four storeys of the old convent crashing down and burying 50-year-old Maria Isabel Fernandez under the rubble.

For 24 hours, rescue teams battled to reach her.

When their radars and even specially trained sniffer rabbits found no signs of life, they moved to securing the rest of the ruins and recovering her body.

The story of Ms Fernandez is not an unusual one in a city where neglect, lack of funds and a series of devastating hurricanes have left chunks of the housing stock in a poor to perilous state.

Officials say that on average two buildings completely collapse in Havana every month.

Stark choices

The old convent where Ms Fernandez lived was used as a school after the 1959 Cuban revolution, until part of a corridor caved in and the children had to be relocated.

But 10 families went on living there.

"We had nowhere else to go," one of the residents told me, as family and friends formed a human chain behind him to recover what remained of their belongings.

"The conditions were terrible. But it was that, or live in the street - and we have children. We needed a roof over our heads," he said.

Image caption Residents tried to salvage what they could from their collapsed home

As we talked, a crowd gathered.

The residents told me they went to the housing authorities for help just last week, after the first support column cracked.

A meeting to discuss the situation had been planned - for Monday night.

"No-one came before," a resident called Ismailo said, gesturing towards a huddle of local government officials and police nearby.

"Now they're all here."

Revolutionary ideals

It was one of the tenets of Cuba's communist revolution that everyone had the right to a house. But today's harsh economic reality has knocked a dent in that ideal.

The most recent figures reveal a deficit of some 600,000 houses on the island; this month the state housing institute admitted it cannot put up new properties fast enough.

A move to allow Cubans to build their own houses for the first time, rather than depend on the state, has been a slow starter.

The result is serious overcrowding and thousands stuck in supposedly temporary housing for many years, a situation that is especially acute in the capital.

Worst of all are the building collapses, and it is not just a problem of the suburbs.

Inside Malecon 161, on Havana's sun-soaked seafront, you have to pick your way through wooden props supporting the ceiling to reach the empty space where several apartments used to be.

Image caption Little remains of Malecon 161's former glory

It is five years since part of an abandoned building standing behind it collapsed and destroyed the apartments.

One man was killed, but 20 people are still here amid the ruins, waiting to be rehoused.

"When it rains heavily, like recently, I do get alarmed," pensioner Jose Ramon admits.

He says some "priority" cases were given flats on the city's outskirts, other neighbours are in state-run shelters nearby.

"I sometimes go outside because I'm afraid the building won't hold," he says.

"I pretend I'm contemplating the downpour, but in fact I'm keeping my eye on the building."

Construction brigade

Further down the Malecon, another precarious-looking building has finally been fenced off for demolition.

Some of its residents were rehoused to far-flung suburbs; others secured flats nearby. The rest have squeezed in with family or moved into state shelters while they wait for a new home to be finished.

Image caption Residents are helping with the construction of the new building

The fate of that new building offers some insight into Cuba's housing shortage.

Construction began four years ago, but neighbours say there were never enough workers for the job and the much-coveted building supplies were being pilfered.

But this month, a new boss was drafted in with materials and orders to finish the place - and the block is at last taking shape.

In Cuban socialist style, residents have joined the "construction brigade" to help out.

"It's over a year since we were moved out of our house because it was going to collapse," former resident Graviela recalls, saying she is currently living with relatives.

"Now we're here, waiting for this place to be finished, so we can be happy."

'No solutions'

But the dire lack of such alternatives has helped contribute to tragedies like the one this week in Vibora.

"The need for housing is higher than the capacity we have to build. It is a problem," admitted Ines Barroso, a local government official outside the collapsed convent.

Image caption The building in Vibora is just one of many which collapse in Havana every month

She said solutions were sought over the years to provide better housing for the 10 families who lived there.

An initial plan to reinforce and renovate the convent was ruled out. The families were then to be offered land and credit to build their own houses. But they say neither materialised.

Now that the worst has happened, some cannot contain their anger.

"They've been promising solutions for years. But it's all been lies and we're tired of it. Now we've lost a woman who was like a mother to me," Yurliany Tamayo cried, unusually vocal for Cuba.

She says she managed to snatch her own child back from the edge, just in time.

Ms Tamayo and the other residents are staying with friends for now; the authorities have yet to propose a more permanent solution.

But as the digger continues its slow work shifting the rubble, there is already concern about the parts of the building still standing.

"If they don't demolish this place now, people will move in here," one resident warned.

"We would never take the risk after what happened here. But others would prefer to be here than to have nowhere."

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