An elderly woman walks along Paseo del Prado with a sign around her neck. Made by hand in blue ink, it offers “A 2-bedroom apartment in Cerro,” in exchange for something similar in Playa. People start coming to this site at seven in the morning, with proposals to exchange one house for another in a country where it is prohibited to buy and sell them. They also work through middlemen, known as “exchangers,” who proliferate where one cannot deal in real estate, where public advertising and the illegal housing market have been demonized.
One of the toughest questions my Spanish students ask me, while I teach them this dilapidated city where I was born, is, “What kind of person lives in certain houses or in certain neighborhoods?” I try to explain that you can find a woman who makes her living scrubbing floors living in a mansion in Miramar, and a surgeon living in a shack without running water. Probably the woman living in the enormous house with her roof falling in and her garden a chaos of weeds and rust, because her wages are not enough to maintain so many square feet. The sawbones, meanwhile, has accumulated capital from his illicit breast implant business, but cannot — legally — obtain a house consistent with his means. So the humble cleaner and the doctor come to an agreement, disregard the law, and decide to exchange their homes. To accomplish this they bribe three or four officials at the Housing Institute. A year later he is enjoying his lawn dotted with bougainvillea, and she, her thousands of convertible pesos received for “trading down.”
Thousands of Cubans have been planning to do something similar, and have breathes a sign of relief on reading Point 278 of the Guidelines for the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party. As stated there, “flexible formulas for the exchange, purchase, sale and rental of housing” will be applied. Many have interpreted this as raising the flag of a housing market, with permission to buy and sell a house. I confess I have my reservations. I don’t think our authorities are prepared to accept the immediate redistribution that would occur in this city, and across the whole country, if they accept that people can decide what to do with their properties. Within a few months of the adoption of such measures, social differences — today hidden behind an unpainted mansion or a shack full of appliances — would break out into the open. The growing inequalities that official hypocrisy tries to hide would flourish.
*Note: In the language of Cuban dominoes, “to water” means to shuffle the tiles to continue playing.