Cuba for Sale: Cuba’s Housing Crisis

February 24, 2016
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On Tuesday 23 February, the Frontline Club hosted a preview screening of Cuba For Sale, a new film by Al Jazeera. Following the screening, journalist and historian Richard Gott moderated a panel discussion with reporter and filmmaker Juliana Ruhfus; LSE fellow Helen Yaffe; national secretary of the Cuba Solidary Campaign Bernard Regan; and assistant director at the International Institute for the Study of Cuba Stephen Wilkinson.

Cuba For Sale is part of Al Jazeera’s weekly investigative documentary programme which looks at the abuse of power. Reporter Juliana Ruhfus spent two weeks in the country, exploring the unique stresses and strains the country has faced since 2011, when President Raul Castro opened the housing market for the first time in an attempt to stimulate its ailing economy. As private American investment begins to pour into high-value Cuban properties, Old Havana is crumbling, and families are being relocated to purpose-built apartments hours away from the capital. This is one of the “enormous number of paradoxes” found in the country, academic Stephen Wilkinson said.

Ruhfus said the filmmakers originally intended to focus on the new class of businessmen buying up Cuban property, but ended up focusing much more on the housing crisis afflicting the country’s poor. “People are still somewhat worried in Cuba about saying they’re setting up a business, and making money. So it was easier to speak to people who were unhappy,” she said.

Despite the desperation of those documented in the film, she argued that housing problems were – at least in part – inherited by the Castro administration: “The problem of overcrowding is something Castro inherited,” she said.

Moreover, Rufhus argued, the Cuban policy of relocating families to cities outside Havana should not be understood as forced eviction. “What they’re doing when they move people out is they’re giving them home ownership.”

Regan commented that Cuba lends itself to the documentary format because Cubans are naturally open people.

“A Cuban friend once said to me that whenever you meet four Cubans there are at least five opinions – you find an openness about it. Housing is critical – if people are living two hours away [from Havana] then that is a great inhibitor in terms of development. There is a great deal to develop, and the Cubans are acutely aware of these issues.”

Stephen Wilkinson, editor of the International Journal of Cuban Studies, said that the housing crisis was a “terrific problem.” Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island has been “starved” of investment by the United States blockade. Helen Yaffe, an economic historian whose work on Che Guevara Gott described as “epoch-making”, agreed, and said that Cuba’s economic story had actually been one of remarkable success and resilience.

“The revolution triumphs [in 1959], it has all sorts of promises. But when the revolution happens the Batista dictatorship literally pack the money into their suitcases and flee.”

Given the subsequent lack of capital, Cuba’s economic story to this point should therefore be understood “within a framework of the restraints it faced.”

When Yaffe interviewed Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, he said that his country “wouldn’t last 50 days with the kind of blockade Cuba had, and Cuba’s lasted 50 years.”

Ultimately, Ruhfus said, she wanted the film to represent both sides of the argument. “Even though this film is about highlighting the problems and reasons for change, I also feel there are things we can learn. Whether you look at socialism or capitalism, there is no system yet which has managed to lift people out of poverty.”