SAN MIGUEL DEL PADRÓN, Cuba
A dead rat lies in the middle of the dirt track leading to a cluster of wooden shacks. Young boys — barefoot and shirtless — play a lively game of marbles in the dried mud. It could be a scene from any of the notorious shantytowns that pervade Latin America. But this is Cuba, the self-proclaimed socialist paradise where a revolution 50 years ago promised to eradicate the social inequalities rampant in the Third World.
"Life here isn't easy, and we do what we have to do to survive," said Jorge Balmaseda, 52, a local barber who attends his clients under the eaves of a tin-roofed shack in Las Piedras, a squatter community of several hundred people east of Havana.
The hillsides around are dotted with dozens of these ramshackle settlements, known as "llega y pon" (meaning loosely "arrive and build"), which are home to tens of thousands of Cubans. When they began appearing more than a decade ago, the government tried to eradicate them by sending everyone back to their home towns. But they continued to grow, accelerated by Cuba's increasingly dire economic crisis.
Now the communities are such a fixture of urban living around Havana that the government is having to supply them with services like water and electricity.
"We are seeing an enormous growth of marginalization," said Óscar Espinosa Chepe, a former state economist who was jailed in 2003 for speaking out against the government. "The revolution hasn't built much and state jobs have lost value. People prefer to be in the street making ends meet. They can't live on their salaries."
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Cubans call them "Palestinos" (Palestinians) because they live like displaced refugees. The majority hail from distant provinces in the east of the island, where living conditions and money-earning opportunities are inferior to Havana.
State controls on housing and jobs make it hard for Cubans to move about the island to hunt for a new life, so simply moving to the big city sets in motion a series of illegal acts. Their shacks are built without permits, which makes their new home illegal and prevents them from applying for government jobs or state food rations. Most work illegally on the black market, raising pigs and chickens in their back yards, or, like Balmaseda, operate small unlicensed businesses from their homes.
Leonel Mozo, 41, came from Santiago in 2000 after giving up his job as a barman in a state-run bar earning about $7 a month, not including tips.
"In Havana, you can get by more or less if you struggle," he said. "In Santiago it's impossible."
He makes a living hustling tourists on the streets of Old Havana, offering his services as a guide. In a very good month he might make $100, well above the $15 average state wage.
"There are jobs, but who wants one?" he said in disgust. "The government pay is so bad."
The rest of his family still lives in Santiago in a big house, but Mozo says he's better off now than he ever was. "Back there I never had more than one pair of trousers and one shirt. Here in only a few years, I built my own house and I have my TV and stereo, and a cellphone."
But conditions are grim. Mosquitoes abound at night, roofs leak in the rain and streets turn to mud.
Even so, residents remain far better off than slum-dwellers in other parts of Latin America. Despite its scarce resources, Cuba's communist system still manages to provide basic services, with free education and medical services for all.
"Here we get attention. We don't lack anything," said Agustín Gaínza, 50, who set up a pro-revolutionary block committee in her home. "We don't have the ration book, but we don't need it." Gaínza, who moved here from Guantánamo, said she ekes out a living illegally selling fruit juice at one peso (4 cents) a cup.
One mother of an infant said she received regular visits from a state social worker, as well as state-subsidized condensed milk and fruit juices. Health inspectors also visit Las Piedras to check on sanitary conditions to prevent outbreaks of dengue fever. Most homes have toilets with rudimentary septic tanks consisting of a hole dug in the ground fortified with old truck tires.
"I pour in a bit of gasoline from time to time to stop the mosquitoes breeding there," said Mozo.
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Cuba's economic crisis is hitting the island hard.
Faced with a record post-revolution $11-billion trade deficit because of the dramatic rise in food and fuel import costs, the government has had to slash spending, cutting back on monthly food rations, subsidized lunches in workplace cafeterias, housing construction, public transportation schedules, as well as limiting air conditioning to only five hours each afternoon in state stores and offices.
Cuba has long blamed the U.S. economic embargo for cutting it off from cheaper import sources, as well as international lending organizations. But Cuban officials recognize they need to improve housing and state salaries.
In a speech in July 2007, Raúl Castro said a Cuban state salary was "clearly insufficient to satisfy all necessities." He noted this brought "social indiscipline" and black marketeering.
Due to the economic crisis, the government appears to be taking a lenient approach to the squatters. A law that requires illegal squatters to be evicted and returned to their home towns is not being enforced.
Nor is the state doing anything to prevent squatters from stringing illegal lines to state utility poles to get free electricity. Indeed, Castro has publicly advocated formalizing the squatter communities and incorporating them into local municipalities.
As squatters are being formalized, the legal housing is crumbling, literally.
In downtown Havana old tenement buildings collapse on almost a daily basis, leaving piles of bricks and rubble in the streets. The government tries to prop up the facades with wooden scaffolding, but most of its resources go into construction of new hotels and stores for the tourist industry, Cuba's top foreign currency earner.
"The whole city is falling down," said Miguel Martinez, surveying the rusty skeleton of a recently collapsed apartment building.
It's hard to see how the Cuban state can solve the island's housing problem. More than 500,000 homes were damaged by three devastating hurricanes last year. Of those, some 330,000 homes still need repairs, the Housing Ministry reported last week. That is on top of a backlog of 70,000 unfixed homes from previous storms. Because of drastic budget cuts, the government can only afford to build 32,000 new homes this year, a 32 percent cut from last year.
Some of the only construction work going on last week was in the community that shouldn't even exist. In Las Piedras state municipal workers were hard at work installing water pipes for the community.
"One day, if God touches the hearts of our leaders, we might get the street paved," said Arbelia Tamayo Fuentes, a 50-year-old seamstress, making diapers on her porch using an old Soviet sewing machine.
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.