The Triumphant Return of the Bohío

The standard of housing seems to be a representative signifier not only of a country’s wealth but also of the responsibility a government takes for its citizens. Considering the Cuban government‘s subtle elimination of the idea of reasonable housing options for everyone – a former aim of the revolution’s agenda – and its replacement by the bohio as the simplest form of putting a roof over one’s head, these developments raise many questions.

In recent years, we have been able to witness how the bohío has been progressively been assimilated as a reasonable housing possibility in Cuba. It is a laborious endeavor carried out by the Cuban government with the help of the official press. Moderate storms like Hurricane Matthew, which hit Cuba in October 2016, and severe ones like Irma, which passed through the island last September, were the perfect occasions to get the Cuban people used to the houses of wooden walls and palm-leaf ceilings that we have traditionally known as bohio. For decades it was considered a sign of the backwardness inherited by the revolutionary government, a sign that inevitably faded due to the government’s regenerative work.
On October 19, 2016, the official newspaper Juventud Rebelde published a news piece entitled »The return to the houses in Maisí.« The text addressed the return to their homes of people that had been temporarily housed in shelters for security reasons during the passage of Hurricane Matthew over eastern Cuba. The article was accompanied by a picture in which a group of men could be seen shaping a wall out of old boards. Over them, a rusty metal plank showed what would be the ceiling of the resident of what the headline defined as a house.

»Moderate storms like Hurricane Matthew, which hit Cuba in October 2016, and severe ones like Irma, which passed through the island last September, were the perfect occasions to get the Cuban people used to the houses of wooden walls and palm-leaf ceilings that we have traditionally known as bohioBoris González Arenas

The passage of Hurricane Irma over Cuba has renewed this tendency. On September 23, 2017, the official daily Granma published the piece »About Palms, solidarity and grateful people,« which described the construction of a few bohíos in Esmeralda, a community from Camaguey. The article’s author took the precaution of referring to these constructions as »rustic houses,« rather than bohíos.
But if the referred articles assume a pure reporting stand, in »The different Light and the Tomorrow« we find the embellishment of precariousness with transcendental connotations. We read about colors that shall return, »the disaster’s clinging humidity« and about a reconstruction incomprehensible »to those who ignore our cheerful guts, made for utopia and the extraordinary everyday life.«
The article occupies a third of the first page of the Juventud Rebelde edition of September 22, 2017. The other two-thirds are occupied by the picture of a wooden house with a zinc plank for a roof, on the left side of which a Cuban flag casts a shadow over a barefoot, self-absorbed kid.

If in the past Castrism displayed a vigorous social-led narrative that associated phenomena such as the unity of revolutionary peoples, solidarity, and courage to achievements that would equally benefit everyone, the above-listed articles distort the balance, accommodating the old rhetoric to the construction of a handful of miserable houses. Perhaps it is not that far away the day in which the first page of one of our few Cuban newspapers will triumphantly announce: »Revolutionary government delivers 100,000 bohíos
The housing problem had symbolic importance to Castrism. In »History Will Absolve Me,« Fidel Castro denounced it as one of the illnesses of the nation and assured that »A revolutionary government will solve the housing problem … demolishing those infernal tenement blocks to replace them with modern buildings of many floors, and financing the construction of houses in the whole island in an unseen scale (Edit. Ciencias Sociales, Cuba, 1975, p. 89).« In 1959 two institutions were created with the objective of fulfilling this promise: The Instituto Nacional de Ahorro y Vivienda – INAV (National Institute of Residence and Provision) and the Departamento de Vivienda Campesina (Peasant Housing Department), which together delivered 90,000 homes between 1959 and 1963, year in which this number began to decline. It would be propaganda’s role to cover the failure with the logic that, if tenement houses weren’t capable of assuming their role as flooring for further constructions – the official idea put forward by Castro himself, then these didn´t deserve to even be seen.
The 1972 documentary film We Don’t Have the Right to Wait, directed by Rogelio Paris with a script by Julio García Espinosa, illustrates the importance of propaganda in this process. Produced during a construction peak, a passage of the feature-length film states that »The first years of the Revolution were enough to largely make up for the 56 year-long heritage of the pseudo republic. In 1958 … from a population of just over six million inhabitants, more than half lived in bohíos, tenement blocks, or destitute neighborhoods. Area distribution per citizen was less than two square meters per person in poorer neighborhoods and more than 100 square meters per person in luxury neighborhoods.« The situation in 1958, one can infer from this fragment, was not just deplorable, but quite easy to repair since it was »largely« overcome in the first years of the revolution.

»In many minds, the Cuban revolution and Castrism were associated with a place to live.«Boris González Arenas

Propaganda and lies have been inseparable partners of Castrism. On Friday, September 2, 2005, a headline on the front page of the official newspaper Granma assured that »no fewer than 100,000 houses per year from 2006« would be built. The text referenced a report presented by Carlos Lage Dávila that declared that »the biggest housing program of the history of the country« was about to be launched. Official statistics guarantee that in 2006 this goal was reached, which, taking into account the poor figures registered in 2005 and 2007, seems to be a calculated distortion that favors the promise made by the Cuban government. Whether it was a distortion or not, the numbers of delivered homes per year have decreased to the point that 2015 presented the third-worst results from the past 25 years, with only 23,003 homes delivered.

The intentional invisibility of the bohío and the tenement blocks, however, was successful. In many minds, the Cuban revolution and Castrism were associated with a place to live. During these decades, nevertheless, the bohío and the tenement houses were joined by shelters; temporary residences for people who were waiting for a house that ended up becoming permanent houses without the most elementary conditions for living. These were also joined by the occupation of old industrial units, warehouses and slaughterhouses abandoned by the state. What was before considered a single house has nowadays been sliced horizontally and vertically in order to create new living spaces. Balconies and terraces are enclosed; the space of garages, basements, bathrooms and rooftops is occupied to create spaces to sleep, most of these without conditions for anything else.
The survival of the bohío and the proliferation of the so-called »reconversions« are similarly addressed by architect Mario Coyula in his article »The right to housing, an elusive objective« published in 2009 by a Cuban magazine (Temas, No. 58). The article reads: »The last census, made in 2002, published some data after a long delay, including the fact that the city of Havana had at the time around 670,000 homes. This number includes an undefined number of reconversions, partitions and extensions that hardly possess even the most elementary conditions of inhabitability. The census also states that, excluding Havana, there were 138,035 houses with wooden walls in the country, but yet more disturbing is to know that 35,994 had walls made of Yagua palm or Royal palm wood, 61,146 had clay floor and 76,716 had roofs made of palm leaf. In other words, these were bohíos not much different from those where Native Americans lived in the beginning of the XVI century when Europeans first arrived in the Caribbean (p. 26).«

If we consider the nature of these »reconversions,« we would certainly reach the conclusion that the old bohío and tenement houses are preferable. Maybe this is the reason why our official journalists refer to them with no restrictions, because in the current days the misery is such that a bohío at the foot of a mountain or at the seashore are bucolic and comforting images. It is important for them to know, however, that when Cuban society decided, many decades ago, to eliminate the bohío or the tenement houses, it was because these were the expression of misery and abandon, not the product of solidarity, epical recovery, national success, or the metaphysical foolishness with which our official journalists would like to sublimate the proliferation of destitution.