When I first arrived in Vedado, an area of town in Havana, Cuba, my jaw dropped and my brain went into a frenzy trying to figure out why there were so many astounding mansions everywhere, and why in the hell they were all crumbling. There was literally block after block of the most opulent architecture that boasted styles from the colonial and baroque eras in the form of massive homes.
“Who in the hell lives here?!” I wondered at first, before quickly correcting my thought to the more realistic question — “Who in the hell USED to live here?!”.
I still can’t decide if I feel sad, agitated, or angry about the mansions in Cuba. Their pre-Revolution past makes me mad, their post-Revolution past makes me sad, and their current crumbling states makes me beyond irritated.
You see, these magnificent mansions are not like the well kept ones you’d see anywhere else in the world. These mansions have been unwillingly un-kept for the past seventy years, because some people thought it would be a good idea to eliminate a class system. To be fair, it was because some other people thought it was Ok to build mansions and destroy the Cuban economy, but either way, everything has led to the decrepit, crumbling appearance of most of these once majestic mansions.
It took me a few days to learn fully from the locals in Vedado what was going on, plus a few death stares when I tried to nonchalantly stroll into the open doors of a few of them, but here it is in simple terms, the reason why all the mansions in Cuba are crumbling.
Money came pouring into Havana as the tourists would spend loads on entertainment and gambling, which would eventually lead to the rapid uprise of drugs and prostitution. In fact, one local told me that, “In the 1950’s, you could get cocaine as easily as you could get a beer…just a lot more expensive.”
Soon that was all that Havana was known for; gambling, drugs, and prostitution. While money was abundant in the city of sins, the rest of the Cuban economy was severely weakened as a result of the U.S. influence.
So who were these rich assholes who lived in the mansions?
So to answer the question of who lived in the mansions when they were actually nice mansions…the rich people from the United States who could afford to build such monumental monstrosities.
So where did they all go, you ask?
In January of 1959, Fidel Castro and his army, overthrew Batista (who actually ran away with about $40 mill of government money), and started the Revolution. He immediately put a halt to the gambling and prostitution, which was great for the Cubans, but caused tensions with the U.S.
The Revolutionary leaders despised what Cuba had become, and aimed to eliminate the class system so that everyone would be equal, which is what we like to call “Communism”, and what the U.S. wanted nothing to do with.
So when Castro kicked all of the rich people out of their homes because he wanted everyone to have the same amount of land and money, they all went back to the States, likely assuming the U.S. would do something about him, and that they’d get to go back in a few months and take their mansions back.
But Communism doesn’t work that way.
That means that there were no U.S. building materials, equipment, or cars being shipped in from the U.S. after 1963. Sure, they might have been able to find materials from elsewhere, but OH WAIT, Communism made it so that no one could earn more money to buy things they need, like building supplies and furniture.
Let’s take a quick lesson on Communism in Cuba before I continue. Ahem.
Imagine being a doctor and being paid the same amount as a plumber. That’s what Communism did for the Cuban people after the resolution. Every Cuban person makes the same amount of money (about $40 a month). So how do they pay rent and buy food? I asked this a thousand times, so now I know. For food, the families get “ration cards” that allows them a certain amount of food each week. Once you turn six years old, you no longer get as much meat, and you aren’t allowed to get more than your rations.
School is free, even though English is not taught, and so is medical care, and utilities.
But here’s the catch — rent is also free, so my major question was…
How the hell some people got lucky and got to live in the mansions?!
No, there wasn’t a lottery with one lucky family winning a brand new former-druglord’s mansion. The government assessed everyone, and placed them in homes according to family size, and who their ancestors were. Families with government leaders or notable people obviously got the nicer homes, like the mansions, but the government decided it was still too much space for just one family to have.
That’s why you’ll see multiple families living in these mansions, some upstairs, some downstairs, and some I don’t even know where else. This was why my cousin Pupi got kicked out of my grandmother’s family house in Santiago de Las Vegas – because she was living there alone, so they moved a family in instead.
I’m sure it was somewhat nice for the people who got the mansions back when they were new. But guess what happens to enormous mansions when multiple people live in them, and no one can afford to maintain them?
Everyone says, “Cuba is like a time-capsule”, and “It’s so cool how well preserved Cuba is”. But tell that to the people who involuntarily couldn’t take care of their homes, to restore them to a more current state.
The families are literally sleeping on rubble, and the insides of some of the homes have almost completely collapsed. Vines and mold surround the outsides of most of them, and the once beautiful balconies, now support rows of clotheslines.
Some have recently been restored, but they are owned by embassies, institutions, or the government. For the most part, the mansions still remain the homes of the Cuban families who were placed there 70 years ago.
So what’s going to happen next for the crumbling mansions? And no, you cannot just go to Cuba and buy one to restore it.
I stayed in a Casa Particular, which means a house that has been turned into a place that rents out rooms to tourists. The woman told me her children live in the U.S., and brought things over for her to convert her home into a sort of bed and breakfast. This is one of the only ways for Cubans to make more money than they do at their jobs. They are allowed to profit from renting their homes, as long as they pay about 20% tax to the government.
You can tell that multiple families live in the houses by the ones that are half restored, and half crumbling. That means that one of the families had family that sent them things and the other didn’t.
There are also a lot of Paladores, which translates to “house-restaurant”. Cubans are also allowed to convert all or part of their home into a restaurant, and profit from sales that way as well.
Typically they are in the upper levels of the homes, and the families live downstairs, but I saw one that was set up right on the front yard of one of the biggest mansions I saw.
…in a nutshell.