Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Cuba: Taking care of business in spite of Castro

Room for rent

Lucas Garve, Fundación por la Libertad de Expresión

HAVANA, July (www.cubanet.org) - A Canadian visitor to Havana last spring found lodgings through the Internet: an air conditioned room with bath in a spacious apartment on Empedrado Street. Online, 30 dollars a day for an attractive room in Old Havana seemed very reasonable.

Three hours away from Montreal, firmly planted on tropical reality, the air conditioned room became a windowless 9 by 12 in an apartment to be shared with the very portly proprietress, whose clothes filled the one closet in the room. All of a sudden, 30 dollars payable daily to the landlady with the bulldog face did not seem so very reasonable.

Mercifully, the tropical mirage is deceiving but accommodating. A few hours later, with the help of a Cuban friend, he had a whole apartment to himself, just a few blocks away, for the same price.

He had entered the world of Rooms for Rent; an intangible but nevertheless rock-solid net of Cubans who seek to supplement their meager incomes by renting out all or part of houses or apartments, the need for which they may have outgrown, to foreign visitors paying in hard currency.

An old woman in Central Havana explains: "Necessity compels... How are you going to live without dollars to get what you need?" she said, adding that she rents two rooms to tourists. "I was afraid at the beginning, but, just imagine, I can't live on my retirement income; my sister is 87 and bedridden. What do I want this big house for if not to rent it?"

The mostly illegal rental system has codes, rules and regulations, and operating protocols, perfectly understood by all, with not a word written down. The Canadian's friend received a 5 dollar per rental-day commission from the owner of the apartment. Friend or not, that's the going rate.

Sometimes there may be two or three apartments in a building whose owners rent them out. They typically cooperate with each other to keep occupancy rates up. The other residents quietly offer the renters services such as housekeeping, laundry, cooking, or any imaginable service a tourist might require. All in the shadow of the law which long since banned the exploitation of man by man.

There are 3,300 licensed renters in Havana, according to an official in the Rental Department of the Havana Housing Authority. They pay roughly 300 to 400 dollars a month in taxes and fees. In the first five months of this year, 530 lost their licenses for doing building additions or remodeling without a permit. In addition, 73 unlicensed renters saw their housing units confiscated. Still, the pressures are strong.

Mario, a 70-year-old pensioner, said his wife was fearful and deterred him from renting. He has been a widower for the last four years, and lives alone in an apartment that he rents for 25 dollars a day. That's 650 pesos a day. His pension is 123 pesos a month.

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