Esmelina Carreño is a 49-year-old chubby black woman with flabby flesh and a tired walk. For six years she has been living in Havana. She was born in Santiago de Cuba, in the middle of the Sierra Maestra mountain range. She is the eighth of twelve children who came to try their luck in the capital city of all Cubans.
One of them, who immigrated 25 years ago, helped her to obtain the change of address . The procedure took time, but thanks to the Our Lady of Charity, she got a job. Things are tough everywhere on the island, but in Havana money is made more easily.
Her goal is to improve the lives of her three daughters and her grandchildren. She cannot bring them with her yet, but every three months, with the help of a neighbour who works in a hospital, she obtains a medical certificate for fifteen days. Thus she can justify two weeks’ sick leave from work. It does not matter that the paper costs her 20 Cuban pesos (less than a dollar). It is nothing compared to the chance to kill her nostalgia and see her family again.
Esmelina is not worried that she will soon turn 50. She worries about only one thing: she needs a house where she can live undisturbed in Havana. To achieve this, she knows she needs to save enough money. This is why she uses her trips to the Eastern provinces to bring back with her coffee, cocoa and cheese which she will resell to people in Havana.
She knows she is taking risks. The police have searched her baggage four times in her 800 km journey from Santiago de Cuba to Havana. She has had to pay as much as a 1,500 peso fine – about 45 dollars [almost four times the average Cuban salary] – for transporting “forbidden goods” which they normally confiscate. But she has learned to camouflage them and take them to the capital city.
Her dreams have begun to materialise. In six years, she has saved enough to buy a piece of land on the outskirts of the city, in a faraway spot in the Cotorro district. The estate has no title deed, it is state owned. The previous holder had had it in usufruct for over 40 years and sold it to her. That does not matter either, after she builds her house, she will legalise it.
With her own effort, she has already put up a room and a bathroom. As she has no license she got her building materials on the black market. For Esmelina it is vital to become independent. She is now living with her older brother.
She has already made another step towards her goal. She has a roof to live under. She has been lucky, the inspectors from the Department of Illegalities from the Municipal Housing Office have not detected the illegal building. If they did, the official state office would initiate a procedure, as regulated in the Decree-Law 227, and she would lose what she has built.
Esmelina is aware that to become an owner, she not only needs the money for the building material, but also for a lawyer specialising in housing problems, who may, “with his left hand,” fix her papers. Otherwise, she risks losing everything or remaining a tenant of what she built with the sweat of her own work .
She asks her saints to delay the inpectors’ visit until she has finished her building and saved enough to realize her plan. In the meantime, she has already made the next step: bringing the youngest of his three daughters and a granddaughter from Santiago de Cuba.
And here begin the obstacles in the race for her dreams. She is trying to enrol her little one in school, but the school demands her change of address. Esmelina is building a house with her own effort, but it is still illegal. And as she is not the owner, she cannot apply to the Municipal Housing Office for her granddaughter, born in another province, to be allowed to live and study in the capital city.
It is the first requirement set by Decree-Law 217 of April 1997, which establishes the “Internal Migratory Regulations for the City of Havana.” This ruling bans Cubans from other parts of the country from residing or sharing a home permanently in the capital city without authorisation.
La Señora Carreño must, in addition, ask permission from the President of the Administration Council of her territory for her daughter and granddaughter to live with her. As well as producing a document issued by the Municipal Office for Architecture and Town Planning certifying that the house fulfills the minimal housing conditions and each co-habitant enjoys 10 square metres of roofed surface.
Esmelina knows well what the procedure is like, as her brother had to carry it out for her to live in the capital city without problems. She knows it is thorny and exhausting. Finding herself between the devil and the deep blue sea, she decided to offer her brother 500 pesos (25 dollars) so he would kindly do it for her. In the meantime she has obtained a three months’ “transit” (permit) so the child can start her classes.
Her granddaughter is eight and is a hard-working pupil. She is just back from school and asks her grandmother’s help with the Civic Education homework that her teacher has set. To do so, she needs to consult the Republic’s Constitution. Esmelina had never seen that booklet nor read that law. She starts reading and stops at paragraphs that puzzle her.
…”The State, as the people’s power, in the service of the people itself, guarantees: that there will be no man or woman who is able to work, without the opportunity to obtain a job to contribute to the ends of society and the satisfaction of their own needs… that there will be no youth without the opportunity to study…”
She forgets that she must help her granddaughter and asks herself, “Why is it that just because they haven’t recognised my daughter’s residence in the capital, no work site or school will take her?”
She goes on reading. She muses again: “My granddaughter suffers from severe skin allergy and receives medical attention, but she can’t get the prescribed medicines at the chemist’s because she can’t prove her residence in the territory. The school wouldn’t accept her for the same reason. So what rights are they talking about?”
In another paragraph they say, “…the State works to the end that there is no family without a comfortable home…”
Now she thinks out loud, “Then, why, if I built my house with my own effort, without any state help, do I risk having it taken away?”
Last, she reads, “that… all citizens are entitled to the same rights and have the same obligations… discrimination by reason of race, origin or any other reason detrimental to human dignity is forbidden and punished by the law… the State warrants the right won by the Revolution for the citizens to reside in any sector, area or neighbourhood of the cities and to lodge in any hotel…”
She closed the booklet whose cover read “Constitution of the Cuban Republic.” She did not wish to read any more. However, she asked herself the last question, “Is it my or my family’s fault not to have been born in Havana?” She had just discovered a sad truth. Nothing that law said corresponded with what she was living.
A big lie. A paper told her that the Revolution guaranteed her rights, but on the other hand, it set such obstacles that prevented her from living as a person. Before she had never thought about that, she saw her existence from a different perspective. And she realises that no matter how hard she tries to sort out difficulties to make her dreams come true, she can stumble on huge legal obstacles. And sorting them out would take an eternity or would be practically impossible.
That evening, Esmelina understood that her country’s constitution is a dead letter. And if they do not enforce it, it may end up in the trash.
Translated by: Raul G. and Carlos España
Photo: zimlichproductions, Flickr