Cubans know, in the back of their mind, that there are “transition shelters” dappled across their island. The most terrible, the most horrific, the most inhumane of these albergues are the concrete apartment complexes that have few windows, collective bathrooms and no access to public transport. Lacking regular piped water, a centralized sewerage system and privacy between the prisonesque apartments, these shelters are spoken of as “the worst of the worst”.
And their residents are spoken of as Numeros Perdidos – The Forgotten Numbers.
These Cubans – widows, uncles, workers, cousins – wait in vain for a new housing allocation from the government, the people’s government.
I move through the backstreets of Old Havana on foot. The iconic art deco townhouses, loved by the lens of the tourist, loll me into a daydream. Sea foam aqua, lime green sorbet, Pink Panther pink – the blistering wallpaper of a bygone era.
I round a corner and see a puff of dust explode from an upstairs window. It billows elegantly in the fading afternoon light. I could take a photo – the perfect image of Soviet romance.
Then I hear the screams of a family within. Parts of brick are falling and suddenly the whole upstairs floor shudders. The smell of ash clouds my lungs. The house is collapsing.
Other pedestrians halt to a stop. We take a communal gasp of breath and brace ourselves for the building’s collapse.
But the house does not fall. The dust makes a final pathetic wimper. Then settles.
Frozen in the moment between standing and fallen, Cubans call these houses the Static Miracles.
This is their story.
FULL WIDTH PARALLAX VIDEO:
Bus going past condemned building
El Departamento de Diagnóstico
VISUAL ICON: JJ drawing of Milagro
Jolie lights a cigarette as soon as I sit down. Her small apartment is not unique. It has high ceilings, narrow doorways and flowing floral curtains made from some sort of synthetic organza. She is a burly woman with heavy purple eye shadow and works in the city’s Housing Department as a Diagnostic Technician.
We are in front of her desktop computer. Jolie has the only Internet connection in the whole neighborhood and this makes her proud. Some of her neighbors loiter in the doorway, keen to send emails to family members in Miami, and eager to join our conversation.
“I assess the danger,” Jolie explains.
Her job as a Diagnostic Technician is to enter a potentially dangerous house and decide whether the house is more standing or more fallen. Her analysis dictates whether the residents can stay or if they must be moved to a state-run transition shelter where they will await a new home.
“Sometimes I feel like I am playing God,” she says.
No one wants to leave their home. No one ever wants to move to a shelter. And most people, she explains, know that once they are in a shelter they don’t ever get out.
Jolie lights another cigarette.
Housing for All is one of the long-held ideals of Cuba’s communist revolution. In Castro’s Cuba, housing is a right, not a commodity. Housing is equitable. Accessible to everyone, denied to no one. And, the final guiding principle: the state is totally in charge of all decisions about housing.
VISUAL ICON: Small smoking cigarette (looks like a milagro)
Jolie stubs out her cigarette in a small, enamel coffee cup. She claps her hands.
“Let me tell you about the apartment block across the road.”
It was an important building. Fidel had once given a speech there during the revolution. The apartments themselves were nice – large – filled with doctors, teachers, party members.
Last year Jolie was part of the team that discovered major structural damage in the building. Everyone would have to leave.
On the designated deadline day, there were fire trucks, police, social workers, politicians and Jolie’s diagnostic team. Everyone short of Fidel himself.
The day started early but by 9am only seven of the 80 families had actually left the premises.
Her team waited.
By 11 am, 15 families were out.
And by 3pm, only 30 families had left their homes.
At 5 in the afternoon, the fire brigade entered. They politely knocked on doors, trying to cajole people down. They then proceeded to forcibly open people’s doors and carry them down.
One woman had boarded her apartment up from the inside. They forced their way in and brought her out too.
Jolie, dragging a deep breath of smoke, tells me it was a huge spectacle.
“So where did they go?” I ask.
“Everywhere,” she says.
Some were party members and they were given decent apartments on the outskirts of Havana. Others were given available apartments across the city.
The rest ended up at an old school converted into a state-run shelter. They were made to live in old classrooms.
Two years later, the iconic building is still boarded up. Renovations are yet to begin.
Standing now, leaning on the edge of her computer desk, Jolie addresses her audience – the neighbors and me – with sweeping gestures and dramatic pauses.
There is one case that still haunts her.
“I am called to a house late in the evening,” she recounts.
“The electricity is out and I am climbing the stairs, in the dark, in my high heels. And suddenly something falls.
“I think, ‘Shit, my heels have snapped.’
“But it was a huge chunk of the staircase.”
Jolie bellows a deep, granular laugh. Then she’s silent for a moment.
“I told them that night that they needed to leave. [The building] was ready to go. But they told me they would rather spend their days in danger in their own home than to be moved to somewhere they didn’t know.
“I got the call early in the morning. The mother and her baby had died. The father was in hospital. I had to go and survey the damage.
“You can’t save everyone you know.
All that was left in the end, just a pile of dust”.
Chapter 3 – Milagro
CHAPTER VIDEO: Tilt shot of her house
VISUAL ICON: Milagro of Milagro
I had seen the house several times. It wasn’t hard to miss. On the corner of a busy intersection in central Havana, it was more leaning than standing. I assumed no one lived in the building, and everyone on the street told me as such.
But one afternoon, as the city was shutting up shop, I am proven wrong.
Incautiously, I enter the foyer of building, interested in witnessing first hand the inside of a Static Miracle. It is cooler and darker inside, a respite from the relentless humidity and unforgiving sun. Towards the stairwell, I navigate small piles of ceiling plaster that appear to be swept by hand.
I am not up one flight of stairs when a small dog, and then another, come bounding downwards at me. I look up and am met by a wiry but handsome woman who does not look particularly surprised to see me.
“Everyone was moved out years ago,” she says, scratching the belly of the older dog.
“Everyone except Milagro.”
Yes, I interpret in English; Everyone and everything has left, yes, except faith itself.
“Milagro!” she says again, poking her chest emphatically.
Milagro, the only person left living in this otherwise abandoned apartment block. Milagro, the relic.
I follow Milagro up the concrete stairs to her second-floor apartment. With the handle of her broom, she ushers her two scruffy dogs inside the kitchen door. Then she waves me in too.
She brushes dust from a wire kitchen chair. I sit. She puts some coffee on to boil then climbs a small foot ladder and begins prodding the ceiling with the handle of her broom.
Over the top of her loud banging, she yells to me:
“I once knew a guy that died in his home from one of these chunks falling right on his head.”
GIFF Milagro poking the ceiling
Continuing her task of ceiling maintenance, she tells me that no one is helping her. No one is finding her a home. People are allowing her to live in such a building.
Milagro’s face is worn and her skeletal body is covered in the etchings of time. Her jaw is rigid and her eyes, well, they are scared, curious and trusting. She looks like a very old little girl.
GIFF Milagro sweeping the mess up
I visit Milagro again and again after the first chance meeting.
She lived in the house with her parents until they died of old age in the 1990s – and the house hasn’t changed since. She likes to keep it the way they, her parents, kept it. She can’t remember when the decay began. The house was falling even when she was young.
Sifting through old photos of her parents posing in the house, she is reminded of a time her family was taken to a transition shelter – to an albergue. Evacuated from their home after a hurricane destroyed buildings across Havana, her family given floor space at an appropriated department store, sleeping alongside hundreds of other people.
“Those were the days”, she says, with a curiously joyful glint in her eyes. Those were the days – when her parents were alive. The days when her parents took care of her.
PARALLAX BLOCK: Transcript of Milagro on phone to Housing Department over image
AUDIO: Spanish audio of Milagro on phone – heated conversation
MILAGRO: Good morning. Erika, please.
Ok, when will she be back?
She told me to call because…
It’s about the Concordia 56 case. She told me she would have an answer. My building is falling down. It’s in demolition and the only person left is me…
I’ve nothing illegal going on. I don’t know what to expect any more.
Who should I talk to?
I got mad and I went to the Government Office.
I said my piece with Olguita. “I’ve nothing to do with that,” she said. She told me that Erica should solve it…
If the government doesn’t solve it, who does?
And then the government sends me back to Olguita. And then Olguita sends me back to you.
Should I write another letter to the Board?
I will. With my name and address on it because no one is resolving anything.
And the bomb is almost exploding! They can call me a snitch.
VISUAL: Milagro petting her dog
Milagro’s building was emptied out years ago when a diagnostic team like Jolie’s declared it uninhabitable.
Yet Milagro remains.
It is unclear to me, even after weeks of conversation, why Milagro was not evacuated when her neighbours were. One day she says it is because the albergues were all full. The next day she says it is because she wasn’t at home the day everyone else was removed. The next day she confesses she was offered a space in an albergue several hours from Havana but rejected the offer – that would make her on of the Forgotten Numbers.
PHOTO SLIDESHOW of things left behind
Milagro was three years old when her family came to live in this elegant home. Two years later, Castro’s Cuba was born. The fear of poverty, of hunger, of hopelessness that had pervaded the island under early capitalism washed away with the promise of the socialist dream. Loyally, hopefully, the little girl at 56 Concordia Street gave her freedoms to the state, and in exchange, the state collectively provided her needs.
Until they didn’t.
So how does she provide for herself when Papa Castro is unable to, when his Cuba is caught somewhere between standing and fallen?
GIFF Milagro poking ceiling Part Two
Chapter 4 – El Primero de Mayo
CHAPTER VIDEO: Marie walking abstract
VISUAL ICON: Milagro sketch of mourning
The 1st of May is sacred day in Cuba. Hundreds of thousands of citizens file into Havana’s expansive Revolution Square to celebrate the commitment and achievement of laborers around the world.
The final year I lived in Cuba – 2013 – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died of a heart attack. In honor of his seminal influence on Cuba’s way of life, what seemed like the whole country was in attendance for the May Day celebrations. Hearts were beating for Chavez, for Cuba, for Communist dream.
The whole country – except some Forgotten Numbers.
Beautiful, young Marie, leaning on the front door of the albergue she has lived in for the past eleven years, tells me she won’t march at the Square. Nor will her mum.
“We stopped going years ago,” she says. There is a sudden, loud wail from a cabal of children playing across the courtyard. I feel a few drops of rain slide down my forehead. The First of May is also considered a lucky day in Cuba – It’s when the rain begins.
Drawing back the faded lace curtains, we watch the children begin to dance, rolling their chests rhythmically towards the falling sky. Their parents join in, contorting their bodies with joyful Cuban sensuality.
Marie’s mother looks up from her knitting and passes me a warm smile. Her wiry fingers knot together a small child’s sweater with assorted odd-ends of wool. Marie tilts her head conspiratorially and I follow her into the small bedroom, leaving her mother alone by the window with the sound of the rain and the celebrations.
MARIE VIDEO: Part one
Marie shows Gabrielle a photo of her sister
“It was 22nd August 2000,” she recalls. “Just imagine. August in Cuba, raining like crazy. It’s raining. It is raining so much.
“Me and my cousin are on our way to a birthday party. Both of us are going to the party. I had told my sister I would hang out with her afterwards.
“And when I arrive back, nothing is left.
“Everything has fallen.
“There are so many people outside the house. And they have taken my sister out. My mum is in the hospital. My uncle is in the hospital. The three of them were in the house when it collapsed.
“I go to the hospital and my mum is having spinal surgery because of the collapse. My mum doesn’t know that my sister has died. No one knows that my sister has died.
“When they took her out of there…”
PARALLAX BLOCK with scroll effect
“I remember that day it was raining so much”
“August in Cuba, it rains like crazy”
“Afterwards comes the sun”
“And then all the houses in Old Havana”
“Start to fall”
“This is really hard,” she tells me through a choked throat.
“When they took her out of there they went straight to the morgue. And we went to the hospital, asking everyone where she was.
“Until we discovered that she had been killed.
“My sister was 21 years old.”
I ask, “Is the house still there or have they built something else?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I really don’t know because I have never gone back there. For me, that area of Old Havana doesn’t exist and I don’t ever pass by”.
And then, before I know what is happening, she has uncurled her feet and is pacing toward the door. It is May Day, it is raining – and Marie is returning to her childhood home that killed her only sister.
MARIE VIDEO (3)
Marie visits her family home
Even though it was just blocks away, Marie hadn’t return to her collapsed home for in eleven years.
For eleven years, Marie and her family have been living in an official state-run transition shelter. They’ve been waiting to be allocated a new home for eleven years.
“This was supposed to be temporary,” she says when I visit her a couple of weeks after May Day. “And every year that comes around, I think, my God, another year here. Another year without having your own…”
She holds her palm to her chest, looking for the words.
“…Feeling like its mine.”
Chapter 5 – Le Alburgues
CHAPTER VIDEO: Montage of The Alburgues
VISUAL ICON: A milagro sketch of symbol of transition
Marie’s albergue is relatively modern, relatively functional. It has a sign out the front, stating that it is indeed an official transition shelter. It is also positioned on the most popular tourist corner in Old Havana. It is the show pony for visiting officials.
Most albergues, however, are not so obvious. They do not have signs. They are appropriated apartment blocks, converted factories, adapted hotels, schools or even old brothels. One shelter I visit is simply an old community hall with bed sheets strung up, dividing one family’s home from another.
Officially, the shelters are temporary homes for Cubans evacuated from their Static Miracles to await the allocation of a new state-owned home.
Unofficially, in reality, these transit homes are more like permanent encampment.
VIDEO: Outside San Ignacio
The San Ignacio albergue is an old factory warehouse transformed in to a kind of apartment block. Each family is allocated a small room, with plywood partitions. There are no windows or private bathrooms. There is no running water and no cooling system.
I spiral my way around the central courtyard balcony and peek inside the private life of each family. The fourth wall of their tiny home has been sliced away and I am witness to the intimacies of their relationships, their imaginations and their passions. Their loyalty astounds me – waiting, waiting, waiting – for years.
THMUBNAIL VIDEO GALLERY: San Ignacio Albergue
Thumbnail grid to be clicked video at a time. Then different scenes pop up, with no personal identifying features. Maybe just first initials, to reflect their dehumanizing reality.
The residents of St Ignatio albergue are quick to remind me they are not the “worst of the worst”.
“Thank Dear God to the Heavens Above that we aren’t one of the Forgotten Numbers,” they say.
“And thank dear Fidel too,” they add.
FINAL SLIDE OF SLIDESHOW: Present day situation regarding housing in Cuba
Milagro is a short observational film directed by Gabrielle Brady and edited by Miranda Grant. Gabrielle intends to produce a feature film about the Static Miracles.
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