Home sweet (furtive) home
By Desmond Boylan
People in Havana refer to migrant workers from eastern Cuba as “Palestinians.” They arrive in Havana and its outskirts to work and make an honest living, and stay. Many of them have no choice but to secretively build a home in the bush to settle into.
I watched and documented one of these constructions from the ground up and learned many things I had no idea about. I saw the use of several extremely simple but efficient building techniques dating back centuries, and met some very interesting people for whom I now feel great admiration.
The story began with Edelio Suarez, a migrant from the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Edelio, a strongly-built migrant laborer, said jokingly about the nickname put on him in Havana, “Fidel Castro and Raul Castro were the first ‘Palestinians’ to move to Havana in 1959, so why shouldn’t we?”
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro, are from the village of Biran in the Eastern province of Holguin. In 1959 they moved in on Havana at the end of combat in the final phases of the Cuban Revolution. Thousands of migrants have since moved from east to west, working and establishing themselves in and around Havana.
Restrictions on people’s movements in Cuba until last year made it very difficult for migrants to move freely around the country. They still can be sent back to their province of origin if stopped by the police, especially if they cannot prove they have a job. Raul Castro has relaxed those rules so migrants can move more freely now if they have relatives already in or around the capital, but they still they must seek jobs and work within the law.
In Cuba the law is: If a family manages to build a house, put a roof on it, and fit the doors and windows before the authorities come and halt the construction, it then becomes much more difficult to evict them.
The exception for authorities to successfully evict migrant laborers from their homes is over mineral rights if oil, diamonds or gold is found around the house. They can also be evicted if they deem the land necessary for progress like building an airport or a highway there. The government would still have to provide a new home for those people, one somewhat better than a log cabin.
The couple this story is centered on, Osleidis and his wife Thelma, is from the east and recently arrived on the outskirts of Havana with high hopes of making a living. They currently work on farms in the area tilling land, milking goats and doing other chores, while living in a relative’s shed. Their plan is to build a house and eventually save enough money to bring their two-year-old son from back east to join them. They chose a spot on a piece of fallow state-owned land and got to work on their home.
I was privileged to witness and document the construction of this furtive home. It is all based on teamwork and ones helping others. The builders worked quickly in an orderly way and as secretly as possible. It was strenuous and exhausting work, especially procuring planks from palm trees in the bush. Before I knew it a bit of bush had been cleared, six poles appeared stuck in the ground, and a house arose. It was a fascinating process to record, very rare to see and and photograph.
This house is not any old frail hovel or shantytown dwelling, but rather amazingly strong and sturdy with a cool interior in the hot sun. It is comfortable and totally waterproof, able to withstand harsh tropical weather conditions without a problem. The laborers used ancestral techniques passed on by many generations dating back to the Taino Indian population that existed in Cuba before Colon arrived in the Americas. The materials are almost all procured from nature’s Royal Palm tree, all except the nails, hard wood, the thatching for the roof, thick fiber rope and sturdy string. For tools they used only machetes, axes, steel wedges made from discarded axes, and hammers. They didn’t even use a saw!
I asked them, “How can you work without a saw ?” One of the workers looked up with a broad smile and said, “Palm wood is so hard that saws are just no use to us, they just break. We are Cubans and our thing is the machete and some rum now and again to keep going.”
If they are properly built, houses like this can still be in use after 60 or more years. Maybe they just need a few planks replaced and maybe a change of roof every ten or 15 years. A very important detail is the wood for the planks. The structure and the branches that form the thatched roof must be cut in a certain lunar phase when they are free of moisture, and then dried completely in the sun. By doing this the materials will be harder and drier, and will not be infested by insects.
The materials to build the home were secretly procured, stored and hidden in the bush. When they had enough to build, a family member with an ox-drawn cart, one of the strongest, most powerful, rugged and cost effective 4X4 vehicles in the market, would quickly place the materials in position.
The so-called “Palestinians” are very efficient workers, tough and resilient. They speak with their distinctive song-like accent, are affable, very down-to-earth and always happy. They always have a solution for each problem that arises and move forward, never backward. They help each other with no financial interest getting in the way. The whole thing I witnessed was a pure act of solidarity between human beings, pure camaraderie, as opposed to the usual urban dog-eat-dog world. It was a very refreshing feeling that left me wondering.
Cuba’s easterners are believed to be the most revolutionary and supportive of the communist government. I find that when I speak politics to these easterners, or Palestinians, they usually have plenty of issues on what to criticize and complain about the government. But when I prod them a bit further, when I steer the argument to question their socialist system, their revolution and communism, they always close ranks to defend it above all. When their eyes go red with emotion, I end the discussion.
Perhaps, the world’s perception of Cuba is way off track, and Cubans’ perception of the world is just as inaccurate. I am sure the event I witnessed stems from a mixture of a bit of the rebel and communism embedded in Cubans’ minds, and the basic human instinct for survival, independence and freedom. They defied all authority, built the house in a jiffy, settled into their new home and are a now a happy couple, in Cuba, in 2012. Now they can start thinking of bringing their child over from the east, another young “Palestinian” to add to the population of Havana.