The cement problem and the housing program in Cuba

Revive microbrigades to solve Cuba's housing problem?

HAVANA, Dec. 23th Until mid-October, when he left his job as a mason at the new cement factory in Nuevitas, Omar had barely worked to cover his lodging expenses and accumulate a few hundred pesos a month. Between the intermittent input of materials and the mismatches in the pay scales, it had long been difficult for him to balance his accounts. So one day he decided to leave, as did many others before him.

He now waits for the beginning of 2022 to join a construction brigade in Cárdenas, where according to what he has been assured, there is no shortage of work and the salary is several times higher than his last payroll. “That is a ‘prioritized investment’ only in name, every so often they had to ask us to stretch the materials to finish a work or they would delay the completion date again.

These are situations that you cannot deal with if your salary is dependent on pay for results. To a relative who asked me about the factory, I told him: ‘If you are going to go into construction, don’t wait for the Nuevitas cement, that is going to delay,’” he says.

The first works in the Camagüey enclave date back to 2018, when the Cement Business Group got the green light for a recovery program that hoped to replace the old 26 de Julio plant, along with those in Santiago de Cuba and Siguaney, with new industries. In a second moment, until 2025, the improvements would reach the rest of the cement enterprises on the island.

Ultimately, the investment has not reached the Sancti Spíritus industry, which continues to produce at rates that do not exceed a tenth of its design capabilities.

According to estimates by Minister of Construction René Mesa Villafaña, the Cuban cement industry will close in 2021 with its worst records in more than six decades. Its plan, which was 560,000 tons and already supposed a fall of almost 50% compared to the meagre production of 2020, will be breached by at least 83,000 tons, according to the official. But as soon as next year a dramatic recovery could be expected.

More than 1.4 million tons of cement could leave the Cuban kilns during the next year, taking advantage of the complete synchronization of the new Santiago de Cuba plant and the first deliveries of the one located in Nuevitas (which is expected to regularize its activity in the first quarter of 2023).

True to the spirit of the times, Mesa Villafaña ventured that up to 150,000 tons of cement would be marketed in freely convertible currency to individuals and new forms of non-state management, and that “after we cover the entire domestic market, the country would begin exporting.”

His confidence is out of step with the continuous calls of Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdés Menéndez to use technologies that “save energy carriers.” In November, during a visit to the Nuevitas cement factory, Valdés Menéndez called for “taking advantage of clay to make more bricks rather than blocks [and] use brick vaults, which allow progress in the construction of houses that are still waiting for closure.”

Statistics on cement in Cuba were in the red since before the pandemic. Between 2015 and 2019, the island remained among the three Latin American countries with the lowest per capita consumption of this construction material (its 132 kilograms per year represented less than half the regional average, which is 272 kg per inhabitant).

The reports of the Inter-American Cement Federation also detail how the drop in production could not be offset by purchases abroad, unlike what neighbouring states did. Considering what happened during the last two years, the calls for saving by Ramiro Valdés seem more acceptable than the optimism of the minister of construction.

A pause

In December 2018, Mesa Villafaña assured the National Assembly of People’s Power that in a decade it would be possible to solve the housing problem in Cuba. Achieving it depended on 527,575 buildings being built and 402,120 rehabilitated.

The new Housing Policy in Cuba, presented by the agency in charge, details in 47 pages even the technologies to be used by each territory and the investments that must be made in the industries that contribute to the sector.

With a housing deficit of around 930,000 homes, and with 1.490 million in fair or poor condition (39% of the housing fund), the Ministry of Construction stated that the bulk of the actions should be borne by the population, under the modality of their own effort.

Only in Havana and Santiago de Cuba will “state intervention is greater due to the complexities of these territories,” the general director of Housing, Vivian Rodríguez Salazar,  explained in May 2020.

The plans would not stop even in the face of the health contingency, said the official. “Until the end of the first quarter, we delivered 9,558 homes…. We had not achieved results like that in the last five years,” she said at the time.

During 2020 the Policy planned to conclude 41,000 new homes, and in 2021 the goal rose to 43,600. They were the first steps of a process that should lead towards the end of the decade to plans, when the 65,000 dwellings per year would be exceeded, following a trend that was shaping up to be difficult to meet even in the most favourable scenarios.

In short, at the end of 2020, the island was able to add just 32,874 homes to its housing fund. Compared to the current year, although statistics have not yet been published, all perspectives point to significantly more discreet results.

“There are many masons unemployed due to lack of materials, not only individuals but also a few of those who work with the State,” Omar said. The crisis reaches all aspects of the sector. An acquaintance of his, owner of a tractor and a cart that he used to transport materials, decided to sell them and go to Russia as a mule; “and he has not been the only one,” he added.

The contraction of the cement industry has been accompanied by similar or even more pronounced decreases in other branches. The National Office of Statistics and Information records how the production of rebar fell by 48% between 2017 and 2020, that of aluminium windows and doors by 53% as of 2016, and that of precast concrete (those used in the construction of buildings) 67% as of its best record of the five-year period, in 2018.

Ofelia Rivero, a Camagüey resident recipient of a subsidy does not need a report to know how radical the collapse has been. For two years she has been waiting for a part of the floor and the doors and windows of her house, which is almost finished. “And I can count myself lucky.

Of the group of subsidies that were approved with mine, back in 2017, there are several people who have not been able to go beyond the foundations or the first walls. An acquaintance was sold the bricks for her ‘basic cell,’ but without cement. How do you build a house with only bricks?”

More than 1,400,000 tons of cement should be used next year to build homes in Cuba. This is how the Policy states it…, that when addressing the recovery program of that industry, the number of investments to be made by the government in the country’s six plants was estimated at 744 million dollars.

“The demand for resources requires an increase and efficient use in the current productions of the national industry, with the expansion of productive capacities,” the text stated.

The situation and the pandemic made it necessary to rethink priorities, delaying many of those projections. And although the official discourse continues to bet on more or less possible initiatives due to the lack of materials, the truth is that these are not times of great works. Not even in the cement plants, which were to support the housing program and today barely manage to face their own reconstructions. (Oncuba)