The Real Cost of Bureaucracy in Cuba
Housing procedures are complex and protracted, but can be helped along
with a bribe.
By Calixto R. Martínez Árias - Latin America
19 Sep 12
For Cubans, getting anything done can be a real nightmare because of the
amount of paperwork required. It can also be an expensive process
because of the bribes taken by state officials.
People who have been caught in the spider's web of bureaucracy say it is
usual to pay a sweetener to cut through the arduous and seemingly
endless process of obtaining the right approvals.
The Municipal Housing Department in the capital Havana is a prime
example of the obstructions and corrupt practices that people face.
Completing the procedures needed to get a building licence, buy a house
or just change one's address can take years.
Government Decree 217/97 from 1997 requires anyone wishing to live in
the capital Havana to obtain permission from the Municipal Architecture
and Urban Planning Department, a sub-department of Housing. Ostensibly
the permit is to certify that the accommodation in question "meets
minimum housing standards", but in fact the regulation was created to
limit the number of people migrating to Havana from the provinces.
An official document displayed in the identity cards office in the
city's Arroyo Naranjo quarter states that people from other provinces
applying to change their address are subject to Decree 217/97, which
only allows the Municipal Housing Department to approve a provisional
change in address for a six-month period. During that time, the
authorities will evaluate whether a permanent change should be permitted.
This applies even to spouses; the only exceptions are the parents,
children, siblings and grandchildren of the owners of the home where
they are seeking to live.
An officer from the Santiago de las Vegas police department said the
decree means that any citizen found to be living outside their place of
residence is acting illegally, and will be sent back to their place of
origin and fine up to 300 pesos, equivalent to 11 US dollars.
"If they reoffend, they can be punished with up to three years in prison
for the crime of disobedience," he added.
These regulations can, however, be bent by anyone with the money to pay
A young man who requested anonymity described how he and his wife moved
to Havana from Guantánamo province. They had to pay 100 "convertible
pesos" each – at over 100 dollars, worth more than ten months' average
wages in Cuba – to obtain approval for a change in address.
"If we hadn't done it like that, we wouldn't have been able to complete
the change of address," he said. "If you try to find all the documents
that they ask for, you'll never finish. It will prove more expensive,
anyway. Also, neither of us has any family here."
The young man explained how the deceit worked.
"The housing people look for someone here in Havana who has the same
name and surname as your mother or father, and then they make the change
[of address] citing that property," he said.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights –signed although not ratified by Cuba in
2008 – both guarantee the right to free movement within a country's borders.
Applications for licences to build a new structure or modify an existing
one present similar challenges.
Article 15 of Cuba's General Housing Law says a building permit from the
relevant municipal housing department is needed for "the construction,
remodelling and extension of individual homes and apartments, undertaken
as a private initiative of their owners".
Jorge Osorio, a Havana man in his sixties, described how the permission
process really worked.
"Since I began building my house, everything has been done illegally
with bribes paid over. It would have been impossible to finish it or
make it legal any other way," he said.
Calixto R. Martínez Árias is a freelance journalist in Cuba.