Appointed As

Center for the Humanities

Program

William T. Kellyprogram

Host

Washington University in St. Louis

PhD Field of Study

PhD, History, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Dissertation Abstract

“Revolución es Reconstruir: Housing, Everyday Life, and Revolution in Cuba, 1959-1988”

Revolución es Reconstruir examines the mutually constitutive processes through which governments and ordinary citizens constructed cities and state power in a socialist context, and how this process manifested in contestations around built space. It begins in 1959, when Fidel Castro rose to power, and ends in 1988, after a series of major pieces of housing legislation transformed the urban property regime that the revolutionary government had created in the early 1960s. The notion that housing is a human right was a central pillar of revolutionary ideology. In service to this idea, the new government supposedly banned evictions in 1959 and nationalized all rental property in 1960, with the intent of providing every Cuban with a decent home. Housing policy soon became a primary point of contact between ordinary Cubans and their new government. “Revolución es Reconstruir” explores these policies to construct a history of the Cuban Revolution from below.
Enacting revolutionary housing policy, like the Revolution more broadly, did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it required refashioning existing means of housing provision, both within the private sector and local governments. The co-opting and dismantling of these local institutions by the national state, and later, the Communist Party, eliminated access to critical avenues of material recourse for the island’s most vulnerable citizens, including large numbers of Afro-Cubans. At the same time, the government’s neglect of hundreds of thousands of nationalized homes led to widespread infrastructural degradation and frequent housing collapses that sometimes resulted in fatalities. One of the great ironies of Cuban revolutionary housing policy is that its effort to create universal housing ultimately left many trapped in dangerous conditions or forced into illegal informal settlements, and even led at times to homelessness. My dissertation shows how everyday citizens at times drew on the state's revolutionary discourse to critique the government and successfully resist removal from these settlements. Because of them, informal settlements survived and provided many with an escape from failed housing policies.
This close analysis of revolutionary-era housing policy and the ways in which it shaped daily life on the island offers insight into aspects of the revolutionary project that stretch far beyond the material realm. First, it demonstrates that the national state played a less critical role in shaping the fabric of the everyday than we may have thought, given the highly centralized nature of Cuban political and economic structures. Second, this analysis challenges the national state’s assertation that it alone embodied the revolutionary project, and that loyalty to the Revolution necessitated loyalty to the state. It was this assertation—that the state and the Party were the Revolution—that justified the state’s rhetorical stance that it alone represented the people, and that, because the state and the citizenry were one, what was best for the state was best for the citizenry. This dissertation shows that, in fact, the state’s interests at times came into direct conflict with those of the population as a whole. It also shows that, when this occurred, the state consistently placed itself and its own agenda above the welfare of the people. Finally, this analysis shows us that despite all of this, many ordinary citizens never lost faith in the ideals upon which the Revolution was built. Rather, they wielded revolutionary ideology as a weapon to defend themselves against state policies that they believed violated the social compact between the state and the citizenry, which was central to the revolutionary project. In so doing, citizens made claims to the city and their right to shape it, while avoiding overtly violent confrontations with the state.