House Swap—Makeshift
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Complex sequences of trades help Cubans live where they want

— House Swap

06. Trade Dispatches

Gloria sits at a table, mapping out a string of house swaps that she plans to carry out. the strategy, she hopes, will lead to a bigger and better house with better living conditions for her kids.

“These people here, since they are trying to get divorced—I can send the wife and the children to Maria Cristina’s house. and the husband—I’ll put him in the house of that woman who gets spied on,” she says, tracing the trades onto a hand-drawn diagram.“

Domingo can go to the peeper’s house and the peeper to Guillermo’s house. Maria Cristina and Pepe will come here, and then Guillermito, the aunt, Yolanda, and myself will go to Argelina’s house. That’s it! I’ve got it!”

Though foreigners may not appreciate the humor, this scene from the Cuban film Se Permuta evokes laughs in anyone familiar with the quirky business of the permuta. the 80s classic portrays the uniquely complex work of moving houses in the socialist island nation.

Handwritten placards offer housing details on Havana’s streets.

Handwritten placards offer housing details on Havana’s streets.

In most nations outside Cuba, houses sell in a relatively predictable fashion. the seller offers a summary of features, names a price, and lists it—in a newspaper, on Craigslist, with signs planted in the lawn. Potential buyers scan ads for locations, prices, and features that catch their eyes. and the seller, upon auctioning to the highest bidder, must navigate the housing market for another seller for their own new place to buy, lease, or rent.

This method remains foreign—or at least new—to most Cubans today. a state incentive in 1960 made every citizen a property owner. But with newly formed laws following the Cuban revolution of 1959 (which propelled Fidel Castro into power), Cubans could no longer buy or sell. So they developed a workaround: exchange.

Walking past the iconic cars and crumbling colonial architecture, those in search of new abodes keep an eye out for particular signs, dangling off the windows, doors, and any other hangable parts of the classic old buildings. almost always handwritten, they offer a phone number and read “Se permuta” (I am swapping).

Permuta literally means to trade one thing for another—to barter. this is partly true. But to any Cuban, the word signifies an exchange of one person’s living space for another. and it’s not always straightforward.

Simple trades go by the term “1 x 1”, or “one-for-one”. Also common are “multiple permutas” like Gloria’s, where more creativity is required. Perhaps the other party in the swap feels slighted: throw in a motorcycle, car, phone line, or anything else of perceived value, including cash. Perhaps you have a large country house and want to trade to a family who owns two or three city apartments. Perhaps you got unlucky and need to scale down—or lucky, and you want to scale up.

For years, 48-year old Nidia Viera lived in a big house in the verdant southeastern province of Holguin. She missed her eldest daughter, who had moved to Havana, and she knew her other children would do better there too. So she went looking for trades.

“Really, it was easy,” Viera said. “I gave up a big house. and sure, I had to add a little money on top, as anything in the city is always more valuable than that in the country. But the permuta—it has allowed so many people to improve their lives and living conditions.”


Viera believes this method ensures families best meet their needs in moving out. the process, however, is not always seamless. Finding your inverse match through analog advertising can be time-consuming and inefficient. Enter los corredores. A process such as Viera’s is helped along, in great part, by “permuta brokers” who form a micro-industry designed to ease the trading process. these agents adopt the role of matchmaker: they take stock of options, organize traders’ needs, and pair interested parties. Some are sanctioned by the state, but most operate off the books.

The corredores facilitate first contact between families or individuals looking to trade. From there, parties debate the respective values at stake. Should they come to an agreement, they move all their worldly possessions into each other’s homes, shake hands, and call it a day.

Over the last five decades, Cubans have developed a strong notion of how housing values translate without a dollar-sign list price. With no market-value assessments, non-monetary factors take on new importance. a flat space on the rooftop to grow vegetables, a side room that would perfectly house a small, clandestine baking business, or proximity to family: all create trade-values that could supersede more traditional measurements of floors, bathrooms, and square meters. Individual sense of worth becomes the determining factor and a property’s worth relative.

State enforcement has relaxed in recent years, and market capitalism has naturally started making stronger inroads into all elements of Cuban economic life. Some houses, along with many other commodities, now come at a fixed price, less sensitive to the personal needs and wants underwriting the permuta. This new capitalism, however, still remains the minority. Viera sees nudges in this direction. She pauses to ponder the decline of permuta. “No, no, the trade has not been lost. It´s just that before, it was the only option.”



Mobile money fuels a new wave of street trade in San Francisco

— Street Swipes

06. Trade Dispatches