A crack in the wall?
True home ownership might herald a change in Cuba
Published: (Friday, Aug 26, 2011 04:25AM)
Cuba is about to embark on a revolution, but not a violent revolution
like the 1959 Fidel Castro-led overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista,
nor as grand or as sweeping a revolution as the 1991 collapse of the
Soviet Union. This revolution will be quiet, but it might well transform
the Cuban economy — if not eventually the communist government itself —
and have ripple effects within our own country.
By the end of this year it is expected that the Cuban people will, for
the first time since Castro took control, be allowed to buy and sell
property and vehicles. That may not sound like a big deal to Americans,
who change homes and cars at will, providing they can afford it, but it
will be a huge change for the 11 million citizens of Cuba, who have
lived and worked under the tight strictures of their socialist society
for more than a half-century. It will have implications as well for many
of the roughly 1 million Cuban exiles who have fled to the United
States, many of whom still own property on the island — indirectly or
Under the current system, Cubans are allowed to own cars and houses but
can sell them only to the state, or swap them to other individuals for
property of equal value. As a result of these limits, properties seldom
change hands. More importantly, the restrictions have been the major
factor in creating a desperate housing shortage; one recent study
estimated that the country has a housing deficit of 1.6 million units,
although the government insists it's closer to a third that number.
Whichever is the case, families repeatedly have subdivided existing
housing to accommodate growth.
Reforms began in earnest in 2008 after Raul Castro assumed the powers of
his ailing older brother. Restrictions against buying products such as
DVD players, computers and microwave ovens were removed, and unused
state-owned land was turned over to private farmers and cooperatives.
Restrictions against cell phone use are gone, opening a widening channel
of communication to the world beyond the island. The government even is
looking into letting Cubans travel freely outside the country.
People who look at the latest development as a crumbling of Cuba's
socialist system may be doomed to disappointment. While many Cubans seem
certain to embrace the opportunity to truly own their own homes once
again — and perhaps profit a bit by being able to buy and sell
properties without state intervention — there will be limitations:
Ownership will be restricted to a single home, and full-time residency
will be required. There are also lesser, if thorny, issues to be dealt
with, such as longtime laws banning evictions and classified
advertising. And few Cubans are likely to want to surrender or
compromise the gains of the 1959 revolution, such as free health care,
free education and full retirement benefits, should they be affected.
But any step, no matter how small or halting, that moves Cuba toward
greater political and economic freedom is positive. Cuba isn't likely to
experience a housing boom anytime soon — the construction industry on
the island is virtually nonexistent, and there remain legal property
rights issues for the courts to sort out. But Cuba appears to be
evolving toward greater freedom. Movement along such a course, once
under way, is difficult to halt or reverse.
Notably, the changes are coming in response to internal economic and
social pressure, rather than as a result of outside intervention."