For Cubans, new property rights – and the return of an old anxiety
President Raúl Castro's latest reform lets Cubans buy and sell property for the first time in decades. But the reform has some worried that it could reintroduce pre-revolution class divisions.
Mexico City and Havana
First it was a radically different scene at shopping centers in Havana: curious Cubans perusing cellphones and other luxury items that they could finally buy – legally – if they had the funds.Skip to next paragraph
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Then it was advertisements going up on homes and buildings, with everyone from salon owners to stonemasons offering services as the government increased permits for the self-employed.
And now, long lines are stretching outside notary offices and banks in the country's capital, with Cubans eager to begin the process of selling and buying their homes, a right granted in mid-November for the first time in more than half a century.
IN PICTURES: Cuba's economy
It is the latest reform under Cuban President Raúl Castro, who is attempting to revive the flailing economy and, in doing so, is radically changing the landscape of the communist island.
The housing reform – affecting the widest swath of the population and with the potential to bring in unheard-of revenue streams to Cubans across the country – is considered the most far-reaching reform to date under Mr. Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008.
But, he says, all Cubans need a place to live, and their right to basic housing has been unmet for decades, with a shortage of quality units that Cubans have worked around with their signature creativity.
Many Cubans say they welcome the new reform, not just for the liquid assets it might usher in, but also because it may represent people's best chance yet to take control of their own lives.
Daniel Puentes Arzuaga and his wife, Anay Martínez, live in a dilapidated wooden home in Havana with a crumbling roof that leaks during the hurricane season. Their house will not draw a big price, but it sits on a sizable piece of land. The two hope to sell both in order to buy a more livable apartment, especially since Ms. Martínez is pregnant with her first child.
"It was the right thing for the government to create this law. At least we have the opportunity, even if not the money," Martínez says.
In one of his first moves after taking office in 2008, Castro allowed Cubans to purchase cellphones, DVDs, and other items that were once restricted. That same year, the government leased land to private farmers. This year the administration expanded opportunities for Cubans to start their own businesses. In October he legalized the purchase and sale of cars, and now private property can be bought and sold legally.
This era of change is what's behind a sense of optimism captured in a Freedom House report this fall showing that 41 percent of Cubans say that the country is making progress – a sharp increase from its December 2010 report, when only 15 percent surveyed said they felt similarly. The housing reform is already adding to that sense of optimism.