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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.

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Under the new reform, Cubans can sell and buy their properties, or give them to family members if they leave the island. Before, they could only swap homes under a complex set of rules known as the “permute.” With the influx of capital expected under the new rules, the government is betting that owners will renovate homes themselves and that an industry will grow.

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The rules may not immediately change life for many, particularly those who haven't previously owned property or had access to money from relatives in the United States or elsewhere.

Roberto Moreno and Yamila Ronda live in a two-bedroom house in Havana with five other family members. They don't expect to buy a home. "With no other money than our salaries, we won't be able to move," says Mr. Moreno. "But for those who have the chance, being able to sell your property with freedom is only a good thing."

Cubans worry about how the reform will play out over time. Already speculation is running rampant and causing a housing rush of sorts for those with the means. “We have to take advantage now that prices can be moved and that people with a lot of money want a house, because later, when things stabilize, the prices will go down,” says Maria Elena Moncayo, who is retired and hoping to sell her home in Havana.

But a modern real estate market, with mechanisms such as lending, financing, and assessment, is nowhere near formed, says Mauricio Font, director of the Cuba Project and Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies at CUNY.

Among the biggest concerns is that it's the greatest step yet toward a return to class divisions. Havana was rife with segregation prior to its 1959 revolution. When Fidel Castro took power, his goal was to put an end to miserable conditions. His Havana became mixed, not just by class but by race, says Joe Scarpaci, executive director of the nonprofit Center for The Study of Cuban Culture and Economy in Blacksburg, Va.

The government is attempting to prevent a return to class divisions by placing limits on the number of homes that can be owned: one full-time and one vacation home. But certain zones will be attractive to a segment of society that can afford to live in them.

"Time will tell if it gets resegregated," says Mr. Scarpaci, who is just back from his 53rd trip to Cuba. Cubans say they believe the move will exacerbate differences but play down the significance.

"The differences have always existed," Moreno says. "It's just that the government has tried to hide it."

--- The name of the Monitor's correspondent in Havana is withheld for security reasons.

IN PICTURES: Cuba's economy

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