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.

Franklin Reyes/AP
A woman looks out from her balcony in an old building in Havana. A housing law that allows Cubans to freely buy and sell real estate took effect on Nov. 10.

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.

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.

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.

"Not everyone can become an entrepreneur or wants to," says Ted Henken, Cuba expert at Baruch College at the City University of New York (CUNY). “Not everyone can have a car or wants to get one.”

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.

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.

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.

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