Cuba reforms turn a corner

Last Updated: November 10. 2011 1:00AM Peter Orsi/ associated Press

Havana — The lot in teeming Central Havana used to be the neighborhood eyesore: The shattered ruins of an abandoned building was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and rats before it was cleared in favor of a dreary parking lot and government-run food stand.

Today, all of that is gone. Independent sellers hawk brightly colored clothing, wristbands and earrings as salsa music booms and a line of bicycle taxi drivers forms at the gate to wait for fares among the customers.

Newly empowered entrepreneurs, long held back by the socialist government, speak excitedly of changes that will allow them to buy and sell their homes and cars, and say the emerging new Cuba is here to stay.

Last week’s announcement establishing a real estate market for the first time in 50 years comes just a month after a similar opening for vehicles, and it is convincing even the island’s many cynics that President Raul Castro’s economic reforms, after decades of false starts and false hopes, are here to stay.

“I’ve been an independent worker two times, once before in the 1990s,” said Andres Lambreto Diaz, a 38-year-old clothing seller at the Central Havana bazaar who has seen earlier free-market openings abruptly slammed shut when Fidel Castro reversed course.

Many of the reforms merely acknowledge what had long been black market realities, and they still fall short of the fundamental free-market transformations seen in other communist countries such as Vietnam and China. But collectively, the changes have loosened government’s iron grip over all aspects of the economy.

“The recent announcement that Cubans will be able to sell and buy houses and their used cars underscores how important the changes are,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban-born economist at the University of Denver. “This is one of the most visible economic reforms, with a direct impact on Cuban lives.

A little over a year has passed since the government declared that many more people would be allowed to go into business for themselves and even hire employees.

Some of the announced changes have been delayed, must notably a plan to eliminate 500,000 government jobs, extend bank credits and allow for midsize cooperative companies, but the housing and automobile laws have come in on schedule.

Officials have also shown some sensitivity to popular feedback, modifying the tax code to make things easier for new entrepreneurs and repeatedly changing laws to help new private restaurants be more profitable.

That kind of flexibility has been rare during Cuba’s half-century-long embrace of Marxist theory.

In the 1980s a six-year experiment with private farmers markets was scrapped, as Fidel Castro complained that unscrupulous middlemen were buying up the food and reselling at higher prices.

Castro grudgingly allowed independent workers to begin doing business for themselves after the collapse of the Soviet Union brought Cuba to the brink of economic ruin, then taxed and regulated them nearly into extinction in the late 1990s when the crisis was over.

But Fidel is no longer in charge. His brother Raul Castro has repeatedly said that while he has no intention of scrapping Cuba’s socialist model, there’s no turning back from his reforms.

Subscribe to Detroit News home delivery and receive a SPECIAL INTRODUCTORY OFFER.

Cuba reforms turn a corner


Related Websites

    Be Sociable, Share!