Of itself, the change was not quite as significant as it seemed to be at first glance.
Cuba was not legalizing private property or even moving toward anything that might be deemed an actual market in real estate.
All the notice on Friday in the official gazette of the Cuban Justice Ministry did was to expedite the process whereby government workers who had lived in (and rented) government-owned homes can get property titles to those homes and pass them on to their heirs.
According to Reuters, such homes were slated to become privately owned under existing law, but the process was a bureaucratic nightmare.
Still, it’s a step in the direction of recognizing private property, which had been virtually unheard of during the more than 50 years that current Cuban leader Raul Castro’s older brother Fidel ran Cuba.
And it hasn’t been the only step in loosening up government control over the economic lives of Cubans.
Cubans are now allowed to own cell phones and computers (though hardly anybody can actually afford a computer). The ceilings on government salaries have been lifted. And Cubans are now allowed to stay at hotels that had formerly been reserved for foreigners (although again, hardly any Cuban could actually afford to do so).
Cuba is also allowing, for the first time in memory, people to work small plots of land as private farmers rather than undertaking all agricultural production on large-scale government-operated collective farms. Pilot programs have shown that private farmers, even with tiny plots, are more productive than collective farms, and the authorities now figure that expanding the program, putting more plots of unused land into the hands of private farmers, could do a great deal to ease Cuba’s chronic food shortages.
“In and of themselves, they don’t amount to much,” said Roger Fontaine, a State Department Latin American specialist during the Reagan Administration who teaches Latin American history and politics at the Institute of World Politics. But if Raul keeps introducing small steps in the direction of market-oriented economic activity, “it could have an important cumulative impact over time,” he said.
Fontaine also believes the fact that Raul Castro is introducing even these small reforms tells us something about the real condition of long-time Cuban caudillo Fidel Castro. “I can’t see Fidel approving of private ownership of computers or privatizing government housing,” he said.
Cuba was hardly a free-market paradise under Castro’s predecessor, the dictator Fulgencio Batista, nor is it likely to become one any time soon. But small steps in that direction could be difficult to reverse.
A key question is how long Raul Castro, who at almost 77 is rumored to have health issues himself, will last, and whether he can control the pace of reform once it gets under way.
Reform accelerated beyond Mikhail Gorbachev’s capacity to control it in the old Soviet Union, and, in Cuba’s case, Raul has no logical successor. A window to a freer Cuba could be opening, if only a bit at a time.