Thursday, November 03, 2011

Story on New Housing Regulations in Cuba

Cuba legalizes sale, purchase of real estate
Much-despised ban on these transactions took effect in stages over the first years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959

HAVANA — For the first time in a half-century, Cubans will be allowed to buy and sell real estate openly, bequeath property to relatives without restriction and avoid forfeiting their homes if they abandon the country.

The highly anticipated new rules instantly transform islanders' cramped, dilapidated homes into potential liquid assets in the most significant reform yet adopted by President Raul Castro since he took over the communist country from his brother in 2008.

But plenty of restrictions remain.

Cuban exiles continue to be barred from owning property on the island, though they can presumably help relatives make purchases by sending money. And foreigners can also hold off on dreams of acquiring a pied-a-terre under the Caribbean sun, since only citizens and permanent residents are eligible.

The law, which takes effect Nov. 10, limits Cubans to owning one home in the city and another in the country, an effort to prevent speculative buying and the accumulation of large real estate holdings. While few Cubans have the money to start a real estate empire, many city dwellers have struggled over the years to maintain title to family homes in the countryside, and the new law legalizes the practice.

The change follows October's legalization of buying and selling cars, though with restrictions that still make it hard for ordinary Cubans to buy new vehicles. The government has also allowed citizens to go into business for themselves in a number of approved jobs — everything from party clowns to food vendors and accountants — and permitted them to rent out rooms and cars.

While Castro has stressed that there will be no departure from Cuba's socialist model, he has also pledged to streamline the state-dominated economy by eliminating hundreds of thousands of state jobs and ending generous subsidies the state can no longer afford.

Cuba's government employs about 80 percent of the workforce, paying wages of just $20 a month in return for free education and health care, and nearly free housing, transportation and basic foods.

Economists and Cuba experts say the new property law will have a profound impact on people's lives, though probably will not be enough by itself to transform the island's limping economy.

Read the full post HERE.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Viva la evolucion (Cuban private market story)

Globe and Mail

In Cuba, it's Viva la evolucion!
sonia verma
HAVANA— From Thursday's Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 8:42PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 9:49PM EDT

Barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants and car washes have sprung up across Cuba in the year since the Communist Party allowed citizens to open small, private businesses in an effort to save the country from ruin.

The government says more than 157,000 people have qualified for business permits and are currently self-employed. This new generation of Cuban entrepreneurs is quietly reshaping the island’s stagnant revolution in a way that was inconceivable when Fidel Castro was in control. The economic changes brought about by his brother Raul, however, are proving slow to take hold.

Many are being implemented by young Cubans with virtually no memory of life before communism. Some new entrepreneurs are struggling to understand how to pay small-business taxes or navigate the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. With virtually no access to bank loans or credit, most are relying on family living abroad to float their new ventures.

Still, Cuba is buzzing with new energy as people attempt, for the first time in their lives, to make money outside of the underground economy. Business owners are experimenting with novel concepts, such as advertising and open competition. It’s unclear, however, how far the Cuban authorities will allow the reforms to go – whether small business owners will be permitted to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, for example, or build empires.

At the moment, however, these new entrepreneurs seem content enough to turn a profit they can officially pocket.

Read the four profiles HERE.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Sunday, September 04, 2011

NYT: The Stomachs of Strongmen

NYT August 20, 2011 The Stomachs of Strongmen By ANN LOUISE BARDACH Ann Louise Bardach is a writer at large for Newsweek and the author of “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington.” Santa Barbara, Calif. THE tribute concert Aug. 12 for Fidel Castro’s 85th birthday, at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, was billed as the Serenata de la Fidelidad (the Serenade to Fidelity). In terms of flat-footed plays on the name of Cuba’s maximum leader, I prefer “The Fideliad” — which speaks to his epic, exhausting and endless run, which began in 1959. Some 5,000 concertgoers turned out for the homage by 22 singers, including Omara Portuondo of the Buena Vista Social Club, but the guest of honor was not present. Instead, he settled for a quiet celebration with family, his 80-year-old brother and presidential successor, Raúl, and his devoted disciple, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The irrepressible Mr. Chávez broke the news on Twitter late Saturday: “Here with Fidel, celebrating his 85th birthday! Viva Fidel!” Over the last decade, the two leaders have celebrated quite a few birthdays together. For his 75th in 2001, Mr. Castro trooped to Caracas for a bash with Mr. Chávez, who hosted a Champagne gala, followed by a nautical tour of Venezuela’s rainforests. The visit, Mr. Chávez said, “gives us an opportunity to let him know how much we love him.” It’s unclear how many birthdays are left for either leader. Both are now facing their greatest challenges yet, not from opposition movements or dissidents, but from their own failing bodies. Mr. Castro nearly died in 2006 during a botched colon surgery to treat a pernicious case of chronic diverticulitis. He passed his 80th birthday lying in a hospital bed, connected to an antibiotic and nutrient drip. Sitting beside him was Hugo Chávez, who has been there at every stage of Mr. Castro’s five-year convalescence, casually jetting into Havana as if it were a stroll around the block. Now the 57-year-old Venezuelan is fighting for his own life, after a baseball-size tumor was removed from his abdomen in Havana’s top hospital in June. It was Fidel Castro, not an oncologist, surgeon or family member, who delivered the bad news to Mr. Chávez post-surgery, and who outlined his prognosis and treatment — along with his usual tips on public relations and political strategies. It is likely, based on his surgeries, symptoms and treatment, that Mr. Chávez has metastasized colorectal cancer. After surgery and radiation, he is probably undergoing at least six months of chemotherapy, again in Havana, where he just finished his second round. As it turned out, Mr. Castro spent much of his birthday giving his friend a pep talk. “We spoke about everything,” Mr. Chávez related upon his return to Caracas. “He said to me: Chávez, ‘You yourself can begin to convince yourself that everything’s over. ... No, no, it’s not over.’ ” Ironically, the hemisphere’s most indomitable strongmen and determined foes of the United States and free market economics have both been felled, at least for now, by abdominal woes — their guts, as it were. It’s just one more anomaly shared by the leader of the country with the world’s largest reserve of oil and that of a debt-saddled island in the Caribbean. The symbiosis between Cuba’s emeritus or former (and in most ways, still de facto) commander in chief and the Venezuelan colonel-turned-oil-sultan is the most powerful and fascinating political alliance in the Americas. Five years before becoming president in 1999 and two years after a failed coup attempt, Mr. Chávez was released from prison and flew to Havana in hopes of meeting his revolutionary hero. Waiting to welcome him at the airport was the man himself. It’s been a lovefest ever since, with Mr. Chávez declaring that Venezuela is sailing in Cuba’s “sea of happiness.” More crucially, after Cuba lost its Russian patron and plummeted into economic free fall, Mr. Chávez gave his friend one of the most magnanimous gifts in history — around 100,000 barrels of oil every day, gratis, with no strings attached — for as long as Cuba wanted it. In exchange, Mr. Castro sent thousands of doctors to Caracas — a deal derided by some critics as “oil for ointment.” No one doubts who got the better deal. Unlike the quid-pro-quo-demanding Soviets, who picked up most of Cuba’s tab for three decades, Mr. Castro now receives adoration from a leader who happily calls him “mi padre.” Not without reason. In 2002, when a coup appeared to have dislodged Mr. Chávez from power, it was Mr. Castro who spent night after night on the phone, tutoring his charge in a strategy to regain power and dispatch his enemies. “Don’t resign! Don’t resign! I kept telling him,” Mr. Castro recounted in his autobiography. Since then, Ramiro Valdés, Cuba’s pre-eminent policeman and spymaster, has made Caracas a second home, reorganizing Venezuela’s military, police force and Internet services (a fiber-optic cable connects the two countries like an umbilical cord). Cuban advisers are dotted throughout Venezuela’s ministries, offering counsel on everything from literacy to opposition movements and elections. There will not be another coup, or many more elections. “Deep down,” says the Venezuelan convalescent in chief, “we are one government.” They don’t call it “Venecuba” for nothing. Hence, if the health of either man further fails — and both are walking the razor’s edge — all bets are off. Read the full story HERE.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cuba's black-market housing trade to go legit

Cuba's black-market housing trade to go legit:
Castro vows to end law prohibiting sale of private property
updated 7/24/2011 5:30:26 PM ET
By Peter Orsi

Each morning before the sun rises too high, Cubans gather at a shaded corner in central Havana, mingling as though at a cocktail party. The icebreaker is always
the same: "What are you offering?"

This is Cuba's informal real-estate bazaar, where a chronic housing shortage brings everyone from newlyweds to retirees together to strike deals that often involve thousands of dollars in under-the-table payments. They're breaking not just the law but communist doctrine by trading and profiting in property, and now their government is about to get in on the action.

President Raul Castro has pledged to legalize the purchase and sale of homes by the end of the year, bringing this informal market out of the shadows as part of an economic reform package under which Cuba is already letting islanders go into business for themselves in 178 designated activities, as restaurateurs, wedding planners, plumbers, carpenters.

An aboveboard housing market promises multiple benefits for the cash-strapped island: It would help ease a housing crunch, stimulate construction employment and generate badly needed tax revenue. It would attack corruption by officials who accept bribes to sign off on illicit deals, and give people options to seek peaceful resolutions to black-market disputes that occasionally erupt into violence.

It's also likely to suck up more hard currency from Cubans abroad who can be counted on to send their families cash to buy, expand and remodel homes, especially since President Barack Obama relaxed the 50-year-old economic embargo to allow unlimited remittances by Cuban-Americans.

"All these things are tied in," said Sergio Diaz-Briquets, a U.S.-based demography expert. "They want expatriate Cubans to contribute money to the Cuban state, and this is one big incentive for people who want to help their families."

But few changes are likely to be as complex and hard to implement as real estate reform.

Read the full post HERE.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Racism remains an issue in Cuba

Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Jun. 03, 2011
Racism remains an issue in Cuba, officials say

Juan O. Tamayo
WASHINGTON The Cuban government will soon cast a media spotlight on the issue of racism on the island, although some programs to improve the lives of black Cubans had to be cut because of economic restraints, a Havana official said Thursday.

Heriberto Feraudy, who heads the quasi-official Cuban Commission against Racism, also said the popularity of Afro-Cuban religions is soaring and indicated that Raúl Castro’s economic reforms may not help blacks as much as whites.

Feraudy, who served 15 years as ambassador to five African nations, and Esteban Morales, a well-known Havana economist who writes often on race, addressed a conference on the issue sponsored by the Center for International Policy, a think tank.

Their unusually frank comments — for decades Cuba officially denied the existence of discrimination on the island — seemed to reflect the growing concern over race issues as the country drops some of its socialist policies and embraces more private enterprise.

Feraudy and Morales — both black — argued that the Fidel and Raúl Castro governments have done more for Cuban blacks since 1952 than any other government in the previous centuries.

“The problem of a division in Cuba (due to racial issues) is not possible,” said Morales, who was reportedly suspended from the Communist Party last year after he wrote a column complaining about the island’s burgeoning official corruption.

But both also agreed that racism persists on the island, and that the issue needs to be discussed and confronted even though “many people” in Cuba argue that the Castro revolution did away with racial discrimination.

Feraudy said some programs adopted under Fidel Castro to help blacks “had to be terminated” because of a shortage of resources — he gave no further details — but added that his commission is pushing for a broad discussion of the race issue.

Read the full story HERE.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Golf Courses Return to Cuba

May 24, 2011
Revolutionary Cuba Now Lays Sand Traps for the Bourgeoisie

MEXICO CITY — One of Fidel Castro’s first acts upon taking power was to get rid of Cuba’s golf courses, seeking to stamp out a sport he and other socialist revolutionaries saw as the epitome of bourgeois excess.

Now, 50 years later, foreign developers say the Cuban government has swung in nearly the opposite direction, giving preliminary approval in recent weeks for four large luxury golf resorts on the island, the first in an expected wave of more than a dozen that the government anticipates will lure free-spending tourists to a nation hungry for cash.

The four initial projects total more than $1.5 billion, with the government’s cut of the profits about half. Plans for the developments include residences that foreigners will be permitted to buy — a rare opportunity from a government that all but banned private property in its push for social equality.

Mr. Castro and his comrade in arms Che Guevara, who worked as a caddie in his youth in Argentina, were photographed in fatigues hitting the links decades ago, in what some have interpreted as an effort to mock either the sport or the golf-loving president at the time of the revolution, Dwight D. Eisenhower — or both.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who maintains close ties with Cuba, has taken aim at the pastime in recent years as well, questioning why, in the face of slums and housing shortages, courses should spread over valuable land “just so some little group of the bourgeois and the petit bourgeois can go and play golf.”

But Cuba’s deteriorating economy and the rise in the sport’s popularity, particularly among big-spending travelers who expect to bring their clubs wherever they go, have softened the government’s view, investors said. Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but Manuel Marrero, the tourism minister, told a conference in Europe this month that the government anticipates going forward with joint ventures to build 16 golf resorts in the near future.

For the past three years, Cuba’s only 18-hole course, a government-owned spread at the Varadero Beach resort area, has even hosted a tournament. It has long ceased to be, its promoters argued, a rich man’s game.

“We were told this foray is the top priority in foreign investment,” said Graham Cooke, a Canadian golf course architect designing a $410 million project at Guardalavaca Beach, along the island’s north coast about 500 miles from Havana, for a consortium of Indians from Canada. The company, Standing Feather International, says it signed a memorandum of agreement with the Cuban government in late April and will be the first to break ground, in September.

Andrew Macdonald, the chief executive of London-based Esencia Group, which helps sponsor the golf tournament in Cuba and is planning a $300 million country club in Varadero, said, “This is a fundamental development in having a more eclectic tourist sector.”
Read the full story HERE in the NYT.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Havana: The State Retreats

New York Review of Books
Havana: The State Retreats
May 26, 2011
José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen


When I picked up my ticket for the only nonstop New York–Havana flight, I was given a list of the goods I could take: ten kilos of medicine and up to twenty kilos of food, duty free. While it’s true that Cuba suffers from the US embargo, it’s also the US and its Cuban exile community that keep the country afloat. The day of the flight, many of my fellow passengers were loaded down with heavy bundles of food and medicine, plasma TV sets in their original packaging, audio equipment, and domestic appliances. In 2010, 324,000 visitors arrived in Cuba on direct flights from the United States like this one, and several economists calculate that remittances to Cuba from the US total more than a billion dollars annually, about 35 percent of the country’s annual foreign exchange inflow.

All that help still isn’t enough. After landing at José Martí International Airport, I find the city in a virtual state of blackout, the celebrated corner of 23rd and L, Havana’s Times Square, empty at 10 PM. It’s as if a catastrophe has struck. There is a constant, ominous feeling of abandonment and crisis. My impression doesn’t much differ from the diagnosis delivered on December 18—days after my arrival—to the Cuban Parliament by the country’s current leader, Raúl Castro: “Either we rectify our course or the time for teetering along on the brink runs out and we go down. And we will go down…[with] the effort of entire generations.”

Certainly the signs of this deep crisis have been in the air for at least twenty years. What’s clear now is that it’s not enough to go on blaming the American bloqueo or the fall of the Soviet Union. Something is wrong with the system itself. This could be glimpsed in the startling comment made by Fidel Castro to the US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and the Latin American scholar Julia Sweig last August: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”
NYR / NYR Tote Bag


What model is he talking about? The Soviet model of forced nationalization. The Cuban Revolution was among other things a cure for the chronic weakness of the Cuban state prior to 1959. The new, postrevolutionary state would take upon itself all that previous governments of Cuba had done so badly. The example of the Soviet Union, with triumphs such as the 1957 launch of Sputnik, seemed to indicate that this was a promising way forward, and it had the added appeal to Cuba’s unelected rulers of calling for government by a single party, virtually without opposition, and the pulverization of civil society.

Now, on my first visit to Cuba in ten years, I had the chance to observe the first signs of the inverse process: the dismantling of this gigantic state, visibly in retreat. I saw the detritus left behind: the disaster of a dysfunctional economy and a deep financial crisis aggravated by a dual currency system. All amid the growing discontent of the population and surging dissidence.

In Havana I buy every bit of printed news on sale at the kiosk near the casa particular where I’m renting a room. Such an unusual interest in publications almost no one reads immediately gives me away as a visitor from abroad. I ask for the recently released official publication “Proyecto de Lineamientos de la Política Económica y Social” (“Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy”), but it’s sold out, the elderly vendor informs me: “All Havana is reading it.” In the end, I buy it secondhand, for ten times the original price, from a passerby who has overheard the conversation.

It’s a twenty-nine-page pamphlet whose 291 points set forth the coming “update” of the Cuban model. These points, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma affirms, were distilled from the vast consulta, or survey, Raúl Castro declared would take place on July 26, 2007, when “more than four million Cubans raised more than a million points.” By and large, the guidelines attempt to reduce the cumbersome size of the state to make it more compact and less costly.

The crux of the debate, I gather, after penetrating the technical jargon all Havana is reading and discussing as if it were a best-selling novel, is whether a new role can be assigned to the state: Can it be imagined more as referee than as star player while ensuring that it doesn’t lose control? There is of course no question that the governing party must remain in power and “safeguard the conquests of the revolution.”

I come to see that in fact the Party is trying to adjust to a transformation that began without much government participation, something the Cuban people started doing on their own. The government is like a general who mandates an “orderly retreat” when his army is being crushed. The “Guidelines” are for keeping up appearances.
Read the full story HERE.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Young Cubans deal with the unimaginable: pink slips

Young Cubans deal with the unimaginable: pink slips
'We have to think differently' to deal with new reality brought in by reforms

By Mary Murray
NBC News
updated 5/4/2011 9:15:41 AM ET

HAVANA — Last hired, first fired – one of those golden laws of free market economies most workers know by heart.

But not Adrián Chacón and Alejandro Ortega, two young repairmen who found themselves on the losing end of the fight for their jobs. The best friends were knocked off balance when the Cuban government changed what had been a hard-and-fast rule for the last 50 years.

Like all Cubans their age, these young men were told all their lives that a tough job market had nothing to do with the Cuban reality – that only capitalist workers faced layoffs. That, under the island’s state controlled socialist economy, work was a guaranteed right.

Sure, the state might not pay people enough to put much food on the table, but anyone looking for work would always be welcomed at some public company or government ministry.

Not so fast …
That promise went out the window last year when Cuban President Raul Castro told people to take a hard look around them.

Cuba, he said, must stop being the “only country in the world where it is not necessary to work.” The only way to heal Cuba’s battered economy, he insisted, was to start producing more, and with fewer people.

Castro first took aim at Cuba’s bloated state payrolls and state-run companies failing to turn a profit. Both drain the public treasury, he argued, at a time when the country’s very survival was at stake.

While promising a wholesale overhaul of Cuba’s financial system, Castro had the state start by laying off workers in droves. His plan was to cut 500,000 jobs by the first quarter of 2011 and more than one million by 2015 – effectively eliminating one in every five jobs.

While that frenetic pace has slowed considerably (perhaps someone figured out that throwing so many people out of work in such a concentrated time could end up fueling social unrest), thousands of younger workers, including Chacón and Ortega, were among the first to go.

Initially, both had similar reactions to the layoffs: anger. Months later, the friends have adapted differently to their circumstances.

Read the full post HERE.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Raul Castro proposes term limits in Cuba

And the Communist Party Congress looms large....


The Associated Press
updated 4/16/2011 12:53:17 PM ET 2011-04-16T16:53:17

HAVANA — Raul Castro proposed term limits for Cuban politicians on Saturday, a remarkable gesture on an island ruled for 52 years by him and his brother, but one unlikely to have a major effect on his own future.

The 79-year-old president told delegates to a crucial Communist Party summit that Cuban politicians and other important officials should be restricted to two, five-year terms. Castro officially took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, meaning he'd be at least 86 when his second term as Cuban leader ended, depending on how the law is written.

The proposal for two terms of five years each was made at the latter stage of a long speech in which the Cuban leader forcefully backed a laundry list of economic changes that together represent a sea change for the country's socialist system, including the eventual elimination of the ration book and other subsidies, the decentralization of the economy and a new reliance on supply and demand in some sectors.

Still, he told party luminaries that he had rejected dozens of suggested reforms that would have allowed the concentration of property in private hands.

Castro said the country had ignored its problems for too long, and made clear Cuba had to make tough decisions if it wanted to survive.

"No country or person can spend more than they have," he said. "Two plus two is four. Never five, much less six or seven — as we have sometimes pretended."

As with the proposals on economic changes, the idea does not yet carry the force of law since the party gathering lacks the powers of parliament. But it is all but certain to be acted on quickly by the national assembly. Fidel Castro was not present for the speech, but a chair was left empty for him near his brother.

HAVANA — Cuba kicked off a crucial Communist Party congress Saturday with a big military and civilian parade to mark 50 years since the defeat of CIA-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs, still celebrated here as a landmark triumph over the island's powerful neighbor to the north.

Thousands of soldiers high-stepped through sprawling Revolution Plaza as a military band played martial music, not far from an iconic sculpture of Ernesto "Che" Guevara that gazes down from the side of the Interior Ministry building. Helicopters whirred and jet fighters in combat formation roared overhead while freshly painted amphibious assault vehicles and rocket launchers rumbled past.

"Long live Fidel! Long live Raul! Long live the Communist Party of Cuba!" a female announcer shouted, and participants responded with shouts of approval.

Tweaking a theme from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a male announcer declared Cuba's revolution to be "Of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble."


Articles in state-run media called the youthful presence a symbol of the continuity of the 1959 revolution — an important theme for Cuban leaders these days, with President Raul Castro at 79 years old and his brother Fidel at 84.

Castro family's aging empire
Raul has acknowledged that this year's Communist Party gathering is likely to be the last overseen by the brothers and those who fought with them a half century ago. In speech after speech, he has lamented that the time the revolutionary generation has left is short, but the work needed to put Cuba's economy on track immense.


Since taking over the presidency permanently in 2008, Raul has turned over tens of thousands of acres of fallow government land to small farmers, opened the economy to a limited amount of free enterprise, and gradually cut some of the generous health and food subsidies Cubans have come to expect in return for working for extremely low wages.

He also has repeatedly warned Cubans that they must work harder if the island's moribund economy is to survive. Plans to lay off hundreds of thousands of state workers have been delayed indefinitely, but Raul has insisted they are still part of a larger five-year reform plan.

Moving away from Marxism
More details of that plan are expected to emerge from the four-day congress, which was scheduled to open with a speech by Raul after the parade. Many Cubans are hoping the congress will expand the list of approved private enterprises and relax rules on buying and selling homes and automobiles, among other measures.

The changes announced by Raul so far have already been a significant departure for a Marxist system where the government employs four-fifths of the work force and dominates nearly the entire economy.

Yet Castro has vowed the changes are meant to improve Cuba's socialist system, not toss it out.
Story: '61 Bay of Pigs victory still inspires Cubans

It's no accident that the congress, the first since 1997, is being held on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs triumph and Fidel Castro's April 16, 1961, announcement that the revolution would forever be socialist in nature.

"It sort of emphasizes where they've been and where they're going now," said Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington who was chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission on the island from 1979 to 1982. "It'll be very interesting to see what comes out of this congress. Just what kind of a new system are we going to see?"

In addition to the economic changes, delegates are expected to vote in new party leaders after Fidel Castro's announcement last month that he is no longer first secretary. With Raul all but certain to take up his brother's mantle, all eyes will be on who is named to the No. 2 spot — a graying revolutionary comrade, or a fresh new face.

Read the full post with images and links