by Tom Ramstack
The Cuban government made a move this week to cast off its hard line communist policies with an announcement that its citizens can now buy and sell real estate.
Until now, Cubans were allowed only to barter their homes for other homes of equal or lesser value.
The announcement reverses a policy that has stood since the 1988 General Housing Law.
The new rules that allow private ownership of real estate are the latest of several free market reforms instituted by Fidel Castro's younger brother, Raul, who took over Cuba's leadership in 2008 as his older brother's health declined.
He said he is trying to revive Cuba's economy, which has been staggering badly during world recession and the ongoing U.S. embargo of the island nation.
His other reforms have included eliminating a half million government jobs to reduce Cuba's bureaucracy and allowing citizens to start their own small businesses.
Sales of real estate can begin Nov. 10, the official Cuban news media announced.
However, purchasers are limited to buying no more than one primary residence and one vacation home.
The barter system of home trades often took years to complete a transaction.
The complex deals also encouraged a black market of home sales. Purchasers who were deceived into believing they were getting value for their money were left with no legal remedies because of the illegal sales.
The new rule also allows Cubans to bequeath their real estate to relatives, even if they have not lived in it previously.
Real estate inheritances were banned until now. Instead, property rights reverted to the government upon the death of the residents.
The Cuban government announcement of Law Decree 288 said the new law "stipulates the guarantee by the state of personal ownership of housing under legal title, which allows the use, enjoyment and disposition of such property."
The official announcement said "the need to contribute a solution to the housing problem in the country advises in favor of removal of prohibitions and limitations on flexibility in acts of transfer of ownership of housing, in order to ensure effective exercise of the rights of homeowners."
Economists say home ownership would benefit Cuba's economy by encouraging private investment in housing and surrounding communities.
The Cuban government will remain the country's only homebuilder, which is creating questions about whether the housing shortage will be relieved.
Often, several generations of a family have been forced to live in a single home. Other families sometimes had no choice but to share their homes with non-relatives while they awaited government permission for their own houses.
Home ownership would allow residents to build equity they could use to get loans and start businesses, according to economists.
It also would raise new tax revenue for the government. Home buyers and sellers will be required to split an 8 percent tax on the assessed value of the real estate.
In addition, all home sales must be financed through Cuba's Central Bank, which will charge unspecified fees.
Economists say although the new law is encouraging for the personal finances of Cubans, it will take years for positive changes to occur. Few Cubans now have the money to buy their own homes.
However, some have relatives in the United States.
Since President Barack Obama decided in 2009 to allow Cuban-Americans to send remittances home, a steady stream of cash has flowed to Cuba from the United States.
Cuba allows sale of private property for the first time since the revolution
The Communist Cuban government authorized the legal transfer of private property this week for the first time since the Castro regime took power in the late 1950s.
The rule allows for the sale and exchange of real estate in cases where the owner is leaving the country, going through a divorce or has died.
The law requires the buyer to swear that he or she does not own any other property.
The move is an effort by President Raul Castro to stimulate the country's stagnant economy.
Cuba has also opened up its coast to offshore oil drilling, another move to spark the economy and to help it become more energy independent.
A Spanish oil company is expected to begin drilling on a giant semi-submersible rig in the Florida Straits as early as next month.
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