The Miami Herald
Sat, Apr. 12, 2008

Cuban renters get OK to buy homes from state


Cuban state workers who have been paying rent to the government for years will get a chance to own their properties, the Cuban housing ministry announced in an official decree Friday.

The move came on the heels of a broadcast announcement that salary caps would also be lifted, raising speculation that even broader reforms could be coming.

''Maybe it's a hopeful sign that they are making changes,'' said attorney Nicolás J. Gutiérrez, who represents clients in Miami whose properties on the island were confiscated. ``I don't think it's earth-shaking . . . but it's something.

''They don't want to do too much because they fear they will whet people's appetite for more and be swept out of power,'' Gutiérrez said. ``But they realize they have to do something.''

Cuba has long boasted that up to 85 percent of its populace owns its own home. But even those who have titles cannot sell their homes or leave them to relatives who don't live there.

Many other people live in rental housing projects set aside by their employers, such as the military, and this measure would put them on par with the majority of Cubans who have titles to their properties.

A March 14 document by the president of Cuba's National Housing Institute posted Friday in the Official Gazette laid out a complicated series of regulations for owning homes for those civil servants who now rent employee housing. The decree said the workers will get to leave property to their heirs, provided 20 years of rent payments were paid.

''In the event the tenant has died, his heirs have the legal right to go ahead with the proceedings, so long as they demonstrate [their legality] through documentation and occupy the home permanently,'' the decree said. ``The occupants of buildings who remain in them after the decease of the tenants have no legal right [to the home] if they have not signed a new contract with the leasing entity.''

Thousands of Cubans could take advantage of this move, including military families, sugar workers, construction workers, teachers and doctors, The Associated Press reported.

Two officials at Cuba's National Housing Institute told the AP that Friday's published law was likely the first in a series of housing reforms. Both asked not to be named, however, because they were not authorized to speak to foreign media. The officials said ''thousands and thousands'' of Cubans would be affected, but did not give exact figures, AP reported.

Gutiérrez pointed out, however, that if the rented homes originally belonged to exiles who fled Cuba, the government does not have clear title to the properties. It was unclear Friday whether any of the properties once belonged to exiles.

Friday's announcement was the latest in a series of measures that appear to be designed to lessen mounting frustration among Cuba's 11.2 million people.

Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who in February was named president, recently lifted bans that prohibited citizens from buying cellphones, DVD players and computers as well as staying at the nation's 44,000 hotel rooms previously reserved for foreigners.

The changes suggest Castro has given up on his brother Fidel's long-held notion that all Cubans must be equal. The recent reforms have largely benefited only Cubans who can afford them.

''To hold title to a property doesn't mean the same in Cuba as here, but it has value,'' said Cuba analyst Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute in Virginia. ``If in the future all title holders are permitted to sell their property, that would be revolutionary.''

Miami Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.