Latin America & Caribbean

Cubans eye prospect of being able to buy and sell homes

A woman hangs her laundry from the balcony of her colonial-era apartment in Havana 3 July, 2011
Image caption Much of Cuba's housing stock is in a bad state of disrepair

Private property sales are about to make a comeback in Cuba for the first time since they were outlawed by the government after the 1959 revolution. The BBC's Michael Voss meets one couple desperate for a place of their own.

Mario Perez and Lilian Carballo were married for 11 years before they broke up about 12 months ago.

They still see each other every day. But out of necessity, not choice.

Their story is not unusual in Cuba, where divorced couples stay under the same roof because they have nowhere to move to.

And it is not uncommon for three generations to live together in a tiny apartment.

Cuba, with its population of 11 million people, has a shortfall of about 500,000 homes. Much of the existing housing stock is run-down and in need of repair.

The Communist Party Congress in April agreed in principle to allow people to start buying and selling homes and cars.

Image caption Mario and Lilian would like to be able to finally live apart

Now the government has started fleshing out some of the details and says that the changes should be in place by the end of the year.

"It's difficult living together, " said Lilian.

"Everyone has their own habits; some are tidier than others. It's OK when you are in love but afterwards such things become really annoying."

By Cuban standards, Mario and Lilian's first-floor flat is relatively spacious with a small balcony off the living room. They share a tiny kitchen and bathroom but do have separate bedrooms.

It was a relatively amicable divorce and at least they remain on speaking terms. The pressure, though, is hard to bear.

"It's all about respect. I can have a girlfriend but I can't bring her home just as she can't bring a boyfriend here. It's one of the conditions we jointly agreed on, " said Mario, a jazz and rock drummer who is struggling to make ends meet.

Swap shop

Most Cubans do have title to their homes and can pass them on to their children. But buying and selling property were outlawed in the early 1960s as Cuba set about building an idealistic communist state.

Image caption Maritza Rodriguez is hoping her flat-swap offer will attract takers

The only legal way to move house is through a complicated bureaucratic swap system called "La Permuta", The Exchange.

Every Saturday morning, hundreds of Cubans gather on the pedestrianised Paseo de Prado in Central Havana looking for people to swap with.

There are old ladies holding handwritten notes giving details of what they have and what they want. Other people look through lists pinned to trees.

Maritza Rodriguez is walking up and down holding up a sign which simply says '1 x 2'. She and her brother want to swap the house they inherited from their parents for two smaller apartments.

"We have no other choice: swapping is our only option," she said.

There are plenty of middlemen and touts helping people to make the right contacts and handle the bureaucracy.

You need government permission to make a swap and officially money is not allowed to change hands. This has led to under-the-table payments and widespread corruption.

One of the classics of Cuban cinema, made in 1984 by Juan Carlos Tabio, was a comedy called "Se Permuta", House for Swap.

It was a farcical and satirical look at the ridiculous lengths one woman went to as she tried, unsuccessfully, to move house.

Only now, 27 years later, is the system finally being reformed.

Image caption House-hunting, Cuban style: people wishing to swap properties hold up lists of their requirements

Soon people will be allowed to buy and sell homes, or pay the difference when swapping, all with a minimum of government interference.

One of the most welcome announcements was that property transactions would be performed by licensed notaries. This should avoid lthe ong wait for approval from various ministries and other government bodies.

"It's great," said Marlen, a Havana nurse who asked that her last name not be used.

"Now all those people who have made our lives miserable and turned the regulations into a way of making money might have to earn a living."

According to Juan Triana, from the Havana-based Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy, housing is one of the three main problems, along with food and transportation.

"The government and the party know that people are buying houses on the black market.

"The idea, in part, is to give more transparency to this market. That is why we need a new law to allow people to buy and sell houses freely," he said.

Property boom?

This is the latest in a series of modest but ideologically significant reforms that Cuba's Raul Castro has demanded since taking over from his ailing elder brother, Fidel.

So far, more than 200,000 Cubans have taken up the offer to become self-employed and set up small businesses. Many were working for themselves illegally on the black market.

Image caption Private farmers produce about two-thirds of Cuba's home-grown food

In agriculture, President Castro is trying to reduce Cuba's dependence on costly food imports by revitalising the farming sector.

Fidel Castro would have called for greater discipline and revolutionary zeal from the farmers.

Instead, the government has leased out more than 1m hectares (2.5m acres) of unused state land to private farmers who today produce at least 70% of all the food grown on the island.

Last year, restrictions were lifted on individuals building new homes on private plots. It is also easier to rent properties or rooms today. This has led to a mini building boom and many houses in Havana have been getting a fresh lick of paint.

According to Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, it will take until the end of the year to get the new property regulations and legislation in place.

In a country where the average wage remains barely $20 (£12) a month, it is those who have financial support from relatives abroad who will be in the strongest position to start buying properties.

This may create social tensions and problems in the future, although under the new rules everyone will be restricted to owning just one home.

For divorcees Mario Perez and Lilian Carballo, the return of private property sales can't come a moment too soon.

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