HAVANA (Reuters) - Plumbing supplies salesman Luis Miguel is relieved he will finally be able to sell his Havana apartment and buy another under liberalizing reforms being introduced by Cuban President Raul Castro.
But he is angry over the months he spent struggling with restrictive and labyrinthine bureaucracy as he tried to trade his property under the past strictly controlled housing regime on the communist-ruled island.
“I have been trying for months to ‘permutar’ (trade homes) and it’s been one bureaucratic runaround after another,” the 45-year-old said disgustedly, dumping into the garbage a stack of papers relating to the “permuta.”
“Now I’m looking for a buyer without so many false controls or having to pay anyone under the table and bribe everyone,” Luis Miguel said. Prior to the reforms, Cubans could only swap their dwellings but were barred from buying and selling them.
A raft of reforms lifting limits on individual economic activity was approved at a Communist Party congress in April and have been well received by most Cubans.
But relaxation of curbs that clogged so much of daily life in one of the world’s last Soviet-style centralized economies also seems to have uncorked anger over why the prohibitions existed in the first place and over those that remain.
“In the end, all the controls end up controlling nothing,” Havana housewife Margarita Rojas said.
“Many are just absurd. What they do is foster corruption and a lot of people make money off them,” she said.
President Castro is pressing ahead with loosening regulations as he moves Cuba’s cash-strapped economy in a more market friendly direction and battles the paralyzing and often corrupt bureaucracy and black market the prohibitions created.
The Communist Party newspaper Granma announced earlier this month that Cubans would soon be allowed to legally buy and sell their homes and cars, with minimal government interference, for the first time since the 1959 revolution.
Granma said under the freer market, notary approval and payment for the deal through a state bank would be just about all that would be required, besides a still undefined tax.
The liberalized housing and car markets expected to be in place by 2012 are music to the ears of many Cubans. But there is widespread irritation that they had to find illegal solutions for so long to be able to manage their personal property in a society jammed with prohibitions.
Havana maintenance worker Jorge asked why he had to break the law previously to get rid of his old Russian Lada auto, concealing an actual sale with an invented ruse.
“I needed to sell my car. Since I couldn’t, I invented a trick and ‘loaned’ it to someone. Now I have to see how I’m going to fix the papers to transfer ownership legally and pay a tax for a car I sold more than three years ago,” Jorge said.
“The state can regulate its relations with individuals, but not relations between them,” Castro said recently.
A local economist said managing the reform was critical if rising popular expectations were to be kept in check.
“Reforms are necessary but dangerous as they are bound to open people’s eyes and minds and lead them to demand further deregulation,” he said, asking that his name not be used.
Cuban authorities seem to have realized that over-regulation does not make for a healthy society. But delays in implementing the reforms and regulating them are generating frustration and further questioning about why limitations should exist at all.
The owner of one “paladar,” as local home-based restaurants are called, scoffed at the government’s back-tracking on how many clients she could serve.
“First we were allowed 12 seats, then 20 and now its 50 seats. But why put a limit on seats in someone’s home, after all, how big could it be?” she said, asking not to be named.
Cubans will still be allowed to own only one home and need government permission to buy a new car, Granma said. Foreigners and Cubans living abroad remain banned from possessing property unless they are permanent residents.
Farmers are still restricted as to how much land they can till and what they can sow, and the buying and selling of land remains off-limits. The official opening to small businesses explicitly prohibits “accumulation of wealth.”
The government has promised for years to address farmer and consumer complaints that its monopoly on food distribution leads to massive waste, yet even now with the reforms only a small fraction of produce can be sold on the open market.
Howls of outrage were heard in a Havana neighborhood on Sunday evening when state television reported for the umpteenth time that produce was rotting in the fields.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Vicki Allen