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HAVANA, Nov 10 2011 (IPS) - Law 288 recently passed by the Cuban government finally made it legal to buy and sell private real estate on the island. Even the most hard-core of the Obama administration spokespeople have approved the development as “a positive step” in the process of change set in motion by the Cuban government and President Raul Castro.

It’s not that the current administration in Washington has deepened its ability to understand the realities of Cuba. Their response merely signals what is obvious. Just a week before, when the United Nations General Assembly condemned for the umpteenth year in a row, and almost unanimously, the failed 50-year-old US financial and trade embargo of the island, this same administration turned a deaf ear to the international appeal, unable to grasp what the entire world had already understood: that the embargo had failed to achieve its goal (toppling the Cuban system) yet was having a very negative effect on the 11 million people who have to struggle every single day just to get by in Cuba.

Regardless of the US blessing, the reality is that many Cubans are breathing more freely and feel the life will be a little less arduous now. At least those who have homes, and the select group who own automobiles, are closer to real ownership (or all the way there) after decades in which one could “have” a house or car and yet not have it because of the snarl of laws prohibiting true ownership by those with legal physical possession.

While the law that finally allowed for the free buying and selling of cars built after 1959 (it was already possible with vehicles made before that year) generated expectations that have not been fulfilled (there are limits on the sale of new cars and regulation of the sale of used government cars), it goes more deeply into one of the real hot-button issues of the island: housing.

The new law makes it possible for Cuban citizens and even foreign residents to buy and sell real estate, eliminates various official procedures and regulations involved in trading residences (the so-called ‘permuta’), and legalises and makes it easier to cede property, even for people who “permanently leave” the island. From 1959 until now, their property would be subject to seizure by the state. Legal reshuffling is not going to solve the major problems of the housing shortage -thought to exceed half a million homes- but it will surely provide relief from the legal restrictions on exchanging, giving, and buying and selling, which were all tightly regulated or illegal until now.

Among the benefits this law will bring Cubans, one of the first to be felt will be the conversion of their titles to property into legally more substantial documents. Other possible benefits include a more rational distribution of places to live, better repair and maintenance of homes by their new owners, the possibility that the property of a person who dies or “leaves for good” can go to arelative or friend, and the ability to sell land or structures where new rooms could be built.

Another no less important bonus of the law is the elimination of interference by Housing Department officials. Currently a large number of cases have to pass through a procedural phalanx of bureaucrats, specialists, and legal consultants -in other words, the network of corruption into which those charged with enforcing procedures all too often fall. Thousands and thousands of such functionaries were fired and even prosecuted in the last few decades. Certain laws that were originally intended to share the patrimony of the country with a wide spectrum of its citizens and prevent speculation and the concentration of wealth eventually became a restriction on individual freedoms, a labyrinth of rules and regulations with no grounding in reality, and a source of personal enrichment for a merciless bureaucracy long dedicated to fattening itself by twisting the law and taking advantage of the needs of the people.

I hope that the newly realist lookout of the government and the climate of change that pushed the promulgation of this new law reaches other sectors of Cuban life that are loudly calling for deep and radical transformation. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

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