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Cuba's capitalist road

Cuba has been taking steady – but slow – steps to open its economy. But the reforms must keep coming.

November 10, 2011

Since succeeding his brother Fidel as president in 2008, Raul Castro has repeatedly promised to adopt market reforms intended to help save Cuba's ailing economy.

And he has delivered, for the most part, slowly but steadily. The year he took over, Castro made it easier for Cubans to buy cellphones. Last year, the government agreed to increase the number of permits issued for privately run barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants and other businesses in the hopes of spurring grass-roots economic activity. At the same time, it approved a plan to let foreign investors rent state-owned land, a move intended to help boost international tourism. And last month, a new law took effect legalizing the private sale of autos.

Still, unlike in Vietnam or China, where ideologues have made dramatic concessions to economic reform, Cuba's leaders have been much less aggressive about moving away from a state-dominated economy. At least until this week.

Starting Thursday, Cubans will be able to buy and sell their homes, and even set their own prices, without government intervention. That's a sea change in a country where, until recently, private ownership was strictly forbidden and the accumulation of wealth considered a sin against the revolution. Fidel Castro confiscated most land titles after the 1959 revolution. Since then, Cuba's version of property rights has amounted to little more than allowing citizens to occupy or swap homes. Even bequeathing homes to relatives who did not live in them was prohibited.

The new law allowing the sale of property will not satisfy all critics, especially those in Miami's exile community. That would require the removal of the communist government. Certainly, much more than a smattering of small businesses and a real estate market is needed to improve life for most Cubans. Residents still rely on some government help and employment to survive — something Raul Castro has admitted the government can no longer afford. The Soviet subsidies that kept the country afloat are long gone. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has stepped in to fill the role of Cuba's sugar daddy, providing oil. And remittances from Cubans abroad have helped sustain families still on the island.

Surely the new law offers some hope. Owning private property offers a path to prosperity for individual Cubans. China and Vietnam have given Cuba a model to follow as it moves toward a mixed economy. Let's hope Castro continues to follow it.

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