A few blocks from Havana's famed Malecon, another new joint venture waterfront hotel is on its way to completion. Across the street from the construction site a small wooden building draws in a trickle of Cubans searching for the latest available construction materials posted on a list on the front door. Despite the images and cliches of Havana as a city whose beauty is matched only by how rapidly it seems to be disappearing before your eyes, the city shows signs of being poised to take advantage of the Cuban government's new laws governing private property.
Even with the uncertainty over the impact and details of how Cuba's new property laws will be implemented, some residents of Havana appear to be convinced that the new reforms are worth investing in. But scarcity of resources— material and financial—as well as competing priorities seem likely to temper the enthusiasm of Cubans towards the reforms.
“I'm a child of the revolution, I believe in it and it has done many good things,” responded a resident of Old Havana when asked about how the new law that reforms how Cubans can buy and sell homes would impact his life. “But the problem is the way people in different neighborhoods live.” Tourism and related economic development may provide new employment opportunities but in areas like Old Havana they have not relieved crowded conditions or housing shortages, nor have they addressed differences between housing stock in Old Havana and areas like the suburb of Miramar in the west of Havana.
Outside Havana, in the city of Cienfuegos, a taxi driver explained that more than the ability to buy or sell houses or cars, what was needed were more employment opportunities. “The new laws won't really change life for most Cubans.”
How these expanded private property rights will change the character and demography of neighborhoods in Havana or introduce forces of gentrification and displacement remains in question. What does not seem in doubt is the commitment of ordinary Cubans to preserve the gains of the revolution—like the right to housing—while trying to improve their own economic conditions.
Bob Allen is director of the Transportation Justice Program at Urban Habitat and just returned from a research trip to Cuba.
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