Home sales would be a sea change for Cuba


Miami Herald: Selling an apartment in front of the Habana Libre, excellent conditionThe seller, Marita, is advertising this Havana apartment on revolico.com, an online marketplace that’s kind of like a Cuban Craigslist. She’s asking the equivalent of around $57,600 in convertible Cuban pesos.

Of course, at the moment real estate sales in Cuba are strictly illegal and have been for the past five decades. But that may change soon. As part of sweeping economic reforms unveiled at the Communist Party Congress in April, Cuba plans to allow the buying and selling of homes and cars.

A July 1 article in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, painted the broad brush strokes of the real estate reform: such transactions would be permitted with little government interference beyond getting notary approval, making payment through a state bank and paying an as yet unspecified tax.

The real estate reform has yet to become law, but it’s possible it could when the National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, convenes Monday for a three-day meeting at Havana’s Convention Palace. In any case, the government has said a new law will take effect by the end of the year.

This potential sea change has set off a flurry of activity on both sides of the Florida Straits. For years, Cuban-Americans have been funneling money to relatives to fix up tired properties or for under-the-table payments to “buy’’ a home or sweeten a permuta, or swap, the accepted form of acquiring Cuban real estate.

Now with the possibility of a true real estate market developing, people have been dusting off property titles or trying to find them and have been busy fixing up properties they anticipate putting on the market, said Antonio R. Zamora, a Miami lawyer who specializes in foreign investment.

“A lot of money is coming from Miami — some of it’s speculative,’’ said Zamora, who visited Cuba recently.

Some exiles say they have made under-the-table payments to purchase beach homes or other properties from family or friends with the understanding that some day they will own the homes outright. But they have no official paperwork to acknowledge such transactions.

In these cases, it should be buyer beware, said George Harper, a Miami attorney who left Cuba when he was 17. “That’s all well and good but any deal is subject to what the local laws are.’’

The expected law does not allow foreign ownership. The guidelines announced in Granma said that foreigners and Cubans living abroad can’t own property unless they are permanent residents of Cuba. Cubans will be allowed to own only one home and they can inherit a dwelling, even if the relatives of the deceased don’t live in the home, according to Granma.

Because of the influx of exile money, Zamora said it would be more realistic to “get the name of the foreign relative into the title.”

Phil Peters, a vice president at the Lexington Institute and a veteran Cuba watcher, said that the exile money flowing into Cuba may have an impact beyond investment.

“Now with the door open for Cuban-Americans to visit, to support their families, to invest and to perhaps indirectly buy real estate, it becomes not just an exile community but also an immigrant community with a foot in both places,’’ he said.

One thing that isn’t expected to be a topic of debate in Cuba is exile claims on homes.

Over time, Zamora said, families who occupied the homes of Cubans who left the island have essentially become the owners of the dwellings.

“There’s always been a difference of opinion on residential properties that were taken but now I think most people, with some notable exceptions, have given up on the notion of getting those properties back,’’ said Harper.

He’s been back to Cuba twice since he left as a teenager and visited the home where his family once lived. He found several families in the residence. “From a humanitarian point of view, it would be impractical to kick those people out,’’ he said.

Also expected to change once a property law is enacted is the messy permuta system. Currently, homes that are exchanged are supposed to be of “equal value.’’ But matching up the homes on offer with what people want is often a tricky business.

Sometimes two apartments are exchanged for a large home in a prime area and multiple parties are involved in so-called triangular deals. Although no money is supposed to change hands, there are sometimes under-the-table payments to even up deals or bribes paid to officials to let dubious swaps go through.

Under the new system, someone wanting to downsize from a four-bedroom home with a garage, for example, to a smaller apartment will probably just be able to do the swap and pay the difference in value, said Zamora. “The reform should make the permuta much easier and out in the open,’’ he said.

Besides cleaning up illicit housing transactions, the government has said the reform is designed to help with Cuba’s serious housing shortage.

But Harper said, “The fact that people can buy and sell homes won’t really impact the housing supply. If Cuba had money to build new housing, I think they would have done it by now.’’

Cuba, however, may be counting on real estate owners to expand and improve properties. In its effort to move more people off the state payroll into self-employment, the government has said that renting rooms, gardens and even swimming pools can be considered an alternative to state employment. Permitting home ownership may also encourage home building.

“If people are allowed to sell homes, this is a huge step forward in terms of property rights,’’ said Peters. “It makes assets liquid, a home can be used as collateral.’’

Because of the possibility of freeing up capital when a home is sold, other entrepreneurial activity may be unleashed, Peters said. “This really would be a sign of the Cuban government being serious about letting go of controls,’’ he said.

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Revolutionary Cuba Now Lays Sand Traps for the Bourgeoisie


MEXICO CITY — One of Fidel Castro’s first acts upon taking power was to get rid of Cuba’s golf courses, seeking to stamp out a sport he and other socialist revolutionaries saw as the epitome of bourgeois excess.

Now, 50 years later, foreign developers say the Cuban government has swung in nearly the opposite direction, giving preliminary approval in recent weeks for four large luxury golf resorts on the island, the first in an expected wave of more than a dozen that the government anticipates will lure free-spending tourists to a nation hungry for cash.

The four initial projects total more than $1.5 billion, with the government’s cut of the profits about half. Plans for the developments include residences that foreigners will be permitted to buy — a rare opportunity from a government that all but banned private property in its push for social equality.

Mr. Castro and his comrade in arms Che Guevara, who worked as a caddie in his youth in Argentina, were photographed in fatigues hitting the links decades ago, in what some have interpreted as an effort to mock either the sport or the golf-loving president at the time of the revolution, Dwight D. Eisenhower — or both.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who maintains close ties with Cuba, has taken aim at the pastime in recent years as well, questioning why, in the face of slums and housing shortages, courses should spread over valuable land “just so some little group of the bourgeois and the petit bourgeois can go and play golf.”

But Cuba’s deteriorating economy and the rise in the sport’s popularity, particularly among big-spending travelers who expect to bring their clubs wherever they go, have softened the government’s view, investors said. Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but Manuel Marrero, the tourism minister, told a conference in Europe this month that the government anticipates going forward with joint ventures to build 16 golf resorts in the near future.

For the past three years, Cuba’s only 18-hole course, a government-owned spread at the Varadero Beach resort area, has even hosted a tournament. It has long ceased to be, its promoters argued, a rich man’s game.

“We were told this foray is the top priority in foreign investment,” said Graham Cooke, a Canadian golf course architect designing a $410 million project at Guardalavaca Beach, along the island’s north coast about 500 miles from Havana, for a consortium of Indians from Canada. The company, Standing Feather International, says it signed a memorandum of agreement with the Cuban government in late April and will be the first to break ground, in September.

Andrew Macdonald, the chief executive of London-based Esencia Group, which helps sponsor the golf tournament in Cuba and is planning a $300 million country club in Varadero, said, “This is a fundamental development in having a more eclectic tourist sector.”

The other developments are expected to include at least one of the three proposed by Leisure Canada, a Vancouver-based firm that recently announced a licensing agreement with the Professional Golfers Association for its planned resorts in Cuba, and a resort being designed by Foster & Partners of London.

The projects are primarily aimed at Canadian, European and Asian tourists; Americans are not permitted to spend money on the island, under the cold-war-era trade embargo, unless they have a license from the Treasury Department.

Developers working on the new projects said they believed Cuba had a dozen or so courses before the revolution, some of which were turned into military bases. Cuba and foreign investors for years have talked about building new golf resorts, but the proposals often butted against revolutionary ideals and red tape. Several policy changes adopted at a Communist Party congress in April, however, appear to have helped clear the way, including one resolution specifically naming golf and marinas as important assets in developing tourism and rescuing the sagging economy.

“Cuba saw the normal sun and salsa beach offerings and knew it was not going to be sustainable,” said Chris Nicholas, managing director of Standing Feather, which negotiated for eight years with Cuba’s state-run tourism company. “They needed more facets of tourism to offer and decided golf was an excellent way to go.”

The developers said putting housing in the complexes was important to make them more attractive to tourists and investors, and to increase profits.

Still, John Kavulich, a senior adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said Cuba had a history of pulling back on perceived big steps toward freer enterprise and might wrestle to explain how such high-dollar compounds could coexist with often dilapidated housing for everyone else.

“Will Cuba allow Cuban citizens to be members, to play?” he said. “How will that work out? Allowing someone to work there and allowing someone to prosper there is an immense deep ravine for the government.”

But Mr. Macdonald said political issues were moot, given that Cuba already had come to terms with several beach resorts near Havana that generally attracted middle-class foreign travelers.

“It’s not an issue for them,” he said. “It’s tourism. It’s people coming to visit the country.”

If the projects are built as envisioned, the tourists will enjoy not just new, state-of-the-art courses and the opportunity for a second home in Cuba, but shopping malls, spas and other luxury perks. Standing Feather, which calls its complex Estancias de Golf Loma Linda (Loma Linda Golf Estates), promises 1,200 villas, bungalows, duplexes and apartments set on 520 acres framed by mountains and beach.

The residences are expected to average $600,000, and rooms at the 170-room hotel the complex will include may go for about $200 a night, a stark contrast in a nation where salaries average $20 a month.

Standing Feather said that to build a sense of community and provide the creature comforts of home among its clientele, the complex will include its own shopping center, selling North American products under relaxed customs regulations.

“It is in the area that Castro is from, in Holguin Province,” added Mr. Cooke, the golf course architect.

www.cubaluxuryrent.com

Cuba to allow sale of private homes for first time since revolution


Cuba plans to allow people to buy and sell their homes for the first time since the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, the BBC reports.

The decision came during the first congress held by the ruling Communist Party in 14 years.

No details were released on how the new property sales could work, but President Raul Castro is likely to elaborate on a wide-range of economic refroms during a closing speech today in Havana, The Miami Herald reports.

Cubans currently can could only pass on their homes to their children, or work out complicated, and often corrupt, swaps, the BBC reports.

While loosening the power on sale of property, Castro warns that the concentration of property would not be allowed.

Fidel Castro, 84, wrote in an editorial in the party newspaper Monday that he embraces the economic reforms. He no longer holds an official government or party post.

With Castro’s departure from a party position. the person elected to fill the No. 2 spot will be a major clue as to the direction of the country, The Miami Herald notes.

www.cubaluxuryrent.com

Cuba to allow modest economic reforms


HAVANA, Nov. 10 (UPI) — Cuba will allow more private business and foreign investment, but the basics of socialism will remain, the Communist Party is saying.

“Only socialism is capable of … preserving the gains of the revolution,” declares a 32-page document published Tuesday as a guide for discussion leading up to a party congress in April, El Nuevo Herald in Miami reported. It also says, “Planning will be paramount, not the market.”

President Raul Castro already has put many of the proposed changes into effect, including allowing more self-employment and cooperatives, and encouraging foreign investment and tourism.

The food ration card, which provides 10 days’ worth of food per month, will be “eliminated in an orderly fashion” in a drive to cut subsidies, the party paper said.

The document also suggested opening the real estate market, but warned that “the concentration of properties” will not be permitted.

Raul Castro said the guidelines were submitted before publication to his brother Fidel, who is still first secretary of the Communist Party.

www.particularcuba.com