By Patricia Grogg, IPS, May 9, 2011
The new economic development guidelines to be put in effect over the next five years in Cuba, published Monday by the Communist Party, include reforms allowing the sale of real estate and cars and a possible loosening of restrictions on travel abroad by Cubans.
"The red tape will finally be eliminated," one middle-aged man told IPS after buying a copy of the 'Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy', approved by the sixth congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in April.
"I came really early, which saved me, because the 300 copies that were dropped here sold out immediately," he added.
Although the document does not provide details about how the reforms are to be implemented, it says Cubans will be allowed to buy and sell vehicles and homes – two widely hoped-for changes. "I hope this can be done soon," said the source, who did not want to give his name.
Under the current system, Cubans are allowed to own cars and homes, but can only sell them to the state or swap them to other private individuals for property of equal value.
The guidelines mention more flexible and streamlined forms of property transfer – "swaps, donations and others" – and of construction or remodelling.
The decision is aimed at providing solutions to the need for housing in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people, where there is an estimated housing deficit of 600,000 units – one of the country's most pressing social problems, which is aggravated by frequent hurricanes.
The PCC mentions municipal-level housing programmes that are based on the specific raw materials and technologies available in each area, as well as facilities for people to build their own homes.
The document also states that the authorities will "study a policy to facilitate travel abroad by Cubans as tourists." Since the 1959 revolution, Cubans have not been able to travel, with the exception of collective trips to the Soviet bloc organised in the 1970s and 1980s as rewards for outstanding workers.
The programme agreed by the PCC to update Cuba's economic policy and rescue the economy is made up of 313 guidelines on strategies to be followed in the areas of economic management, macroeconomy, foreign policy, trade, debt, credit, foreign investment and development aid.
In terms of regional integration, a priority will be put on participation in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), an alternative bloc made up of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Ecuador, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
The government will also continue to pursue economic integration with the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, "as a strategic objective," the guidelines state.
In addition, the document outlines comprehensive policies in the areas of science, technology and the environment, as well as the strategies to be followed in agriculture, industry and energy, which will include a priority focus on the environmental impact of development, particularly in the chemical, oil, petrochemical and mining industries.
In terms of social questions, the guidelines call for the preservation of "the revolution's gains", such as free universal health care, free education, advances in culture, sports, and recreation, social security coverage, and social assistance and protection for the needy.
But "undue" universal free services and "excessive subsidies" are to be replaced by targeted assistance to needy persons, the document adds.
The government plans, for example, to eliminate, "in an orderly and gradual" manner, the ration book, a system used to ensure that the entire population has access to a basket of basic goods at heavily subsidised prices.
In the nationwide meetings and debates in which Cubans discussed the draft guidelines ahead of the party congress, the most hotly debated reform was the loss of the ration book, created in 1962 to combat food shortages and speculation and hoarding.
The delegates at the landmark party congress approved an amendment to the clause on the elimination of the ration book system, adding the word "gradual," implying that conditions would be created to guarantee stable production levels and supplies of affordable basic products.
In response to worries among lower income sectors, President Raúl Castro clarified that under Cuba's socialist system, there is no room for "shock therapies" that hurt the needy, and that social assistance is being restructured to guarantee protection for "those who really need it."
The introduction to the guidelines states that the Cuban economy will continue to be based on socialist ownership of the basic means of production, and that planning rather than market forces will guide the "modernisation" of economic policy. But the economic model will incorporate cooperatives, small farms, and a broader range of options for self-employment.