In a major reversal of one of the communist-led nation's long-standing policies, the Cuban government announced Thursday that it will permit real estate to be bought and sold for the first time since the early days of the revolution, the most important reform yet in a series of free-market changes under President Raúl Castro.
The law, which takes effect Nov. 10, applies to citizens and permanent residents only, according to a red-letter headline on the front page of Thursday's Communist Party daily Granma.
The brief article said details of the new law would be published imminently in the government's Official Gazette. Authorities have said previously that sales will be subject to taxes and the rules will not allow anyone to accumulate great property holdings.
The change follows October's legalization of buying and selling cars, though with restrictions that still make it hard for ordinary Cubans to buy new vehicles.
Castro has also allowed citizens to go into business for themselves in a number of approved jobs — everything from party clowns to food vendors to accountants — and has pledged to streamline the state-dominated economy by eliminating half a million government workers.
Cuba's government employs over 80 percent of the workers in the island's command economy, paying wages of just $20 a month in return for free education and health care, and nearly free housing, transportation and basic foods. Castro has said repeatedly that the system is not working since taking over from his brother Fidel in 2008, but he has vowed that Cuba will remain a Socialist state.
Cubans have long bemoaned the ban on property sales, which took effect in stages over the first years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In an effort to fight absentee ownership by wealthy landlords, Fidel enacted a reform that gave title to whomever lived in a home. Most who left the island forfeited their properties to the state.
Since no property market was allowed, the rules have meant that for decades Cubans could only exchange property through complicated barter arrangements, or through even murkier black-market deals where thousands of dollars change hands under the table, with no legal recourse if transactions go bad.
Some Cubans enter into sham marriages to make deed transfers easier. Others make deals to move into homes ostensibly to care for an elderly person living there, only to inherit the property when the person dies.
The island's crumbling housing stock has meant that many are forced to live in overcrowded apartments with multiple generations crammed into a few rooms. Even divorce hasn't necessarily meant separation in Cuba, where estranged couples are often forced to live together for years while they work out alternative housing.
The new law will eliminate a state agency that regulated the exchange-by-barter of homes, meaning that from now on sales will only need the seal of a notary, according to Granma.
The government has also dropped hints in recent months about the new property law, saying it will allow family members to inherit homes even if they are not living in the property.
Cubans who can afford it will be allowed to own one home in the city and one in the countryside.
After taking over for Fidel in 2006, Raúl Castro has loosened some of his brother's stricter polices, released a number of political prisoners and has tentatively embraced some capitalist reforms. These moves have given hope to some Cuban-Americans and U.S. government officials of ending the decades-old embargo on the island.
In January, the Obama administration announced that it was allowing U.S. international airports to conduct flights to and from Cuba and increased the amount of money Americans can invest on the island. However, the Obama administration has said that it has no plans to end the embargo - which is widely criticized throughout the international community - unless Cuba continues to make strides towards democracy and human rights.
"These measures will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities," a White House press release stated.
"The President believes these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.