Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*
HAVANA TIMES, Nov 15 — I’ve often warned against giving prior applause to the antics of Cuba’s leaders, though this seems to be a stubborn practice of our technocrats, always confusing wants with reality.
But now I think we can applaud, because their latest feat — Decree 288, authorizing the sale of private homes — is actually a positive and substantial step forward.
Philosophically it’s no big deal, because allowing people to sell what’s technically theirs sounds more like enigmatic redundancy, just like allowing people to buy cellphones or computers.
Letting out the smoke
But now it’s time we get used to the idea that the country is unique in many ways, not because it’s exceptional (like our scholars argue when they can’t explain something), but because it operating blind. This is why the decree has evoked so much applause, cheering and optimistic predictions: it opens a window to let out a lot of the accumulated smoke.
I’m not so optimistic, but I’m still applauding. I believe everything is positive that allows people in Cuba to be freer, less controlled and more able to manage the variables of their daily lives.
Even when these involve actions that are fragmented – as we will see -, these changes will end up generating a number of other sources of suffering and frustration among those people who our technocrats compassionately refer to as “losers”.
But these are unavoidable actions in the dismantling of that archaic system that some left critics call “state capitalism” (as distinct from socialism proper), but which I prefer to refer to as the “Pharaonic Asiatic Mode of Production” simply to respect capitalism, as did Marx in his day.
This decree is no surprise. It is a more or less a nuanced measure that is in keeping with the logic that has been following in the “upgrading” by the general/president. It ends, or at least gives a good breather, to the discussion around private and public regulation of an issue as sensitive as real property.
The decree transfers the matter of real property to the private/commercial sector and offers the “winners” (I just love the jargon of our neoliberal technocrats) the opportunity to move into nice homes in the best neighborhoods in the capital.
Real Estate is a peculiar merchandise
This means the legalization of a market to consume and make their substantial profits, as they did before with respect to hotels, cellphones and cars, and as they will certainly continuing doing with the right to tourist travel – the next relevant measure on the radar screen on Raul Castro’s updating of Cuba’s model.
But real estate is a very peculiar merchandise. Since it mixes use values with exchange values, its nature is very inconsistent. Among its quirks is the fascinating quality that it possesses whereby its exchange value eventually appreciates depending on how it is consumed.
Accordingly, what’s offered to the Cuban proto-bourgeoisie is a virgin territory of investment and accumulation for making fortunes in capital and then, in tandem, incorporating into their commercial activities a segment of real estate brokers who have profited immensely by selling people three things they have consistently lacked: information, access to decision makers and the freedom to choose and decide about their property.
Hypothetically we could say that this opening of the real estate field will be the ultimate social laboratory for the restoration, consolidation and maturation of a new sector of the Cuban bourgeoisie that had previously been marked by the stigma of illegality.
Undoubtedly they will even gravitate toward regaining the formerly upper-class residential districts — Miramar, Nuevo Vedado, Kholy — where the bourgeois sectors emerging from government ministries will coexist, enjoying their new class status and lifestyles.
There could be many losers
But we must never overlook the devastating impact this could have on the majority.
One fact is certain: the only wealth possessed by the majority of Cuban families is their homes. For decades, though these were only formally owned, families couldn’t sell their properties outright; they could only barter them – in the same manner as in a simple mercantile society.
Decree 288 now gives them the opportunity to sell these properties, which will likely produce an adjustment in urban space that will only eventually correspond to needs, and that in essence will correspond to wealth.
This is the rose-colored version of the issue, circulation among the population with the most money, which could be used for promoting small businesses and would generate a kind of popular capitalism, “another path” for small owners.
But things could also go otherwise. Liberalization will make available to real estate capital formation a myriad of homeowners who will not hesitate to sell their homes in the hope of setting up profitable small businesses, which as we know suffer staggering rates of failure.
Therefore, in a very short time, we could have masses of families without homes, more crowded than ever and without any businesses.
Through this, Raul’s updating of the model will do to homeowners with what it is doing to the whole population — as consumers, owners or workers — when exposing them to the voracity of emerging capitalism without them having the opportunity to defend themselves through independent organizations, government support or the appropriate legal framework.
Consequently, the same lack of freedom and democracy that yesterday assured the reproduction of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” today is doing the dirty work of capitalist restoration.
If the Cuban government really wanted to make a memorable step, it wouldn’t limit its action to the opening of the nation’s real estate market, but would establish strict social safety nets and cushions.
Above all, it would open a window for low-interest loans and the provision of construction materials and technical services to the entire section of the population interested in maintaining and improving their homes but could only do this with government assistance (exactly as is done in many capitalist societies, though not by private capitalists, but by public agencies).
We shouldn’t forget that even during that period of extreme nationalization and repression of individual initiatives, more than half of the new housing stock was built by private activity.
While it’s true that in many cases what was constructed was housing of deplorable physical quality and low aesthetic value, the state did the same on a large scale with its high-rise ghettos. In this way Havana was left with ugly, dirty and poorly connected neighborhoods where people survive in the absence of other alternatives.
In this same sense it would be advantageous to promote independent associations and cooperatives to manage the environments in which people live, including their houses; these organizations could even access international financing available for these purposes.
In fact, in the 90’s, during the phase in which the political class experienced an instant of pleasant surprise, many urban communities elbowed their way ahead in this direction. They carried out advanced projects, though these ultimately fell victim to the schemes of party committees, people’s councils and the police.
The cases of El Condado in Santa Clara and Atares in Havana are two experiences worth examining.
Because of all this, I applaud moderately but without cheers. Let’s hope, like the Galician saying goes, “No house standing stands for bad luck.”
Here, admittedly, many things are bad, and half the houses are barely standing.
(*) Published originally in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.