Smoke-and-Mirror Reforms

Monday, November 7, 2011
Excerpt from Jose Cardenas' "Cuba's Smoke-and-Mirror Reforms" in Foreign Policy:

[S]weep away the hype and all you see are daunting hurdles as to how this [property sales] announcement will change in any way the regime's suffocating control of the Cuban population. The new order restricts people to "ownership" of one permanent residence and one vacation home (as if the average Cuban is in any position to own a second home); all transactions must be approved by the State; no explanation is given on how you grant titles to homes that either have been confiscated from their rightful owners, have been swapped multiple times in the underground economy, or which house multiple families because of the severe shortage of available housing; the construction industry remains state-controlled; and the regime itself admits this order reflects no backsliding on the preeminence of the State in controlling the country's economic and political systems.

Beyond these challenges, however, is the fundamental fact that you cannot conjure private property rights, let alone the free trade in property, out of thin air. Those rights exist only where they are rooted in a credible, impartial, and transparent legal superstructure that can protect one's property, settle disputes, and guarantee transactions against the predations of the State. Anything less is a rigged game where the State is the dealer.

This is how the State Department's annual Human Rights Report characterizes Cuba's judicial system: "While the constitution recognizes the independence of the judiciary, the judiciary is subordinate to the imperatives of the socialist state. The National Assembly appoints all judges and can remove them at any time. Through the National Assembly, the state exerted near-total influence over the courts and their rulings... Civil courts, like all courts in the country, lack an independent or impartial judiciary as well as effective procedural guarantees."

Translation: Cubans' ability to "own" property, trade, or leverage their property to build capital will continue to exist at the sufferance of the State. And what the State giveth, the State can taketh away. The bottom line is that, ultimately, all Cubans will really own is a piece of paper that says they own something.