* Congress expected to back Raul Castro economic reforms
* Castro has already criticized “excess of restrictions”
* Easier home and car sales would be popular with Cubans
By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA, April 12 (Reuters) - Cubans are watching this week’s ruling Communist Party congress closely for new openings to private initiative, above all the right to freely buy and sell their homes and cars for the first time in decades.
A return to pre-revolution private property rights is not on the cards at the April 16-19 party meeting, but there are widely-held hopes the island’s highest political body will ease regulations many Cubans view as unjust.
“It’s time that one be able to sell what one has. Cars and houses are property, but only formally, because we can do almost nothing with them,” said pensioner Antonio Garcia.
While there is legal home ownership in socialist Cuba, property owners cannot lawfully sell their houses. They can only do a swap, or “permuta,” for another home, supposedly of equal value.
A thriving “permuta” market exists, and it is not unusual for money to be exchanged, but only underneath the table.
Car ownership in Cuba is permitted for a relatively privileged few, among them artists and athletes who have worked abroad, and doctors who have served overseas medical missions.
There is an exception for cars that pre-date the 1959 Revolution, mostly vintage American models that can be bought and sold freely by anyone. Long gone from roads in the rest of the world, they are still widely used as taxis in Cuba.
President Raul Castro has spoken of the need to loosen the government’s hand in Cuban life as he moves to modernize the Soviet-style economy. The party congress starting on Saturday is expected to rubber-stamp his liberalizing reforms.
Opening up home and car sales even a little would be popular with Cubans.
But how far the party’s first congress in 14 years will go, if at all, in opening up such sales is not known. The expectations are that changes may be limited, but helpful.
After succeeding his older brother Fidel Castro as president in 2008, Raul Castro berated the “excess of prohibitions and legal measures” that had developed since the 1959 revolution.
In a speech to the Cuban parliament in December, he used automobiles to make the point that the state should not involve itself in transactions between individuals.
“If I have a car, an old car or whatever ... and it’s mine, I have the right to sell it to whoever I want,” he said.
The month before that, he unveiled a 32-page booklet of guidelines for Cuba’s planned economic changes that include a proposal to “apply flexible formulas for the trading, buying, selling and renting of houses.”
Many believe, for example, the party will maintain the “permuta” as the only way to trade a house, but that currently illegal additional monetary payments could be legalized.
Regarding cars, the party could do something as simple as allowing vehicles of a more recent vintage to be freely bought and sold.
Cuba’s restrictive rules on cars and homes arose for various reasons, but particularly because its communist leaders have long believed that private ownership can lead to social inequality and so such commerce should be restricted.
But Raul Castro, looking to stimulate Cuba’s struggling economy, is encouraging more private initiative and the idea that greater productivity should be rewarded, within limits, with greater material benefits.
The guidelines for the congress make clear that even with a relaxation of rules “the concentration of property in a corporate or natural person will not be permitted.”
Determined to reduce state spending, Castro wants to slash 1.3 million jobs from government payrolls and cut subsidies and food rations that Cubans have received for decades.
“If what they say is true, I’m going to trade my house, which is big, for a small one and the money I make I’m going to invest in a cafeteria where I can spend calmly, without financial worries, my old age,” said Margarita Herrera, a state employee whose job could soon be cut. (Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Jeff Franks and Pascal Fletcher)