Cuba goes capitalist

Observations on private property

“I can talk about cigars but I can’t talk about change,” Christina said sharply, as she showed me the Havana cigar factory where she worked. I had asked how Cuba was evolving under the leadership of Raúl Castro.

Just outside the factory gates, however, the signs of change are everywhere. The Cuban capital now boasts branches of clothing chains such as Benetton, Mango and Zara. Electrical shops sell plasma TVs, hotels advertise wifi and Cuban youths pore over mobile telephones. On every street there are scenes that would have been unimaginable two years ago.

Come July, there will be another sign of Cuba’s New Labour-style accommodation of the capitalist 21st century: wealthy foreigners will be able to buy luxury holiday homes on the island.

Two hours from Havana, the neatly manicured Varadero tourist resort welcomes a million visitors a year. The complex hosts five-star hotels, shopping malls and even a golf course (and yes, golf is reconcilable with the revolution – a photo of a club-wielding Che is on display at the course shop). On the edge of Varadero, a 170-hectare plot will soon become the site of the Carbonera Club, a joint venture between the Cuban authorities and a British developer, Esencia. The scheme will consist of some 800 apartments and villas, priced at up to £1.15m, and marketed exclusively to foreigners. There will be a yacht marina, facilities for scuba diving and tennis, a spa and a gym.

That’s all lovely, of course, but it hardly distinguishes the place from playgrounds of the rich around the world. The Carbonera Club’s unique appeal lies elsewhere.

In 1959 Fidel Castro nationalised Cuban land and property. Since then no private homes have been built, sold or bought. But that will change, at least for foreigners, when Carbonera goes on sale in July. Esencia expects most buyers this year to be from Canada, Spain and the UK – the nations that supply the majority of tourists to Cuba. But the company’s long-term goal is to attract US buyers.

That will be possible only when the trade embargo between Cuba and the US is finally scrapped. But it looks as if this will be sooner rather than later. Barack Obama has admitted that the embargo has not brought democracy to Cuba. The US Senate recently relaxed travel and financial repatriation controls, and senior Washington politicians visited Havana in April. Raúl Castro’s embrace of 3G mobiles and foreigners who want holiday homes will no doubt be seen as a reciprocal move in the necessary diplomatic pas de deux.

Should Americans start to arrive in volume, post-embargo, you can expect to see more private homes popping up across the island. There is already talk of a dozen resorts.

In the meantime, the Carbonera Club has had a few hiccups. Cuba’s government would prefer to sell the properties with a 75-year lease, but the west prefers freehold. And there is uncertainty over Havana’s capacity to handle inquiries from western mortgage companies if a buyer borrows to fund a purchase. But these are small fry compared to the scheme’s political significance.

Whether it marks the beginning of the end of Cuba’s revolutionary programme, or the end of the beginning, as some islanders believe, one thing is certain: if you want to see Cuba before it becomes too much like the rest of the world, go there now. Say hello to Christina at the cigar factory. Some day soon she may feel comfortable talking about the changes happening around her.