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Cuba: 1K shops freely selling building materials

By Peter Orsi
Associated Press / May 23, 2011

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HAVANA—More than 1,000 independent shops selling building materials have opened up around Cuba, official media said Monday, as the government looks to the private sector to fight corruption and the black market, eliminate expensive subsidies and help ease a severe housing crisis.

Communist Party newspaper Granma said Monday that the new shops give Cubans more access to supplies without having to navigate a Byzantine bureaucracy.

"Acquiring these products no longer means immersing oneself in the tangle of innumerable 'legal' documents that, in many cases, facilitated corruption and favoritism toward a 'chosen' few who were not always the most in need," the paper said.

The government has long controlled all construction on the island. Cement and other building materials were in theory available in state-run stores at heavily subsidized prices, but demand greatly outstripped supply in part due to pilfering from state stocks.

Many turned to the thriving black-market trade in those stolen supplies to get quicker service.

In recent years the government authorized the sale of building materials in pricier stores that trade in the convertible peso, which is the equivalent of $1. But those prices are out of reach of many Cubans who receive state wages averaging about $20.

The new stores trade in the noncovertible peso that the government uses for most salaries. Although the prices are higher than before, they are cheaper than in the convertible-currency stores and much of the bureaucracy been eliminated.

Rules governing the stores were created in January as part of a sweeping economic package of free-market changes that the government is counting on to stimulate a moribund economy. The government says newly independent workers will be able to manufacture and sell building materials wholesale, but details are still forthcoming.

Granma also said Monday that bank credit will be offered for the purchase of building materials, but it did not give details.

The government has acknowledged that a lack of housing is one of the country's biggest challenges. The shortage reached some 500,000 homes as of the middle of the past decade, according to official estimates.

The National Statistics Office said this month that 33,000 homes were built in 2010, compared with 35,000 in the previous year -- both of which fell far short of the 110,000 constructed in 2006, when then-President Fidel Castro launched a campaign to address the problem.

For decades there have also been restrictions on the buying and selling of private property, meaning many Cubans have no choice but to continue living with their parents and other relatives even as they start families of their own.

Recommendations approved by a Communist Party summit last month would relax those restrictions, but they have not yet been enacted into law.

Authorities recently announced they are studying a new progressive tax code, but without giving details.