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Cuba is seeking its own version of the formula that transformed China and Vietnam. Those communist countries have opened up their economies while maintaining strict political control. Now, the communist nation in the Caribbean is easing government controls on property rights and private enterprise. That effort comes under Cuban President Raul Castro, whose brother Fidel took over the country more than half a century ago. Nick Miroff begins his report on a street corner in Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: The intersection of 23rd Street and 12th Avenue in Havana's Vedado District is a Cuban landmark in Cold War history.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC PASSING)

MIROFF: It was here during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 that Fidel Castro dropped his democratic assurances and declared at the peak of a fiery speech that Cuba had carried out a socialist revolution right under the United States' nose. It was the first time he'd openly used the S word to describe his leftward plans for the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC PASSING)

MIROFF: What Cubans ended up with was a tropical version of Soviet economics, defined by centralized planning and the elimination of most private property. Even Cuba's ice cream vendors had their popsicle carts seized by the state in the name of ending inequality.

Today, the same Havana intersection is changing. The dreary state-run businesses that were long ago nationalized now compete with private restaurants, snack bars and newly licensed entrepreneurs like Yoel Gonzalez, who sells Puma and Adidas sneakers where Castro once rallied the crowds of Cuban militiamen.

YOEL GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: You have to work a little harder when you have your own business, but you get to see the benefits, says Gonzalez. When you work for the state, your salary is guaranteed, but it's not enough to survive on, he says.

To reform advocates here, the 31-year-old Gonzalez is precisely what's wrong with Cuba's current model. Gonzalez was trained as a computer programmer but quit his government job to make ends meet by selling shoes.

Starting a software company or working as a private computer engineer isn't among the 181 occupations that have been permitted so far by Cuban authorities. Licenses are available for stone cutters, horse cart drivers and birthday clowns, but not architects, scientists or other educated professionals. And unless that changes, the mentality of Cuba's Communist Party will remain decades behind China and Vietnam, says University of Havana economist Julio Diaz Vazquez.

JULIO DIAZ VAZQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Cuba's model continues to be for the State to own and distribute everything, Diaz Vazquez says. That has nothing to do with Marx. It's not possible to have socialism if you don't have a productive economy to sustain it, he says.

On the scale of liberalism, Cuba is still closer to North Korea than China, a country that looks relatively open to Diaz Vazquez. Chinese citizens have access to the Internet, he notes, and can publicly criticize corruption or pollution.

But economic reforms are bringing subtle political shifts, according to Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban journal Temas. He says a new model for Cuba is still taking shape, but it would be foolish for the island to try copying China or Vietnam.

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: These are Asian societies with their own cultural traditions and history. So, I don't think that economic policy is something that you can develop like if you are developing a vaccine. This is not about a lab test that you can apply elsewhere. The social, historic and cultural circumstances in which you are going to develop a political and economic model is fundamental.

MIROFF: The 81-year-old Raul Castro made a rare trip abroad to visit China and Vietnam in July, promising closer ties. But while those countries churn out iPhones, textiles, cars and nearly anything else the world economy wants, Cuba still struggles to make its own laundry detergent and grow enough food.

Opponents of the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba point out that Asia's communists have been transformed by business ties to the U.S. market. But the embargo's backers insist the Cuban model won't really change until the Castros are gone.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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