RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Cuba, the Communist Party Congress opens this weekend for the first time in 14 years. Hundreds of new laws are being proposed. Some of them could bring major changes to Cuba's economy, including its unique market for classic American cars. Nick Miroff reports from Havana.
NICK MIROFF:�Dozens of battered Fords, Buicks, and other aging clunkers from Detroit's heyday are lined up in colorful formation outside the elegant Cuban Capitolio. This is where Giordis Londres begins his trip through the city, charging passengers 40 cents to ride in his 1951 baby-blue Cadillac limousine.
(Soundbite of engine starting and horn honking)
MIROFF: There's an entire Cuban history lesson under the hood. Some parts are cannibalized from Soviet vehicles. The diesel motor once powered an Italian Fiat pickup truck. But the most unusual adaptation is the plastic Flintstones vitamins bottle Londres got from relatives in the States that he's rigged to hold in the car's brake fluid.
Mr. GIORDIS LONDRES: (Spanish spoken)
MIROFF: These are things you learn out of necessity, Londres said, explaining that he sets aside every Tuesday as a maintenance day for the car, a family heirloom that he inherited from his father.
The Cadillac and other rolling symbols of American prosperity are still on the road, mostly because of a Cuban communist quirk. Russian Ladas and modern European or Asian models now make up most of the vehicles on Cuba's roads, but only cars manufactured before the 1959 Cuban Revolution can be freely bought and sold here. If Cuba lifts those restrictions on vehicle sales and opens the island to even more imports, it could be a first step toward the gradual disappearance of the old gas-guzzlers.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
MIROFF: An even bigger change may be coming to Cuba's real estate market. For decades, the Castro government has prohibited Cubans from buying and selling their homes, strictly controlling new construction even as the city grew. So when Havana residents need to move, they come here, to a designated spot along the city's Prado Boulevard, where black-market realtors facilitate housing swaps.
They're legal but must get state approval. So to navigate the process, Cubans turn to agents like 83-year-old Manuel Vasquez. He sits in the shade with a Panama hat, big black sunglasses, and a worn leather briefcase of real estate listings. Over 40 years, he said he's negotiated about 2,000 permutas, as the housing exchanges are called.
Mr. MANUEL VASQUEZ (Real Estate Agent): (Spanish spoken)
MIROFF: There are some problems that a revolution can't solve, said Vasquez. When growing families or divorced couples need two homes, he explained, or if empty nesters find their apartments too large, they come to him. That's the social work I provide, he said.
The housing swaps usually involve some amount of money, and there are more and more stories of homes here being sold on the black market for hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if buyers can't get proper titles.
(Soundbite of construction)
MIROFF: These workers mixing cement in Old Havana are part of a push to fix up the city's historic core, but beyond the tourist areas there are countless homes falling to pieces for a lack of maintenance funds. A flood of investment capital could save them if Raul Castro legalizes Havana's informal real estate market, as proposed. But it's not clear how the system would work.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe is a dissident economist.
Mr. OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE (Economist): (Spanish spoken)
MIROFF: At the beginning, I think there would have to be a limit on the number of properties a person could acquire, said Espinosa Chepe. Opening up and legalizing the real estate market is an essential step, he said, but will require careful regulation to limit speculation.
The Castro government has clearly stated that no one will be allowed to accumulate too much wealth, from the market-driven reforms to Cuba's socialist economy that are on the agenda for this weekend's Communist Party Congress.
As for Cuba's classic cars, mechanic Jorge Prats said he thinks they'll be around for at least another 50 years.
Mr. JORGE PRATS (Mechanic): (Spanish spoken)
MIROFF: These cars are a part of our national identity now, like rice and beans or roast pork, Prats said, showing off his two-tone, bright red-and-white 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air coupe.
Prats lifted the hood to display the car's original motor. Then he pointed to the brand-new side mirrors that he'd recently ordered from Miami. With all the Cuban-American travelers coming from States these days, he said, he can finally get original parts for his Chevy.
For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.
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