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Cubans take baby steps to reform — and hope they don't trip up

Image: A man looks for customers on his tricycle taxi in Havana
A man looks for customers on his tricycle taxi in Havana April 21, 2011. The recent Sixth Communist Party Congress endorsed more than 300 reforms to try to revitalize the Caribbean island's moribund Soviet-style economy, and elected a top party leadership with few new faces.  DESMOND BOYLAN / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

You can sense change coming to Cuba, and it could be profound.

The country appears headed toward reforming an economic model that has dominated the island for more than half a century.

A recent four-day meeting of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party ratified a package of 300 economic reforms aimed at attracting foreign investment, diminishing government control over commerce, slashing public spending, handing over more land to private farmers and allowing more regular folks to open their own businesses.

For the first time in five decades, Cuban entrepreneurs can legally expand their family businesses – meaning hire other Cubans to work for them – and rent commercial properties.

The government also promises that regulations are being rewritten to allow Cubans to buy and sell homes – a big popular demand and a huge step away from the socialist idea that all property belongs to the state.

To many Americans, this looks like simple baby steps.

But for Cuba, the new measures could be life-changing – especially if, as some predict, changes in the laws governing trade and the market lead to political shifts as well.

“When people are no longer tethered to the government and work for themselves, they will have the freedom to think for themselves,” said a former Cuban history professor who is now an art dealer.

Even retired CIA analyst Brian Latell, who has watched developments in Cuba for decades, said, “Revolutionary Cuba will never be the same."

Slideshow

The new Cuba

As Cuba marks the 50 anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, it is opening up economically and culturally – if not politically.

Naturally, there are some here as frightened by what lays ahead as those searching for a different way of life.

Americans may believe that most Cubans think alike, but society here is far from monolithic.

Like every other place on the planet, the island has skeptics and dreamers.

Mountain of laws
Some refuse to believe that this leopard can change its spots, that Cuba’s communist government and massive bureaucracy – with its mountain of laws that regulate all trade, public services and even private matters – will ever be able to let go of such all-consuming power.

There are also those who would prefer that the leopard not try to change its spots. Cuba’s political and economic model is all they know. Times are tough but that’s nothing new. At the moment, there’s food in the markets and the lights stay on.

A look at the life of the revolutionary leader.

And then there are those who stopped looking at the spots a long time ago. In the past they went to jail for showing initiative and bending the rules. Today, they are the admired entrepreneurs – with many achieving a standard of living miles above any professional employed by the state. These are the people trying to figure out how to work the system before a word is even written or the Cuban Parliament changes a law.

They are waiting for the Cuban government to catch up to them.

Msnbc.com is running a series of stories about how ordinary Cubans are dealing with new economic reforms in their island nation. Click here to read the first article: