Amid Doubts, Cubans Pursue Private Sector Dreams

Postchronicle.com: For some, it is the pursuit of a dream, for most, a necessity. Whatever the motive, a steady stream of Cubans are taking the government up on its offer to let them work for themselves instead of the state.

At municipal labor offices around the country, Cubans are filing in with plans that include everything from opening small restaurants to renting out rooms as they seek one of 250,000 self-employment licenses to be issued in Cuba’s biggest reform in years.

About 30,000 of the permits have been handed out, state-run press reported, and another 16,000 are pending in the first few weeks of President Raul Castro’s plan to improve the Communist-led island’s economy by expanding the private sector and cutting government’s role.

The licenses are key to Castro’s gamble that he can slash 1 million jobs from state payrolls, absorb the unemployed through private businesses and keep Cuba on the socialist straight-and-narrow for years to come.

The government, which controls most of the economy and employs 85 percent of Cuba’s workforce, has outlined 178 jobs or sectors where self-employment will be permitted. It will retain a heavy dose of control through regulations and stiff taxes of 25 percent to 50 percent of net income.

The reform is criticized by some experts as being too limited, but others view it as a reasonable first step toward greater change in one of the world’s last Communist countries.

Clutching a raft of government forms, license applicants wait in line for an opportunity they say is welcome and, despite worries about their chances for success, worth a try.

“I have always wanted to have my own business,” said Ismael Hidalgo, who plans to leave his construction job and do what he always wanted to do — raise animals for sale.

“I think the measures they are taking are very good. Let each one live from what they are capable of doing. Let them live from their own sweat,” he said, standing outside a dimly lit government office in Central Havana.

Maria Caridad Sulton, who will open a small cafeteria, said: “I hope that everything goes better. I think that workers will be able to see the fruit of their labor and a little more.”

SMALL EXPECTATIONS

Like most of the applicants interviewed, Caridad said she does not expect to make a lot of money, only enough to supplement a meager pension.

Cubans receive various social benefits, but they earn an average salary equivalent to about $20 a month and insist that they need more to live.

“Necessity, necessity and more necessity. If I didn’t have the necessity, I wouldn’t do this,” said Caridad’s husband, Pedro Sarracent Belon, a retired weight lifting coach. “This is a plan for surviving.”

He and others share a concern that taxes and regulation may be too big a burden for the new entrepreneurs, particularly in a country where taxes have been almost nonexistent under the Communist government installed after the 1959 revolution.

“I was born in this revolutionary process and I don’t know what taxes are,” said Sarracent, 56. “I’m doing this test, but I think there are going to be a lot of failures.”

Yudenia Artiles, who plans to sells snacks in the street, was equally skeptical because of taxes, but also because she believes Cuba’s economic problems will get worse with the planned government layoffs.

“There’s no money,” she said. “Now the war is going to be in the street, a lot of competition between vendors in the street, and you’re going to always see problems.”

According to government figures, 20 percent of the licenses granted so far have gone to people who want to sell food.

Like many other Cubans, Artiles has been plying her trade illegally to make ends meet, so a license will allow her to do it without threat of arrest or worse.

She pulled back her shirt sleeve to show a bruised shoulder that she blamed on a whack from a baton-wielding cop.

“The police mistreat you a lot. I have a ‘bastonazo’ from a policeman for illegally selling sweets,” she said.

There are other worries as well.

Many people fear that the government will open the door to private enterprise, then close it as it did during the economic crisis of the 1990s.

While that experience has discouraged some would-be entrepreneurs, it helped Emilio Perez decide to seize the moment and seek a license to rent out a room in his house and to sell food.

“You have to grab this chance. It’s now or never,” he said. “This is Cuba, what will happen tomorrow, I don’t know, but he who doesn’t take the risk neither wins nor loses.”

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About Particular Cuba
Particular Cuba organizes travel to Cuba. Hotel booking, car rental, package tours, excursions, flights to Cuba.

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