Private enterprise remains a shaky business in Cuba
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Jan 17 (AFP):
Violin in hand, Overlin Barrientos cracks a warm smile at the handful of
tourists who cheer his trio's rendition of traditional Cuban songs and
drop a few coins in his battered cap.
All three musicians are retired from their state jobs and have now
joined communist Cuba's tightly-regulated private sector, playing in a
quaint colonial square of Santiago de Cuba, just metres (yards) away
from the spot where the now ailing President Fidel Castro delivered his
maiden speech on January 1, 1959.
Their repertoire includes such international favourites as
"Guantanamera," but also revolutionary classics recalling the exploits
of the small band of rebels who fought in the city and the nearby Sierra
Maestra mountains almost half a century ago.
Barrientos, 69 looks bemused when asked what the future holds for
private enterprise now that Fidel's younger brother Raul holds the reins
of power while the longtime president recovers from intestinal surgery
he underwent in July.
But Barrientos admits he and his two fellow musicians now earn at least
twice what they made when the state employed them to play at official
The Cuban government prides itself on the fact no one goes hungry and
everyone is guaranteed a job, as well as housing, health care and education.
But the disparity between self-employment incomes and state sector wages
have led many Cubans to seek coveted licenses that allow them to set up
The number of trades is limited, and entrepreneurs must follow strict
rules. Private restaurants, for example, may seat a maximum of 12
people, and may not serve lobster, which is officially only available in
state-run establishments that cater mainly to foreign tourists.
Some Cubans express hope the rules may eventually be relaxed a little
under Raul Castro, even though he has repeatedly stressed the continuity
of the revolution.
In a country where analysing political statements is often akin to
reading tea leaves, Cuba-watchers have pointed to a December speech in
which the acting president told the National Assembly there was no
excuse for some of the pressing problems the Caribbean nation faced,
particularly in the transport and food supply sector.
A number of analysts believe Cuba may eventually move toward the
so-called "Chinese model" that adopted some market reforms while
maintaining the one-party system.
But Jorge Hidalgo doubts Cuba will head that way anytime soon.
"I think they're actually going to get tougher, particularly with
private restaurants and the food sector," says Hidalgo, who rents out
party decorations from a hole-in-the-wall shop in a bustling Santiago