Cubans deal out the cards in the new game of be your own boss
Momentous changes have brought big opportunities for Cuba’s
self-employed, but the long shadow of communism remains
Virginia Lopez in Havana
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 17 July 2013 14.49 BST
The first thing Yunior de Jesús plans to do after the Cuban government
approves his licence for self employment is to get a snazzier business
card. He wants it printed on glossy paper, with a Havana cityscape
backdrop and his new job title – estate agent – in bold.
The card, he says, will cement his reputation among his growing
clientele – Cuba’s incipient property market still relies heavily on
word of mouth. It will also signal his entrance among a new breed of
small-scale, self-employed entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas, making
strides in the country’s emerging market economy.
“I’ve made myself a name but a card would give me more visibility,” he says.
It’s been three years since Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor,
enacted a series of economic changes designed to breathe life into the
island’s decrepit economy. Among the most significant measures was
granting Cubans the right to sell their cars and homes, the only forms
of private property countenanced after the revolution which ousted the
Batista regime in 1959. The other change was to allow for self-employment.
The reforms, widely welcomed after half a century of a Soviet-style
economy, still came with strong state control. Homes can only be sold to
other Cubans or foreigners who permanently reside in the island, and
ownership is limited to one home.
For Cubans, most of whom know only state-owned enterprises, possessing
and openly distributing a business card is a striking indication that
both policies and mind-sets are changing.
But the changes, and the sales, are slow and for the time being De Jesús
must settle for a giant cardboard sign to advertise his services,
propped next to a bench on the wide walkways of the Paseo del Prado in
Estate agent Yunior de Jesús says: ‘We are not capitalists. Don’t get
confused. There are changes, but all within socialism.’ Photograph:
Virginia López for the Guardian
The tree-lined promenade, where dozens of young men gather each day,
offers a perfect vantage point to witness the emergence of Cuba’s unique
economic model, in which vestiges of communism coexist with the halting
first steps of market capitalism. For De Jesús, 39, this is embodied in
his work arranging both permutas, or house-swaps – a traditional way for
Cubans to upgrade their homes – and the sale of homes for hard cash.
Mortgages are not available.
“We are going to improve so that there is more, but we are not
capitalists. Don’t get confused. There are changes, but all within
socialism, so that we all have the same rights,” adds De Jesús .
The changes feel momentous and the air is buzzing with activity, but
many argue the reforms are insufficient and designed to help the
government maintain its grip on society.
“What they are doing is de-penalising some informal markets like housing
rentals and liberalising some highly restricted sectors like the
self-employed or remittances. But they are not really expanding property
rights,” says Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst
College in the US.
“They have not moved forward with the expansion of credit, which is
essential for markets, or with contract protection. They have not
liberalised the information sector – neither traditional nor new – or
created opportunities for investors to hire workers directly.
“In other words, there are huge barriers to the autonomy of the private
Yet the signs of change are everywhere. They are hanging from the
wrought iron balconies of crumbling colonial mansions, or pinned to
wooden doors; hand-written on cardboard or printed on thick vinyl.
Cubans are offering everything from pizzas to watch repair services and
Three years ago the government published a list of almost 200 authorised
self-employment opportunities. The positions, which include restaurant
owner, manicurist and fortune teller, are allowing Cubans to earn a
living beyond the close gaze of “the revolution” for the first time
Minerva Estrada, 53, operates a pizza restaurant out of what used to be
her living room, with a 1950s-era oven, and now makes enough to support
her 84-year-old father and attend a nearby gym – another of the approved
For her, the suggestion that Cuba may be opening up to a
capitalist-style economy is tantamount to a betrayal. The changes, she
says, are adjustments to a system that needed revising but which will
always remain socialist.
“The Cuban people will never turn capitalist. We’ve suffered what we
needed to in order to change – for good,” Estrada says.
Pimpi, who works in a government office, says the economic changes will
be felt more by his daughter’s generation than his. Photograph: Virginia
López for the Guardian
Yet the option of becoming a cuentapropista is not available to all. To
date, 420,000 licences for self-employment have been issued in a country
of 11 million people, where the average monthly income is equivalent to
the step into self-employment is easier for those with access to
remittances sent by relatives or friends living in the US. The
transition has also been smoother for groups of workers such as taxi
drivers, who have been able to opt out of direct state employment and
into state-sponsored taxi co-operatives.
The barriers encountered by the rest of the population are shored up by
complex and unresolved issues such as race and social status which
predate the Castro revolution.
“White Cubans still enjoy greater access to the economy, to remittances
from Miami and to the big houses of the Batista era,” says Alexei
Rodriguez, a singer with Obsesion, one of Cuba’s top hip-hop bands, who
shares his home with his parents, wife and brother. “They are also the
ones that can travel, or can turn their homes into restaurants.
‘White Cubans still enjoy greater access to the economy,’ says Alexei
Rodriguez of the Cuban hip-hop group Obsesion. Photograph: Virginia
López for the Guardian
“Not everyone benefits, but I cannot say [this inequality] is a failure
of the revolution. This is an on-going process; it’s still being built.
I need to believe this or I will stop fighting,” Rodriguez adds.
In Old Havana, the historic centre of the Cuban capital, crumbling
buildings adjoin grandiose hotels and some of the streets are blocked
with debris. However, the temporary chaos is not a symptom of the
decades-long neglect that afflicts the rest of the city, but the result
of renovation efforts that are transforming the area into a tourist
mecca. Soon, Old Havana will have a revamped electricity supply and
telecommunications system buried underground to complement immaculately
restored colonial facades and 1950s storefronts.
Despite the architectural facelift, not all share Rodriguez’s optimism.
The promises of better times are likely to skip the generation which
grew up under Castro.
Pimpi is still working as an errand boy in a government office aged 38.
“I hear projects being discussed and I can see the changes, but I cannot
feel them. Walk three blocks in any direction and you’re in an entirely
different Havana”, he says. “My only hope is to live my life. The
changes will be for my daughters. I can’t do much more at this point,”
Regardless of the reforms at home, many believe the island’s fate will
be determined by outside forces such as an end to the US embargo and the
reliability of subsidised Venezuelan oil imports.
For critics, Cuba’s most testing challenge comes from a leadership that
is as obsolete as the economy. “The greater problem is that despite all
the talk of revolutionary change, whenever they try to imagine a better
Cuba, they can only remember the past,” says Corrales.
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