Posted on Sunday, 08.11.13
Are self-employed Cubans really budding entrepreneurs?
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Entrepreneurship has many faces in Cuba today, from street vendors who
sell skimpy tube tops purchased at Miami discount stores to the
chauffeur of an improvised bicycle taxi to the operator of a
white-tablecloth private restaurant with the tips already included in
But while the government initially declared that it wanted to move
500,000 Cubans off state payrolls by April 2011 and another 800,000 by
the beginning of 2012, it has fallen far short of those targets. And
there is a vast gray area in this world of so-called cuentapropistas,
where the self-employed function on the fringes of legality, key
elements that would lead to successful small businesses are missing and
broad questions remain about how the program should go forward in a
There’s also disagreement about whether Cuba’s flirtation with private
business represents a path toward true entrepreneurship or has simply
resulted in reinforcement of a shadowy informal economy where
cuentapropistas bend the rules in order to survive.
At the end of May, nearly 430,000 Cubans in a workforce of 5 million
were self-employed, according to a report from the CubanMinistry of
Labor and Social Security. But not all of them are furloughed government
Some 14 percent were retired, meaning they didn’t switch from current
state employment to working on their own, and analysts say a significant
number are probably former black marketeers, who are used to operating
outside the bounds of state control, or workers who have held on to
their state jobs but want to earn extra money on the side.
“So far it’s been more of a legalization of the illegal economy than
creation of a small business class,’’ said Ted Henken, a Baruch College
professor and president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban
Self-employment is permitted in181 economic activities, and 18 percent
of cuentapropistas are employed by small private business owners. In
other fledgling attempts at private business, scores of non-farm
cooperatives — most of them former state companies — have been launched
and private farmers are now cultivating once-idle public land.
The budding private sector is mainly a service economy. The most popular
activities are selling and preparing food, transportation of cargo and
passengers, renting homes and selling agricultural products on the
street, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
Karina Gálvez, an economist from Pinar del Rio, agrees that the recent
changes aren’t necessarily things the government wanted to do, but said
the economic situation as well as pressures from Cuba’s nascent civil
society obligated the reforms.
Speaking at the recent meeting of the Association for the Study of the
Cuban Economy in Miami, Gálvez said that many of the self-employed have
to “break the law’’ to make a living because taxes are so high and many
self-employment activities still aren’t allowed, including freelance
work by lawyers, accountants, architects and other professionals.
Some of the new entrepreneurs have resorted to bribing inspectors to
avoid high fines for violations, said Gálvez, who is also one of the
founders of Convivencia, a digital magazine.
“In Cuba, everyone commits illegalities in their business,’’ said
Antonio Rodiles, a Cuban political activist who has created a forum for
public debate through his Estado de SATS movement. One of the most
common infractions, he said, is stealing electricity because utility
bills are so high.
“At this point, self-employment is failing,’’ he said. Many of the
cuentapropistas are dependent on the black market to supply them, and
instead of the emergence of a small entrepreneurial class, he said, what
is happening is the encouragement of an informal or underground economy.
But Gálvez said she believes the self-employed prefer to operate
legally. “This gives me hope,’’ she said. “I believe in the force of la
José Luis Leyva Cruz, a professor at the University of Camaguey, also
has embraced entrepreneurship with a project he calls “ DLíderes,’’
whose goal is to develop entrepreneurial leaders in Cuba. Lacking
another space, the organization held its first meeting in front of his
home in Camaguey.
He outlined DLíderes’ goals during the ASCE meeting: Develop networks of
entrepreneurs and intellectuals, provide training in leadership and
technology, develop a digital magazine called @emprenda, and connect
international patrons with Cuban entrepreneurs.
“In Havana you see a lot of successful entrepreneurs who are creating
jobs or innovating,’’ said Henken. For example, some of the more
sophisticated paladares (private restaurants) have live music, well
stocked bars and gourmet fare.
“There is a new class of high-quality gourmet restaurants mainly
surviving on their owners’ ingenuity,’’ he said. But Henken added, some
of the more established enterprises “may have some form of protection’’
and are run by former military or government officials.
Many self-employed people are “still trapped in survival mode with very
low productivity,’’ Henken said. “And a lot of corruption is caused by
unworkable, antagonistic rules the government has put in place.’’
Analysts said important ingredients for these very small businesses to
be more successful would be micro-credit programs, a dependable
wholesale network to supply them, and a system for allowing investment
“The micro-entrepreneur is the beginning of the solution; it is not the
solution,’’ said Jorge A. Sanguinetty, president of Devtech, an
international consulting firm specializing in development.
Self-employment became legal in Cuba in 1993 after the collapse of the
Soviet Union plunged the island into dire economic straits, but it fell
out of favor as a government policy until President Raúl Castro revived
it in 2010.
The Cuban government has made it clear that it doesn’t want market
forces to get out of control and that it isn’t a fan of wealth
accumulation by its citizens. During the 2011 Party Congress, Castro
said that self-employment is “an active element facilitating the
construction of socialism in Cuba.’’
Meanwhile, informal trade connections also operate between the
cuentapropistas and Cuban-Americans despite the U.S. embargo, which has
been in place for more than 50 years and prohibits U.S. citizens and
companies from buying and selling in Cuba.
U.S. exports of food, farming equipment and medicine are exempt from the
embargo, but a wide array of goods also enters in the form of gifts to
family and friends.
Cuban-Americans not only bring in many of the products offered for sale
by Cuba’s self-employed, but they invest in businesses and provide
tools, equipment and other inputs needed to set up small businesses from
car-washing operations to woodworking shops.
The Obama administration lifted restrictions on family visits and
remittances in 2009, opening the floodgates for Cubans-Americans to send
cash and products to the island, and then went even further in 2011 by
allowing any American to send $500 per quarter to qualified Cubans on
There are various levels to this “commerce.’’ Some people operate purely
as “mules,” ferrying goods to Cuba for a fee and working with a group of
customers who aren’t necessarily family members. Others carry goods to
Cuba for resale by their families.
Still, other Cuban-Americans act as silent partners, generally joining
family members in various enterprises, or supply the cash for purchases
of real estate or cars.
“There is this gray area with various levels of legality,’’ said Richard
Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a
senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In effect, sending
remittances and goods to Cuba’s private sector is a “way to punch a hole
in the embargo,’’ he said.
Despite the problems faced by Cuba’s new class of small entrepreneurs,
Sanguinetty views self-employment as a positive in creating civil
society. “In any society there are entrepreneurs. The point is that a
business entrepreneur is an entrepreneur in general — including
political activities. An entrepreneur is a very dynamic person, willing
to take risks.’’
Source: “Are self-employed Cubans really budding entrepreneurs? – Cuba –