Capitalism meets communism head on in Cuba
By Robert Kennedy | Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera – Capitalism meets communism head on in Cuba
San Luis, Cuba – One must follow three rules when smoking a fine Cuban
cigar, the man with striking blue eyes says at the 170-year-old tobacco
“Never inhale, it makes you sick. Never smoke a cigar on an empty
stomach. And last, never ever smash it out – let it die with the dignity
it deserves,” says Ivan Rodriguez, 42, a tour guide at the Vegas Robaino
cigar company’s Chuchillas de Barbacoa plantation in western Cuba.
Three generations of the Robaino family have grown tobacco here since 1845.
Cuba’s renowned cigar producers are poised to gain greatly after the end
of 55 years of discord between Cuba and the United States – and
Rodriguez is excited at that prospect.
“It’s going to be great for the American people, they know high quality.
They’ll come here and bring our cigars back home. It’s part of our
culture – cigars make people friends,” he says.
Strong dose of capitalism
It remains unclear how long the barriers between the Cold War rivals
that hold back billions of dollars in trade will last, but change now
appears inevitable. After December’s historic declaration of
rapprochement, on Wednesday July 1, it was announced embassies could be
opening for business as of July 20.
For small and medium-sized Cuban businesses, a strong dose of capitalism
shot into the communist economy can’t come soon enough.
The owner of Chuchillas de Barbacoa, Hirochi Robaina, pulls no punches
when discussing the lackadaisical government handling of his prized
It’s the end of the growing season and he’s upset because enough tobacco
for 14 million cigars is drying out in storage and prone to pests while
it awaits slothful government buyers to buy it for state-run cigar
“This tobacco is of the highest quality, but now it is declining the
longer it sits,” says Robaina from a wooden rocking chair as he watches
the Cuban baseball championship on an old television set.
Once trade sanctions are lifted, the US’ mammoth cigar appetite –
representing 65 percent of the global market – will be hungry for Cuba’s
best-known product. But Robaina says years of communist control over the
industry threatens any boom.
“Our cigar production is in decline, mostly because of neglect and
incompetence,” he says. “Tobacco is a very important part of the
economy. I criticise because these problems need to be solved. I love my
country – that’s why I point this out.”
Back in the capital Havana 200km northeast, a husband-and-wife team have
jumped all over the relaxation of communist rules that for decades
banned entrepreneurial endeavour, after President Raúl Castro’s economic
reforms were launched in 2008.
Julio Alvarez and his wife, Nidialys Acosta Cabrera, personify the
burgeoning capitalist spirit on the Caribbean island of 11.3 million people.
Alvarez is an car mechanic and the couple opened a repair shop in 2012.
But after travelling to the US under bilateral initiatives for Cubans to
learn how to run a small business – their entrepreneurial spirit took off.
The auto-shop now refurbishes American cars from the 1950s for tours or
to rent to the surging number of tourists arriving here. Not only that,
the couple organised a cooperative with other classic-car owners to pool
their vehicles for the effort. Business is booming, they say.
“Every single year over the past three years we’ve grown,” Alvarez says
proudly. “We’re very hopeful our success will continue.”
‘All of this is new’
At the auto-shop, workers pass by to use a nearby lathe from 1949 to
hone a car part. Two graphic designers show up with a large banner
advertising the company – NostalgiCar – that’s set to hang on the
The couple is proud to mention they met Assistant Secretary of State
Roberta Jacobson while in the US studying American capitalism, and their
excitement is palpable when discussing the future.
Previously, Alvarez and Acosta had to rely on their savings to prop up
the business, but now Cuban banks are offering lines of credit –
something virtually unheard of here.
“All of this is new – loans, tax credits. I saw this in the US and was
very impressed. I’m learning to be a proper businessman from all of this
experience,” Alvarez says.
Small-scale businesses known as trabajadores cuentapropistas have
multiplied over the past 20 years with about 435,000 now on the island,
up from 138,000 in 1995. About one million people, 20 percent of the
workforce, are now considered part of the private sector.
Yet, challenges remain after five decades of Soviet-style economic planning.
Pedro Vázquez is an architect and urban design consultant who also gives
American tourists government-sponsored history lessons on Cuba.
While détente takes hold and economic prosperity presents itself,
Vázquez says his greatest concern is that the Cuban people – long
accustomed to proletariat relegation – will miss out on new opportunities.
“There’s no discipline among the people here,” he says. “It’s a cultural
constraint and it happens in every aspect of life. Cubans are very good
at doing nothing.”
Not just anybody
As Cuba transforms its centrally planned Soviet-styled economy, many
observers are wondering just how far the government will go. Several
economists here told Al Jazeera the ideals of the 1950s socialist
revolution will hold firm while accommodating the most desirable aspects
From his sunny Havana office, Hugo Pons Duarte, director of Cuba’s
National Economist and Accountant Association, says the “management
model” will have three pillars: state enterprises, cooperatives, and the
“The policy is not to open up the country to just anybody who wants to
come,” says Pons. “The government has a strategy for guiding investment.”
Vázquez notes the communist rulers are well aware of the dangers of
giving multinational corporations carte blanche. “Money is power and the
government has a very narrow path for business,” he says.
Source: Capitalism meets communism head on in Cuba – Yahoo Maktoob News