Cuba’s Self-Employed and their “Struggle”

Photo: Hansel Leyva


By Riury Rodriguez Lorenzo
(El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES — Ever since they emerged in Cuba, “self-employed workers” have had to put up with a host of obstacles.

Those of us who are with the times we live in (the 21st century!) aren’t recognized as an essential part of the national economy. The positive effect our actions have on the population’s quality of life is undervalued and worst yet, we are made to be victims of a manipulative thought: “the private sector is synonymous with easy money.”

The anti-capitalist culture that has developed in Cuba ever since the Revolution triumphed in 1959 has been confused with distrust and aggresion towards the private sector and entrepreneurship.

It’s strange because critics of business owners aren’t concerned at all if a visual artist, a successful musician or an athlete hired by foreign teams is a millionaire. The alarm bells only ring for them when somebody prospers via legal trade, when they begin to “accumulate wealth”.

“A ticking time bomb” has been the media’s latest label for Cuba’s private sector. And forgive me for being sensitive, but I think that it has been used to describe someone who is trying to change their life without having to leave their country.

It seems that anyone who embarks on a business venture and, worse yet, manages to be successful along the way, is the country’s real threat. A sweeping generalization has been used to label intelligent, highly-regarded, decent people a “threat”.

I feel like they have made a mistake by pointing the finger at those who create wealth in Cuba. It would be better, and make more sense, to point out the root causes that create so much poverty and inequality in our country every day.

Articles that highlight low wages in the state sector or the great gap between these and market prices, with their respective causes going beyond the US blockade, are nearly inexistent in the same media that give these labels a platform.

Nothing is said about the decadent state of health and education services either, about the country’s dreadful road infrastructure, unfinished or poorly renovated projects or the low reach of telecommunication networks (fixed lines and internet).

Not to mention the national housing deficit, food shortages at markets or the never-ending problem of public transport. The only causes for these last problems, especially food shortages and transport problems, are… take a guess! Independent workers’ speculating and aggressive behavior.

Even so, they still dare to pinpoint the self-employed business owner, the person who risks all of their savings, who works twice as hard as they did before, who has to deal with society’s disdain in assuming their prosperity is illegal enrichment.

That’s why I insist that they are missing the mark because they are pointing the finger at someone who doesn’t handle the State’s million-dollar resources, but at someone who pays higher taxes than nearly everyone else and also cares about improving their environment and developing a culture of social responsibility in business.

While these alleged millionaire “time-bombs” get ready to explode, is anybody talking about our country’s wealth being concentrated into a tiny number of companies? The country’s main resources have been monopolized, both in their production and distribution.

Examples include the CubaPetroleo (CUPET), which controls gas, oil and its derivates. Then there’s the Electricity Union monopoly and ETECSA, responsible for landlines and mobile phones. These are just a couple of examples and I’m not even mentioning the fact that a significant part of Cuba’s economy is currently in the hands of the military-run Administrative Business Group (GAESA).

Couldn’t this concentration of our country’s resources also threaten our society? Are the officials who are in charge of these so infallibly trustworthy? Haven’t there been corruption scandals involving Ministers even? Isn’t it always much more dangerous for wealth to be accumulated in a very select number of hands?

Like other self-employed colleagues and academics from Havana University have themselves pointed out, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the most-talked-about case of Russian oligarchs better explains who the main beneficiaries will be if there is a change to Cuba’s system.

It won’t be small private business owners and citizens who advocate for greater transparency and a more democratic economy, that’s for sure. The main beneficiaries will largely be these “trustworthy men” who control the country’s main companies today and make up the ranks of… Cuba’s organized vanguard and society’s leading force.

The struggle for Cuba’s private sector is still very long. There are still so many stigmas and walls that need to be knocked down. Nearly 15 days before it’s been a year since self-employment licenses were frozen, it was finally announced that it will be 5 more months until regulations that “reorganize” (and limit) this sector will come into effect. This year, we have only seen a media campaign like a new kind of Inquisition and articles which only reinforce prejudices.

As well as this legislation, state-controlled media and some of its columnists need to evolve mentally and recognize the fact that the private sector is an essential building block in constructing a better country. It’s about social, political and economic inclusion. Building Cuba is everybody’s job.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Self-Employed and their “Struggle”

  • This is a very brave statement on the state hindrance to self employment, a positive force in any modern economy. I have been privileged to be a client of individuals who provided me with housing, great tourism, art and many other services. The Cuban economy can only benefit and should be encouraged. Thank you for your courage.

  • THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: Cuba moves backwards: New regulations likely to impede private sector growth – Richard E. Feinberg and Claudia Padrón Cueto — In a leap backwards, the Cuban government has published a massive compendium of tough new regulations governing the island’s struggling private enterprises. The new regulations are more a product of domestic Cuban politics than foreign pressures.The new regulations—the first major policy pronouncement during the administration of President Miguel Díaz-Canel—appear more focused on controlling and restricting the emerging private sector than on stimulating investment and job creation, more concerned with capping wealth accumulation than in poverty alleviation. The extensive, highly detailed regulations, which go into effect in December, read like “the revenge of the jealous bureaucrat.” Drawing on a multitude of ministries and operating at all levels—national, provincial, and municipal—interagency committees will now be empowered to authorize, inspect, and regularly report upon private businesses under their jurisdictions. The regulations are replete with astoundingly specific performance requirements and innumerable legal breaches that seem crafted to allow government officials wide discrimination to impose heavy fines (or extort bribes), suspend licenses, and even seize properties. To cite but a few such regulations: Private restaurants and guest houses must cook food at a minimum of 70 degrees Celsius for the time required for each food; day care centers must allocate at least two square meters per child, have no more than six children per attendant, and be outfitted with pristine bathroom facilities described in exquisite detail (private schools and academies are strictly prohibited); and private taxi drivers must document that they are purchasing fuel at government gas stations, rather than buying on the black market. Further, local officials can deny new licenses based on “previous analyses,” even if the proposed business plan meets all the other specifications, and can fix prices “when conditions warrant.”

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