In Cuba Most Small Businesses Are Still Illegal

By Eileen Sosin Martinez   (Progreso Semanal)

Moving forward…. but slowly. Illustratión by Yasser Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — Mairim Rodriguez* used to spend her days looking through Revolico and other ad websites, seeing “what jobs were out there on the market.” She quickly found out that there were lots of other people in the same position as her, and others wanting to find employees for their private businesses.

Then, Mairim had an idea: “there isn’t a job center for the self-employed, which links owners to employees. So I had the idea of putting out a job management ad, to connect both parties. And I got called one day.”

In the beginning, everything was experiential, until I managed to set up a job fever system. Owners of restaurants, hair salons, home rentals… contact her when they need staff with so and so requirements. On the other hand, those who seek out opportunities outside of the public sector also call her or send her an email.

She draws up a customer file where she collects all the essential information; then she matches this information and sets up an interview. If the employer and employee agree, and the person is hired, Mairim charges them 5 CUC (5.70 USD) each. Given the time and energy she saves them, the price is very reasonable.

“I started out with this because I came across a niche in the market. Over 20 people call my house everyday, and while I’m talking, other people leave me several messages on my answering machine,” she tells me and confirms that her initiative has been a great success.

Mairim is a chemical engineer and after having started up her job agency, she has studied legal and economic issues. “In fact, I’m taking a small business management course.”

In spite of her interest and the tried-and-tested usefulness of her business venture, what she’s doing isn’t allowed. Like a kind of legal lifeline, she has taken out a license as a “Collector-payer” and wants to present a “new activity project” to include what she really does to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, “let’s see if they accept it.”

That’s it?

When we talk about the private sector in Cuba, some officials boast that in 2010, 178 jobs had been accepted, and there are over 200 today. 201, to be exact. Several economists have warned about the fact that even though the number of self-employed people increased, licences continue to be restricted, because it’s being regulated the other way around.

That is to say, the State should limit itself to stating what is banned (instead of what’s permitted); which would specify that you can do anything except x, y and z. “No marijuana and coffins, but everything else yes,” says a black market salesman.

What it’s like for the average Cuban trying to get ahead. Illustration: Yasser Castellanos

“Sometimes, self-employment awakes a lot of people’s imagination, who are tired of spending more time traveling to get to work than they do in the company of their families,” researcher Librada Taylot wrote in her book “Me? Self-employed!”, which was published in 2013.

And this imagination, the Cuban people’s proverbial creativity, is too much for any list, it doesn’t matter whether there are 201 or 500 authorized jobs. “You can’t make laws which creativity then overcomes,” explains lawyer Ernan Garcia*.

So, let’s take a look at licenses. There are 19th century activities, such as Palm tree pruner, woodcutter, shearer and shoe-shiner. Others seem to have come out of a vernacular fair: Gypsum figure manufacturer/seller, Pinata manufacturer/seller, Dandy, Havana woman, Artificial flower seller… It would be very interesting if the Ministry of Labor published stats on just how many people are Button liners.

Without wanting to belittle the people who practice these jobs, we’re talking about a country which spends around 25% of the State budget on education.

“The kinds of self-employment approved for the non-governmental sector don’t correspond to the profile outlined for Cuba’s work force. The vast majority of jobs included on the authorized list can be classified as low-value aggregates, where the requirement for complex skills is reduced,” rounds up economist Ricardo Torres.

However, it keeps progressing… just in the background. If there is a demand, supply will follow. For example: Cynthia Rodriguez* set up a “travel agency” for Cubans who want to travel to other provinces. She is in charge of buying the tickets, depending on her customer’s ideal date and if they want, she can also arrange accommodation and other services at the destination. Is what she’s doing wrong? Does it go against the principle of socialist society in any way? Then why is it illegal?

Last October, several restaurants in Havana received “special” inspections. The authorities used several arguments, among them, that they were operating as clubs or nightclubs. Just think about how many problems would have been simply side-stepped if they just allowed private bars to exist. How is that risky business? OK: let’s discuss it, let’s establish rules, and make them pay taxes… But insisting on the ban of these activities just means banging your head against the door again.

“Let’s think about a weird case,” the lawyer puts forward, “if I want to earn a living by dancing on one foot on top of a tree, and suddenly I have a large audience who pay to see me, are you going to tell me that I can’t do it?”

Freelance work, which is so common in the rest of the world, isn’t officially recognized in Cuba. Damian Fleites* is an architect and works of his own accord or as he puts it: “freelancing”. “Of course, I would love this to be legal; it would give you peace of mind being able to practice your profession without fear. There are a lot of people who, like me, want to formalize their businesses, have a logo, a place, place ads, pay taxes…”

The benefits of broadening job opportunities are clearly obvious: transparency, job security, greater financial incomes… Meanwhile, the country would take advantage of its greatest asset: the Cuban people’s high education level.

Sixty-eight percent of people who undertake private ventures, have no link with their past job. Let’s put it like this, they were unemployed at home, or on the street, “inventing”, “struggling”, until they saw an opportunity to work for themselves. Many others continue “to work behind the curtain”, waiting for the day when what they do is legalized.

[*) Names have been changed at the interviewees’ request.

11 thoughts on “In Cuba Most Small Businesses Are Still Illegal

  • Am I missing something in the above article? Or are you just American hating regardless of the content of the article????!!!!!!!!

    Eileen’s article was about the limited self employment options in Cuba today. I seem to have missed the part where she recommends letting “Americans in.”

  • Great plan except for the reality that if Canadian dollars could save Cuba, it would have happened already. If German euros, French euros, etc. were sufficient, this conversation would not be taking place. The fact is Cuba needs Yankee dollars. I would agree that this money comes at a price. But, at this point, what choice does Cuba have?

  • Never.

  • Whiners?
    So are you saying that you don’t ever whine Mr P?

  • In time all this nonsense will end. It just takes time for government to get past emotional hang up of failure of the old socialist model.

  • You do love to mention the whiners don’t you? But I think you are making a mistake by lumping them all together. Non American (mostly) non-Cubans are the people who don’t want American influence – and sorry yes there are far too many now being disgorged from the cruise ships and over running old Havana like opulent, sneaker clad rats. Cubans are the people who want the tourists. But it’s the tourist dollar not the American dollar per se. Cubans don’t care where you are from. Who cares are non American tourists who really don’t like these crowds of gawping Americans. So here’s the solution. You keep your money and your influence and leave the investing to us non Americans who don’t need to nor want to impose our influence. Which is how it’s been since the revolution despite the embargo. In anycase, With The lunatic Trump at the helm we need to be reassured that our money is safe with America!

  • no you do not get to own private property it is a socialist country you work together collectively

  • Let the Americans in and Cuba will be Puerto Rico in ten years.!!

  • It is not getting easier. By the way, a frequent whine is the hope that “American influence” doesn’t change Cuban culture. However, at the same time, these whiners want more American tourists, specifically their money, and more capital investment. Reality check: you won’t get my money as a tourist unless you make me feel comfortable and to do that requires that you reflect my “influence” in your hotels, casa particulares, restaurants, and other tourist attractions. If you want me to invest in Cuba, you have to make me feel that it is safe to invest. You can’t have it both ways. If you want my money, you have to accept my influence.

  • I hope this is getting easier, and better for people, bit by bit. The Cuban people are so resourceful, creative, and persistent. Allowing these self employement businesses to exist will help to minimize the American influence influx When it comes. Esperando!

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