Cuba gives space to small businesses
By Michael Voss BBC News, Havana
The village of El Cano, on the outskirts of Havana, has been producing
pottery since Spanish colonial times. It is surrounded by rich deposits
of clay and today it remains a hive of activity.
Walk along its dusty streets and on every block there are houses selling
flower pots and other unglazed ceramics from their front porches.
In the back yards, smoke from the wood-fired brick kilns drifts across
sweaty workshops nestling between banana and palm trees and other lush,
These small, family-run businesses are a rarity in Cuba, where 85% to
90% of the economy is state-owned.
Alberto Araguez has a licence, or permit, from the authorities to
produce and sell roof tiles and pots.
His is one of about 60 such businesses in the village. Half are
licensed, half are not.
Now that President Raul Castro has announced that he will expand the
island's fledgling private sector, the potters of El Cano are hoping to
become a village co-operative.
Alberto Araguez is head of a newly formed potter's association, which is
negotiating with the authorities.
"It would be good for this community to legalise the situation. We could
also provide jobs for those workers being laid off and everyone would be
able to continue supporting their families," Mr Araguez explained.
This time, he believes, the government is serious about change.
Cuba's centrally controlled, state-run economy was struggling even
before the global financial crisis hit.
It can no longer afford its heavily subsidised, cradle-to-grave welfare
state or the inefficiencies of a bloated workforce with jobs for life.
Borrowing is not an option. The United States trade embargo denies Cuba
access to major lending institutions, such as the International Monetary
Fund or the Inter-American Development Bank.
Instead, Raul Castro is now attempting to rationalise and overhaul the
island's Soviet-era economic model.
Half-a-million underemployed state workers are due to lose their jobs in
the coming months. To help take up the slack the government will permit
about 250,000 people to become self-employed or start small businesses.
This is not a return to capitalism and it remains a long way short of
the Chinese and Vietnamese market reforms.
In the introduction to a new 32-page report outlining the proposed
economic changes the government made clear that "in updating the
economy, model planning will be paramount, not the market".
However, it does cross some important ideological divides, including the
right to hire labour, which is deemed as "exploitation" and banned under
Yet few of the potteries in El Cano could survive without additional labour.
Nelson Alicia is learning the trade in another of the village workshops,
doing everything from mixing clay into the right consistency to
One of five apprentices, the 21-year-old is earning double what he would
if he was working for the state. The new regulations are intended to
formalise the arrangement but come at a hefty price.
Nelson will have to pay between 25% and 50% of his earnings in tax, plus
an additional 25% in social security payments.
"It is a lot," he says. "But at least now we won't have to hide when the
inspectors come. Before we used to turn everything off and keep quiet.
Now if they give us licences we won't have to work in secret."
The government has published a list of 178 trades where Cubans can apply
to become self employed or run small businesses. In about half of these
cases they will be allowed to hire labour.
The list includes carpenters, plumbers and accountants, although many of
the permitted jobs, such as party clowns, park attendants and parking
wardens, will have little major impact on the economy.
Almost 80,000 people have applied in the past month and about 30,000
have already been granted licences, according to the official newspaper
Many want to open cafes or other forms of catering. Others are seeking
permission to rent spare rooms to these new fledgling entrepreneurs.
In a country where people are not allowed to buy or sell property, the
new rules should enable a small private and commercial rental market to
The largest number of applications has come from retirees looking to
supplement their pension.
In many other cases they are people who are already working in the black
economy and are looking to legalise their situation.
This isn't the first experiment with small businesses.
After the collapse of the island's main benefactor, the Soviet Union,
some private enterprise was allowed. This was mainly in the much needed
tourist sector, such as family-run guest houses and restaurants.
However, they were always treated as necessary evils and as soon as the
economy improved, they were squeezed with red tape and punitive taxes,
forcing many to close down.
From a peak of 208,000 self-employed in 1996 just 143,000 remained in
business at the beginning of this year.
This time, though, the government has said that the self employed should
"no longer be stigmatised", suggesting that these changes could be more
President Castro knows that improving the economy is critical if the
socialist revolution is to survive once the ageing leadership which
created it is gone.
"Today, more than ever before, the economic battle is the principal task
and the focus of the cadres' ideological work, because the
sustainability and the preservation of our social system depend on it,"
he said in a recent televised speech.
Mr Castro has now set a date in April 2011 for the first Communist Party
Congress to be held in 14 years.
This should give the ideological stamp of approval to push ahead with
these and other changes.
For the potters of El Cano it can't come a moment too soon."