The private sector brings change to Cuba

Loumay Alesali
Medill Reports

For years, Luis Manuel Rodriguez made vaccines for a living. He liked his job, but he didn’t earn enough to support his family and improve his life. Attracted by the money available in the tourist industry, he quit his job as a chemical engineer and became a waiter in a popular brewpub.

Eight years later, the brewpub thrives in the beautifully restored Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, where tourists keep the convertible Cuban currency flowing in restaurants and bars.

It is only the tourism sector, Rodriguez said, that holds out the possibility of a living wage.

“Our economy is on the bottom,” he said.

In a country officially ruled by the Cuban Communist Party, the private sector became legal in the 1990s, when Fidel Castro’s government approved limited experiments in profit-making as a means of survival after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Raul Castro took over for his brother in 2008, he opened the private sector further – even allowing the buying and selling of houses in 2012 for the first time in a half-century.

Yet progress has been limited. With Cuba facing an uncertain regulatory and fiscal climate, as well as familiar headwinds from the U.S. economic embargo and its own technological backwardness, many Cubans are watching to see who replaces Raul Castro when he steps down this year–and how the new leader will treat the economy.

The private sector is already facing domestic constraints, especially after Raul Castro declared a halt to new business licenses in August. The government is now circulating draft regulations that would tighten control yet further, according to Reuters, which reported that the proposal suggests limiting seating capacities and the number of business licenses.

Roy Umpierre Hernandez, head waiter at a restaurant in the tourist-friendly village of Cojimar, just east of Havana, said that policies should change because the private sector has proven to be a deep, refreshing breath for Cubans.

“If we don’t open to the private business we are dead, we are gone, the economy in Cuba goes down,” he said.

After 2012 reforms, many people started opening and running different businesses and hiring employees. Those employees earn more than the typical monthly salary for government workers, which averages about 25 CUC, the term for the convertible peso – or about $25. Private sector workers often earn higher wages, plus tips in restaurants and nightspots, allowing them to live better and climb into the middle class.

Proprietors of successful businesses might make as much as 5,000 CUC a month, a once-unheard-of sum, according to Raiko Valdes, a program coordinator at the Council on International Educational Exchange.

Andy Garcia, a waiter at Azucar Lounge and Bar who started working in the business three years ago, believes that the private sector is creating separate social classes in a society that sought to eliminate them after the socialist 1959 Cuban revolution.

“The salaries are different,” said Garcia, who suggested that “if everybody could work in private business, or could have their own business, it would be better. But it is not like that.”

People with more money have access to luxuries and a lifestyle that members of the working class can never afford. The evidence is clear in the growing number of Cubans who own cars and nice apartments, travel outside the country and show up in restaurants and clubs that were once the province of foreign tourists

This division between Cubans is evident not only in their social lives and consumption habits, but also in their access to better education through private tutoring, according to Al Jazeera, which reported that tutors became legal in 2010 to non-active public school teachers.

Yet is it also true, according to Valdes, that all Cubans get the same quality of education. Rich and poor children sit in the same classrooms and are treated by the same doctors at the same hospitals.

Whatever the pros and cons of private enterprise, the sector is facing major uncertainty due to events at home and abroad. Castro has declared that he will step down this year, yet his successor has not been announced and Cubans do not know what economic path the new one-party government will choose. Overseas, the punishing U.S. economic embargo established in the 1960s, during the Cold War, remains in place and President Trump has tightened restrictions on travel to the island.

Cubans have learned to live with hope and doubt as policies and the country’s economic fortunes shift.

“Cuban people always have hope about change. When Fidel finished his government, we had hope for Raul and now we have hope for the new president,” said Rodriguez.

Hernandez, the waiter in Cojimar, best-known as the village where Ernest Hemingway liked to fish, is skeptical about the possibility for reforms in a country where one party rules and citizens have no real choice at the ballot box: “I have never voted to select my president, never. I just have voted to select my people in my town.”

Cuban-American relations are another prickly issue facing the private sector. The Trump administration’s decisions to restrict people-to-people travel had a noticeable effect on the businesses dependent on foreign visitors. Garcia said there are many fewer Americans coming to the Plaza Vieja brewpub than last year.

Hernandez agrees that Trump’s policies are affecting restaurants and other tourists’ services in many ways. He said that Americans are now afraid of coming to Cuba for fear that they will be punished for breaking U.S. law.

“We are talking about main product of Cuba,” Hernandez said. “Not cigars, not Rum, not coffee. Tourists.”

The Trump administration has listed roughly 180 businesses as off-limits to Americans because of their ties to the Cuban government. Yet few Americans know which places are legal and which aren’t.

The new rules harm individual Cubans, not the government businesses and officials targeted by the Trump administration. When Hernandez receives money as a waiter, he can pay the carpenter who fixes his broken door. Then the carpenter pays a taxi driver, who then might buy a meal at a restaurant where Hernandez and others are working.

After Barack Obama eased U.S. policy toward Cuba and restored diplomatic relations in 2015 after a nearly 60-year freeze, Niria de la Osa, an elderly woman who rents rooms to tourists and international students in Vedado neighborhood, was optimistic. She sees Trump’s policies as hurting the rental business and reviving hostility between the two countries.

“It is a shame that this is happening, I thought that we are going to finish this fight, but with Trump it continues,” said de la Osa.

Photo at top: Restored Plaza Vieja in Old Havana where tourists from the U.S. and Europe spend time at restaurants and bars. (Loumay Alesali/MEDILL)