Iván García, 14 May 2018 — While walking among the metal stands with canvas roofs staffed by sellers using their hands as megaphones — “Get the best meat,” or “You’re going to miss out, we sell the best pork legs” — Dani, 35, owner of a cafe in the south of Havana, does not want to condition a future negotiation with the regime’s officials on talking about politics.
“Business is business, man. These people (the regime) support us but they don’t listen to us. If in addition to having strength on their side, you play the fool and demand democracy and human rights, they shut you down. With them, you have to play it gently, I believe that now with Diaz-Canel, no matter if he’s as communist as the other generation, he has to negotiate on better terms,” says Dani, while continuing to look over a piece of pork loin.
Later, in the kitchen of his house which functions as a cafe, he tries a fritter and tells the cook, “you have to take it out of the pan earlier, or else the meat gets too dried out.” Grabbing a glass with a little guava juice he takes a sip and tells his employee, “Luisita, this is five-star juice.”
Then, he opens the fridges, looks at what food he has left and mentally does his accounts. Later, with a Cristal beer in hand, he lowers the temperature on the air conditioner and continues his lecture:
“Today’s Cuba is not the Cuba of the 80s. Today there is internet and the state is so bad at administering services that it has no choice but to open new spaces. We (he says, referring to a group of entrepreneurs) have opened a well-organized Facebook site. ONAT (the state institution that regulates private work) sat down to talk with many self-employed people and taken note. That may not mean anything, but before they didn’t listen to you and did whatever they wanted.
“We have to wait for the new regulations to come out and for them to start handing out licenses again for the businesses they have now stopped issuing them for. They’re afraid and they’re going to try to take more control. Without shouting, or getting upset, we have to talk to the officials and explain things to them and show them that they are wrong.
“I think with a new president there will be greater receptivity. Not because he likes private business, but because now, the way the country is going, they have no room to maneuver. The self-employed must press Diaz-Canel to establish new rules of the game and the future Constitution must recognize small private companies.”
Osniel, the owner of a private restaurant and two cafes is not so optimistic, but agrees with Dani’s statement that “it is time to speak clearly with the government. Why can’t you have more than one license? What is the amount of money that the State considers rich? Why can’t we import food and supplies? There are many topics to discuss. I agree that the payment of taxes is sacred, but they taxes must be realistic, not used to prevent businesses from growing, because that encourages double accounting and theft.
“I also approve of entrepreneurs helping the community. When they have activities at the school near my restaurant, I send them snacks and sweets. I have helped families on my block to paint their houses, also to fix the street and the lighting of the block. You can move forward if there is goodwill, for the good of the country and the consumer,” says Osniel, and he adds:
“For me, I don’t think much of Diaz-Canel. He seems mediocre, but this is what we have. We have to demand of the government, once and for all, that they open a wholesale market, because as the prices rise in the retail market and the black market, where we buy the supplies for our businesses, the price of food automatically rises. If they say they can’t create it because they lack the resources, then authorize the (private) importing of food. If they do that, and the United States allows it, the amount of food bought in Miami would be huge. The state has to understand, and this isn’t a threat, that if they continue to apply the brakes, people are going to do things under the counter.”
Not all businesses are profitable like those dedicated to food service, transportation, hairdressing and lodging. According to Eduardo, an economist, “between 10 and 15% of the half million private workers have accumulated enough money to meet their material needs and have even saved to invest and improve their businesses. It is the dynamics of any particular company: grow, expand and bet on excellence.
“If the government tries to stop them, they depress a sector with a labor force that makes five or six times more than the state salary. The most practical thing is to adapt the interests of the State to the wishes of the population and the aspirations of the business owners. But I have my doubts. The Cuban government has never been conciliatory and does not look favorably on private employment. Diaz-Canel has a golden opportunity to go out on an economic limb that will undoubtedly benefit society.”
Nora, owner of a hairdressing salon, says “I expect the government to commit to creating a legal framework that legitimizes all private businesses. A permanent dialogue channel must be established. When people talk, they understand each other and fears and prejudices go away. What needs to be fought is poverty, not those who make money and benefit society.”
Many entrepreneurs consulted believe that the authorities should reverse the productive framework and accelerate a wage reform that allows state employees — currently 75% of the workforce on the island — to earn fair wages.
They must close inefficient companies, which are the majority, or privatize them, allow greater autonomy or create real cooperatives where workers are the owners.
At present, apathy prevails in Cuba and a large percentage of citizens do not believe that things will change and more than a few self-employed consider that the time has come to demand a better deal. We will have to wait for the will of the new president.