14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 7 August 2020 – Knife grinder, water carrier, blacksmith… No, this is not the list of occupations in a medieval village, but some of the 123 occupations that individuals have been allowed to perform privately in Cuba in recent years. Now, with the country plunged into a deep economic crisis, the authorities announce that they will end this absurd and limited list of permissible private work, which should never have existed in the first place.
As several economists have pointed out, the measure is heading in the right direction: towards greater flexibility, giving more space to private initiative and eliminating obstacles to entrepreneurship. The problem is that in order for the changes to be effective, it requires something more than following the track of sound popular demands; there also needs to be the necessary speed and depth to unleash a true transformation in society.
In this case, the stopwatch does not help. The demand to eliminate the detailed listing of self-employment licenses has been going on for more than two decades. The delay in implementing this demand has cost the country billions of pesos, the bankruptcy of promising private businesses, the penalization of countless entrepreneurs and the exodus abroad of an incalculable amount of talent. The announcement is certainly very late.
Now, when the Island is going through the most ominous economic moment of this century, the Plaza of the Revolution has pulled an ace out of its sleeve, one which, a decade ago, would have been exciting but that today hardly arouses enthusiasm. What could have been a political move to attract sympathy and support, reads now as a desperate maneuver, as the final act of an illusionist who has failed in all his previous tricks.
On the other hand, the depth of the measure is unknown, which fuels suspicion. Will individuals be allowed to go into the private practice of professions? Engineers, lawyers and dentists are asking themselves. Will the State release its monopoly over sectors such as telecommunications, public health and education? Computer scientists, doctors and teachers want to know. Will a journalist be able to practice privately, or will the press not be included in the crack that is opening? Independent reporters are wondering.
At the moment it is only known that the old list, which functioned as a straitjacket, will be abolished and “activities with a much broader profile may be carried out and the scope is defined by the work project presented by the interested party,” according to the official press. “For this, the limitations will be that it be legal work with resources and raw materials of legal origin,” adds the note drawn up from the words of the Minister of Labor and Social Security, María Elena Feito Cabrera.
If “lawful nature” means what is currently allowed, you should forget about seeing the “private trader” import products from abroad and sell or distribute them from private premises. Nor is it worth raising expectations about the possibility that doctors, lawyers or microbiologists can have their own office, firm or laboratory where they can practice their professions, since that is prohibited. There is not even the dream of a small private company installing cable television in homes, something also prohibited on the Island.
Although the elimination of the list of 123 self-employed licenses points towards the long-awaited and necessary opening, the old terrors of Cuban officialdom can make the speed of implementation and the depth of this reform leave more heartaches than satisfaction. To complete a race, it is not enough to point your feet towards the goal: the seconds and the quality of the stride are vital to advancing and winning.
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