The Private Sector, the Most Powerful in Cuba / Iván García

Private snack bar. Taken from On Cuba Magazine.

Ivan Garcia, 17 November 2017 — While several business owners from the island connected to the internet in the lobby of the EB Miami hotel a stone’s throw from the international airport, and others drank beer at nine dollars at the bar, a Cuban dissident lawyer who spent more than a decade in Puerto Rico and a former political prisoner of Fidel Castro’s regime were trying to understand the new social dynamic that exists in Cuba.

The diverse group of participants in the Cuba Internet Freedom event, organized by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) that took place over three days at the Miami Ad School in the picturesque Wynwood neighborhood, included software and app developers, independent economic analysts, owners of small food service businesses and the gay director of a digital magazine for Cuban gamers.

Of course there were also political activists such as Eliecer Ávila, Rosa Maria Payá, Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina and Ailer González, along with audiovisual producers and independent journalists who are openly anti-Castro. But it was the group of Cuban entrepreneurs, young people very well prepared, unprejudiced and with an approach focused more on economics than politics, who generated mixed feelings not only among a segment of the historical exile that suffered severe repression first hand — shootings of relatives or friends and many years in prison — but also among some of today’s opponents from the island, convinced that the formula to overthrow the regime of the Castro brothers is street marches or writing the word “Plebiscite” on the ballots for the election of delegates to the People’s Power Assemblies.

Passionate debates, sometimes risqué, or with the usual accusations of calling any person who criticizes the opposition or thinks differently an agent of State Security, rather than promoting dialogue, raised the wall of intransigence. Yaima Pardo, a talented independent documentary maker left a bad taste in the mouths of the exile sector that labeled him as ‘apolitical’ although it did not accuse him to his face of being part of the olive-green autocracy.

“The mere fact of coming and participating in forums considered counterrevolutionary by the government is an important step. We do not have to think like the dissidence. I recognize the pain of a segment of exile, but those were other times. My goal is to live in a society where freedom of expression is not a crime. We all want the same thing, a better homeland, but they are always attacking those of us with different opinions,” said the documentary maker.

Yodalys Sánchez, co-owner with her uncle of the paladar (private restaurant) Doña Carmela, next to the San Carlos fortress of La Cabaña, prefers to talk about how complex it is to succeed in business matters in Cuba.

“I have thirty workers and our sales are going very well. We have grown based on creativity despite the harassment of state institutions. In Cuba everything is difficult: from getting the food and condiments, to preparing the daily menu, to having to pay unsustainable taxes. Of course I am interested in a better future for my country, but what I do not like is that there are Cubans both from Miami and from the island, who believe that to demonstrate something, we have to make public statements against the government. That’s not my job,” Yodalys said.

Probably the frustration of the historical exile, compatriots who arrived in Miami with a suitcase and an empty wallet who thought, after having their properties or businesses confiscated, that their time in exile would be brief, find their discernment clouded. Emotion can overcome good sense. But they did not emigrate because of economic problems. They were practically ordered to leave their homeland, in many cases after having been political prisoners and having their lives in danger.

But Cuba today differs a lot from that of the first years of the Castro revolution. Yes, it is true, it is still governed by a regime that curtails the essential rights of any modern democracy. But the fall of Soviet communism, combined with international pressure from Western countries, an increase in internal dissidence and the existence of an incipient free press, has forced them to yield in the economic arena.

It is still too little. There are too many controls and restrictions on small private businesses making a lot of money, something aberrant: like asking the fourth batter to just tap the ball.

Even in the political terrain there is a retreat. They beat the Ladies in White and barricade opponents of the UNPACU in the eastern region or illegally prohibit dissidents from running as candidates for district delegates, but the firing squads have been replaced by brief arrests and ordinary people are losing their fear and, even in the open street, freely criticize the state of affairs in Cuba.

In this complex panorama, more than two hundred Cuban journalists without gags write for media and websites based in Florida, Madrid or Havana. And on the island there are so many dissident groups and independent initiatives of all kinds that no one can keep track of them all. Twenty years ago, none of that was possible without going to prison.

In a dictatorship, its weakness or retreat is measured by those small victories achieved in the midst of intense repression. And yes, today Castroism is more fragile than two decades ago. It has less social control and thanks to the internet it can no longer control information at its own whim. Everywhere, Caribbean totalitarianism is taking on water.

In my opinion, it is not the dissidence that is going to lead the regime to come to an agreement with its people and open the gates. It will be private entrepreneurs and their demands which will lead to the desired change.

It is hard to believe that within the ranks of the opposition and exile, who always brandished the weapon of private enterprise, they now judge with reservations the most thriving sector. Along with the invasive marabú weed, it is one of the few things that thrives on the Island.