To Have or Not to Have Private Businesses

A Castro-era campaign against private businesses, in this case bars. (Archivo)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunior Garcia Aguilera, Madrid, 9 August 2023 — No one hated private business in Cuba more than Fidel Castro. In his 1968 speech announcing the Revolutionary Offensive, which nationalized all remaining small private businesses in the country, he called business owners lazy, hangers-on, exploiters, privileged and lazy. Spooked by his own shadow, he vented his spleen against the 955 private bars that still existed in Havana. According to his “detailed” report, 72% of the owners had a counterrevolutionary attitude and 66% of their regular clientele was made up of antisocials.

With that over-the-top, carnivalesque tone, the comandante shouted: “Gentlemen, we did not have a revolution here to establish the right to trade! . . . Are we going to build socialism or are we going to build boutiques?” He also emphasized that no one had shed his blood so that others could earn a few pesos selling rum, fried eggs, or omelettes. He was much more blunt when he prophesied, “There will be no future in this country for commerce, self-employment, private industry, or anything else. Because whoever is self-employed then pays for the hospital, the school, pays for everything, and pays dearly for it!” His offensive was intended to uproot capitalism, it seemed, once and for all.

However, after the fall of socialism and the crisis of the 1990s, the communist leader had to swallow his pride and permit small private initiatives. This “necessary evil” was seen as a temporary measure, though the paladares (private restaurants) would cling to life in ongoing skirmishes over the size of their seating capacity, as though it were the game of musical chairs.

Shortly after inheriting the throne, his younger brother became aware that his power of hypnosis was not enough to keep the masses entertained with ludicrous battles of ideas. The beardless general urgently needed to get the economy out of the swamp, or at least appear to be trying. To avoid enraging the party’s most pro-Fidel faction, he opted for the word “update” over “reform.”

However, the most rabid “I-am-Fidel-ers” did not remain silent. Who would have thought that what would save socialism was more capitalism? Iroel Sanchez, a compulsive Castrophiliac, echoed his guru in apocalyptic tones: “This revolution can be destroyed. . . We can destroy it and it would be our fault.”

Certainly, few things have fractured the regime’s image of unity as much as the aforementioned MSMEs (micro, small and medium-sized companies). Anyone who has the stomach for the “revolutionary debates” coursing through the internet will realize how polarized opinions have become on this subject among those who claim to be supporters of the system. On Iroel’s side is Javier Gomez Sanchez, dean of the School of Audiovisual Communication Art. In an online post complaining about the privatization of Jalisco Park, he writes, “To make matters worse, they say that they are going to inaugurate it on July 26. . . Have they no shame? How far are they going to go? What’s next? The privatization of Coppelia?”

The Cuban bureaucratic caste has always been concerned that those they refer to as the “emerging bourgeoisie” will usurp their privileges. But to avoid sounding envious, they try to present themselves as tenacious custodians of the Marxist-Leninist faith preached by Papa Beard. They argue that McDonald’s and Coca Cola are a more lethal threat than the U.S. Navy and warn against the dangers of the carrot-and-stick approach of soft power politics. They are loathe to admit that the idea of socialism as the precursor to true communism has died and that its corpse is on display in the supermarkets of Chinese capitalism.

Now, can a free market alone bring about democracy? We know it cannot. When I discuss this question with knowledgeable Europeans, they almost always tell me Cuba is not China, and China is not Vietnam, but you do not have to look far for comparisons. You have only to see what is happening in Venezuela or Nicaragua to understand that the existence of private enterprise is not enough to eradicate totalitarianism.

In certain quarters of the exile community and the opposition, there are also differing opinions with respect to private enterprises in Cuba, though at times it is easier to find more slogans and conspiracy theories than arguments. While fully aware of all the anomalies surrounding MSMEs, I for one defend the freedom to give them a shot, even in places where freedom has yet to be attained.

Much as I am reluctant to agree with the ultra-Fidelistas, so great was the aversion Fidel felt towards private businesses, and so great were his efforts to annihilate them, that it probably was not, as they claim, a heart attack that killed him. Maybe it was the MSMEs.


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