HAVANA – An emerging private sector is changing Cuba, where despite continuing limitations, business owners are now helping to modernize an economy trying to shake off its long lethargy, while the United States looks to their contribution in its new policy toward the island.
Aware of the importance of this sector for driving change in Communist Cuba following the thaw in diplomatic relations, U.S. President Barack Obama, who is visiting the island, plans to meet Monday with representatives of the self-employed.
In fact, the U.S. government has approved over the past year four packages of measures to relax the embargo on the island, which in general aim to improve Cubans’ well-being and encourage the development of that independent business sector.
“They want to help grow the Cuban economy, and not just for business owners. Of course, because I, for example, employ 20 people, which means 20 families live on a salary that is much higher than what state companies pay,” Niuris Higueras, owner of the Atelier restaurant, told EFE.
Higueras’s business has grown about 50 percent since Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced their plan to normalize diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in Havana and Washington.
Higueras, one of the pioneers of small, privately owned businesses on the island, and who has gone to Washington to take part in conferences on the role of the private sector in a prosperous Cuba, says that while the U.S. facilitates imports of goods and equipment to these businesses, it is up to the Cuban government to expand opportunities for the private sector.
What is certain is that since the Raul Castro government let the private sector get started in 2010 as a basic element of his reforms to modernize socialism on the island, some half a million entrepreneurs have made businesses proliferate that were previously hard to find, such as restaurants, cafeterias, inns, gymnasiums, beauty parlors and technological services.
Five years after expanding the categories that allow self-employment, today almost 30 percent of Cuba’s labor force works in the private sector if one includes business owners, their employees, and those working in cooperatives.
“That move has been very important to keep the Cuban economy growing, and the Cuban government itself admits the value of having a private sector,” the U.S. charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, told EFE, while admitting that “a large percentage” of the measures passed by the country over the past year have been “directly aimed at fomenting private businesses.”