Micro-entrepreneurs emerge ahead of crucial Cuban congress
By Shasta Darlington, CNN
April 15, 2011 11:00 p.m. EDT
– Cuba's growing class of small-business owners sees promise in economic
– Since November, 170,000 Cubans have bought licenses to open businesses
– Cuba plans to cut one million state jobs by 2015
Havana, Cuba (CNN) — With a few taps of the hammer and some expertly
placed glue, Elio Mendoza can extend the life of even the most well-worn
Now, he hopes the Cuban government can do the same for the country's
sagging economy when it holds the first Communist Party Congress in
nearly 14 years, starting on Saturday.
"It's up to the Congress to improve things," Mendoza says as he replaces
the heel on a pair of red flats. "We need a new culture: If you work you
get ahead. If you don't work, you lose."
Mendoza is part of a small, but growing class of micro-entrepreneurs,
self-employed barbers, plumbers, taxi drivers and other artisans in a
country where nearly 90 percent of the economy is still run by the state.
A former steelworker, Mendoza says he wouldn't go back to working for
"It's better than before," he says. "Before it was, yes boss, no boss.
Now I'm the boss."
President Raul Castro has begun the biggest shakeup of the Soviet-style
economy in decades.
The government plans to eliminate more than one million state jobs– a
full 20 percent of the workforce — by 2015.
At the same time, it has set down guidelines for the expansion of the
private sector to soak up some of the unemployed, allowing Cubans to
take out licenses for 178 different occupations.
Since November, more than 170,000 people have bought licenses, most of
them related to food preparation.
High-end restaurants like El Carruaje offer imported cheese and wine and
a gently gurgling fountain to attract tourists and big spenders.
But most new establishments are modest affairs.
Julia, who like several people interviewed for this story asked that her
full name not be used, does a brisk business selling coffee and homemade
éclairs at a stand in her driveway.
"It's a good place because we're across the street from the hospital,"
she says. "It's all about location."
Clients also line up for pizza and pastries at a private stall next
door, while the state-run fish restaurant down the street stands empty.
"The private places are better quality, better price and better
service," says Victor, a construction worker.
Even so, many of the newly self-employed have had to shut down within a
couple of months, unable to pay state taxes.
Economic reforms will be the focus of the Congress that kicks off on
Saturday, with a military parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of
Cuba's victory over the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The summit
will continue through Tuesday.
Castro has to ease concerns about massive layoffs in the public sector
and encourage alternatives once scorned.
"We need to change the negative perception that so many of us have for
this kind of private work," he said during a speech in December.
Castro insists the changes will not undermine Cuba's socialist system
but help strengthen it.
"Either we rectify the situation or the time is up as we close in on the
precipice," he said in the same speech. "We will fall and along with us
entire generations will fall."
He called for Cubans to debate the proposed changes openly.
In the days ahead of the Congress, Cubans were doing just that.
"I'm not afraid to talk," said one man as he snacked on one of Julia's
eclairs. "For years, the government was the only one who didn't want
these changes. But they had to, because they were up to their neck."
For the construction worker Victor, more changes are still needed.
"Cubans also need the freedom to buy and sell their own home, paying
taxes to the government, of course," he said.
A group of nurses standing outside the hospital said they also want to
see improvements for the millions of Cubans like themselves who still do
work for the state.
"Right now, I don't think the Congress is doing anything at all for
people like us," one woman said.