Economic reforms changing life – and dreams – for Cubans
Economic reforms changing life – and dreams – for Cubans
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 12:41 p.m. EST January 4, 2015
HAVANA — Joan Perez-Garcia has tried just about everything to find a
decent-paying job in Cuba’s state-run economy. He became an elementary
schoolteacher, but it only paid the equivalent of $6 a month. He became
a train mechanic, and that increased his salary to $10. Working as a
construction worker and barber were no better.
Then the communist government did something unthinkable. It opened the
door to private enterprises so individuals instead of the government
could set wages. Perez-Garcia switched to a private job of fixing
cellphones, TVs and computers.
He won’t say how much he makes now, but he smiles and says, “a lot more.”
“I’ve never been able to buy my own car or even a motorcycle to get
around. Now I might be able to,” said Perez-Garcia, 30. “There’s nothing
better than having something of your own.”
Since 2008, when long-time leader Fidel Castro grew ill and handed power
to his younger brother, Raúl Castro, Cuba has begun a series of economic
reforms that are changing the way people like Perez-Garcia work, live
The newly announced thaw in tensions between Cuba and the United States
brings the added hope of long-sought U.S. investment in nascent private
enterprises. One of the key aspects of the deal unveiled by President
Obama is that American businesses will be able to sell directly to small
businesses on the island, a change many on this information-starved
island already know.
“Most people understood that something big had happened, and for once,
it was good,” said Ricardo Torres Pérez, an economist at the
Havana-based Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy. Torres Pérez added
that implementing the promises made by both governments will be key.
The possibilities of what may be in store excite Cubans, who have spent
more than 50 years toiling in an economic system that has restricted
their ability to determine their own fates.
For Maria Perez, that means a possible end to the daily guessing game
over what kind of food she’ll be able to sell that day. The 84-year-old
runs “Cafeteria Maria,” one of the private restaurants known as
paladares that were among the first industries allowed to operate
outside the state-run system.
“Sometimes you go to buy beef and they’re out,” Perez said. “You always
figure it out, but it would help if you had some certainty.”
For Juan Porriño, that means a possible end to the constant battle to
find basic supplies for farmers. Porriño had been working as the
president of a farming cooperative on the outskirts of Havana when the
government started changing the agricultural sector in 2009.
Before, the state would dictate how much farmers must produce each year.
Once they reached their limit, they were unable to sell excess crops.
Now, the cooperative and the government develop a production plan
together. The state still sets how much must be set aside for
high-priority institutions, such as hospitals and schools. But any
excess produced can be sold to markets or at fairs, the profits going
directly into the farmers’ pockets.
Porriño said the change has given farmers a new incentive to work harder
and produce more. Still, they’re held back by limited resources that,
when available, cost way too much. He said basic things like pesticides
and herbicides are hard to find, and machinery is antique.
“To produce here, you have to suffer,” he said. “The agricultural sector
That’s why he laughs with joy at the idea of buying an American-made
tractor or having pesticides available from American companies. “It’s an
injection into this sector that is hard to explain,” he said.
Whether or not U.S. help materializes, Cubans say massive changes are
still needed to their economic system.
A frequently cited suggestion is that the government expand the number
of private-sector jobs. Currently, the government lists fewer than 200
jobs that can be performed by cuenta propistas, which loosely translates
to “self-employed workers.”
Most of those jobs are in basic services, such as restaurant
proprietors, taxi drivers, barbers and artisans. You can now sell things
that you make, but you still can’t buy products somewhere and resell
them at a higher price, a core capitalist endeavor.
Torres Pérez said government officials haven’t even categorized the new
workers as business owners.”They’re not registered with a chamber of
commerce,” he said. “They’re not allowed to import or export. They’re
not businesses according to the law. They’re ‘self-employed.'”
Despite those limitations, Cubans say the changes represent the first
significant steps toward a more promising economic model.
Marilin Valdes, 55, an elementary schoolteacher, recently moved from a
rural city in central Cuba to Havana. She tried teaching for a while in
this bustling capital city but said she just couldn’t connect with the
As she struggled to figure out what to do next, she realized that the
location of her apartment provided a great opportunity. Sitting on a
busy avenue, Carlos Tercero, she started renting out the front room of
her house to the new class of private workers. She now has seven people
working there, and the rent she collects from them ends up bringing in
more than her teaching job.
“People have more liberty to do their own thing now,” she said.
Lazaro Mendez-Valdez, right, says it’s a relief to escape the constant
pressure of government bureaucrats and make his own business decisions
as a cobbler.(Photo: Alan Gomez, USA TODAY)
Lazaro Mendez-Valdez, 43, said his life is a lot easier now that he can
work as a cobbler and make his own decisions about what kind of
materials to buy, how much work he does and who he hires to work for him.
“We don’t have the pressure anymore,” he said of the government
bureaucrats who used to dictate his daily operations. “The
administrators were all over you all the time.”
The economic system in Cuba has been so destructive that it has led to
repeated rounds of mass migrations out of the country. What started in
the early 1960s as political refugees has morphed into a largely
economic exodus over the decades, with wave after wave of Cubans braving
the deadly 90-mile stretch of ocean to reach Florida.
Many on the island still want to leave, tired of waiting for things to
finally improve. But the economic changes, combined with the new deal
struck with Obama, have given islanders their first reason to hope in a
“I love this country. I don’t want to leave it,” Perez-Garcia said. “But
this economy needed to change. Let’s see if it really does.”
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