Eagerly, warily, Cubans are taking up the government’s offer to work for themselves, selling coffee in their front yards, renting out houses, making rattan furniture and hawking everything from bootleg DVDs to Silly Bandz and homemade wine.
Hoping to resuscitate Cuba’s crippled economy, President Raúl Castro opened the door to a new, if limited, generation of entrepreneurs last year, after warning that the state’s “inflated” payrolls could end up “jeopardizing the very survival of the Revolution.”
The Cuban labor federation said the government would lay off half a million of about 4.3 million state workers by March and issue hundreds of thousands of new licenses to people wanting to join Cuba’s tiny private sector, in what could be the biggest remodeling of the state-run economy since Fidel Castro nationalized all enterprise in 1968.
By the end of 2010, the government had awarded 75,000 new licenses, according to Granma, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, swelling the official ranks of the self-employed by 50 percent.
That is still a long way from the amount needed to create alternatives for all the workers who will eventually be laid off, and there is no guarantee that the market will support hundreds of thousands of freelancers. But licenses have been granted quickly, and the government has been encouraging the bureaucracy to keep them flowing.
Streets once devoid of commerce in towns like this and in Havana are gradually coming to life as people hang painted signs and bright awnings outside their houses and mount roadside stalls. An electronics engineer, who for years operated in the shadows, now publishes leaflets that claim he can mend every appliance under the sun. A practitioner of Santería sells beaded necklaces, ground sardines and toasted corn used in ceremonies at the tin-roofed shop in her yard.