Amidst the country’s chronic economic crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and winking at a new US president who might resume Barack Obama’s generous Cuba policy, the Government of Cuba announced that it will eliminate a list of 127 authorized categories of self-employment, replacing it with a list of 124 “totally or partially” prohibited activities.
The decision had been considered last July within the so-called “economic reshufflle”, a package of measures aimed at reactivating the economy and focused on unifying two different currencies used on the island. Theoretically speaking, it would allow Cubans to work as self-employed in more than 2,000 activities, while banning those “considered illegal for all economic actors or expressly prohibited by law”.
Ironically, this reversal of the official approach to private work had been proposed in March 2016 by a brilliant economist who was fired just a month later ─accused of being “irresponsible” and “negligent”─ from the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
In March 2016, in an extensive interview with the Catholic weekly Palabra Nueva, Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva criticized the government’s slowness in adding up new trades to the list of legal private businesses.
“I would rather have a list of those that the State does not yet want to approve, and leave all the others to the people’s initiative,” he said. “But defining the trades that are wanted and those that are not wanted does not seem very logical to me at this moment.”
Five years later, pressured by the deepening crisis, the government adopts the recommendation of the “thundered” (ousted) economist. Yet many other logical suggestions he made remain dormant. “Why not allow a (private) law firm, an architectural office? The time has come to think about what else can be opened,” Everleny Pérez emphasized during the same interview, proposing that private employment be allowed for Cuba’s large skilled workforce.
Another modification that remains in limbo since 2016 is the authorization of small and medium-sized private companies, even though such move was programmed in May of that year by two Communist Party documents: “Conceptualization of the Economic and Social Model” and “Development Plan until 2030.”
Why does the government take so long to adopt, or never enacts, sensible measures like these? The expert himself answered this question by acknowledging in his dialogue with Palabra Nueva that the approach to the economy in Cuba “has always had a political bias.”
In fact, despite the proven unprofitability of numerous state-owned companies, the government continues to insist that the state sector is the key to the future of the country, and although it recognizes the role of the private sector in the economy, it continues to perceive it as a necessary evil that must be kept under strict control. The micro-businesses that do exist cannot register their property, import and export freely, receive direct foreign investment or count on a stable wholesale market for inputs, among many other obstacles.
Now, when this apparently liberalizing measure is announced on the lifting of limits to the scope of private work, it is assured from the government’s side that “it will make it possible to unleash the productive forces in this sector.”
However, at the same meeting of the Council of Ministers that decided to implement it, an increase in the cost of fines and an expansion of the number of contraventions for the private sector was announced. Previous restrictive measures such as the price caps imposed by the government led to almost half of the licenses granted for self-employment being returned in 2020.
It remains to be seen whether, as part of its notion on freeing the country’s productive forces, the Cuban government is also willing to renounce the main attitude that keeps them in chains. The “irresponsible” Everleny Pérez outlined it in 2017, while participating in Miami as an independent in the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy: “Cuba” ─ he regretted─ “is the only country in the world that persecutes wealth instead of poverty”.
Por Rolando Cartaya