Cuba set to tighten screws on private sector

Ten years after they were first authorised to do business in Cuba, private entrepreneurs will be subjected to tougher restrictions — a move likely to stall their expansion on the communist-ruled island.
For Estrella Rivas, who rents out rooms in Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood, the new rules means she will be unable to offer breakfast to her guests — just a place to sleep.
“That means less money for me,” Rivas says matter-of-factly.
So who is going to enforce the new rules on private-sector businesses, which now account for 13 per cent of Cuba’s workforce, or 592,000 people? “I don’t know,” replies Rivas. “It seems there will be inspectors questioning the tourists.”
Since the new measures were published in July in the country’s official gazette, setting off a 150-day countdown to implementation, the government has worked overtime to explain them.
But those efforts have been to no avail — confusion is still the order of the day. For lawyer Julio Antonio Fernandez, it’s pretty simple: the new rules will “put significant limits on private business activity.” “It’s a devastating blow to a lot of people,” Fernandez said.
Since 2008, these small business owners have run restaurants, fixed bikes, made clothes, driven taxis, cut hair… at least 1.5 million people are believed to be dependent on that income, on an island of 11.2 million.
The new constitution, which will be put to a referendum on February 24, seemed to promise great new things for entrepreneurs, as it recognizes for the first time the role of market forces and private enterprise in Cuba.
It seemed to be a way to codify former president Raul Castro’s efforts to modernize the Cuban economy by allowing individuals to run their own businesses.
But new President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took over from Castro in April, “appears set on pursuing progressive reforms without touching the backbone of the centralized system, or the state’s monopoly on commerce,” Cuban economist Pavel Vidal said.
With economic growth barely registering at 1.1 per cent in the first half of 2018, the government seems more and more interested in foreign investment, rather than in a homegrown groundswell of economic activity — hence the new restrictions.
Among the most significant moves are new limits on business licenses, with only one allowed per person and per location. In theory, that would prevent a restaurant from having a separate bar or a guest house from serving food.
A businessman will also have to have a bank account and signed contracts with his or her employees. The number of authorised trade categories will be reduced from 201 to 123. — AFP