Tag Archives: Cuenta-Propistas


By Cardiff Garcia                        ,

Financial Times, London, March 21, 2016

Original Article: The US and Cuba_ incrementalism reversal risk and the Dictators Dilemma _ FT Alphaville


To analogize the ongoing diplomatic maneuvering between the US and Cuba to a scenario of mutual hostage-taking doesn’t sound charitable, but it might be the best framework for understanding a relationship long defined by its baffling surrealism.

And it’s a useful lens through which to see not only President Obama’s visit to the island, the first by a sitting US president in almost nine decades, but also the specific actions taken by each side in the time since the intent to normalize relations was first announced on 17 December 2014.

Last week John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, described this idea to a roomful of lawyers at the US-Cuba Corporate Counsel Summit in New York. On the US side, Obama clearly wants to make the rapprochement an enduring foreign-policy legacy of his administration, and the Cuban government knows this. It can afford to test Obama on how far it needs to go in the direction of economic and political liberalization before satisfying American requirements to continue deepening the relationship.

But Cuba’s efforts to modernize its economy also depend heavily on the country’s relationship with other countries and with foreign (non-US) companies, and specifically on the potential source of foreign investment they can provide. Except these firms and countries are hesitant to provide much investment while the US embargo is in place and Cuba is locked out of most multilateral institutions.

In other words, Cuba needs the momentum towards diplomatic restoration and the end of the US embargo to continue beyond the end of Obama’s time in office. To ensure this happens, the Cuban government will have to take meaningful and credibly permanent steps towards providing greater economic and political freedoms.

The liberalizations on both sides have been made incrementally to this point. The gradual pace was partly for logistical reasons, but I’m sure it was also the result of suspicions inside of both countries about the intentions of the other side.

 Continue Reading:  The US and Cuba_ incrementalism reversal risk and the Dictators Dilemma _ FT Alphaville

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Archibald Ritter                                                                                          

February 1, 2016

Since 2010, Cuba has been implementing a redesigned institutional structure of its economy. At this time it is unclear what Cuba’s future mixed economy will look like. However, we can be sure that it will continue to evolve in the near, medium and longer term. A variety of institutional structures are possible in the future and there are a number of types of private sector that Cuba could adopt. Indeed it seems as though Cuba were moving towards a number of possibilities simultaneously.

The objective of this note is to examine a number of key institutional alternatives and weigh the relative advantages and disadvantages for each arrangement.  All alternatives include some mixture of domestic or indigenous private enterprises, cooperative and “not-for-profit” activities. foreign enterprise on a joint venture or stand-alone basis, some state enterprises (in natural monopolies for example) and a public sector.  However, the emphasis on each of these components will vary depending on the policy choices of future Cuban governments.

The possible institutional structures to be examined here include:

1. Institutional status-quo as of 2016;

2. A mixed economy with intensified “cooperativization”;

3. A mixed economy, with private foreign and domestic oligopolies replacing the state oligopolies;

4. A mixed economy with an emphasis on indigenous small and medium enterprise.

 Option 1. Institutional Status-Quo as of 2016

The institutional “status quo” is defined by the volumes of employment in the registered and unregistered segments of the small enterprise sector, the small farmer sector, the cooperative areas, the public sector, and the joint venture sector, plus independent arts and crafts and religious personnel.  The employment numbers are mainly from the Anuario Estadístico de Cuba together with a number of guesstimates, some inspired by Richard Feinberg (2013). The guesstimate for unregistered employment in the small enterprise sector may seem exaggerated. However, a large proportion of the “cuentapropistas” utilize unregistered workers and a proportion of the underground economy does not seem to have surfaced into formally registered activities.  These employment estimates by institutional area are presented in Table 1 and illustrated in Chart 1, which also serve as a “base case” for sketching the other institutional alternatives.

Table 1 z zz

The current institutional status quo has a number of advantages but also some disadvantages. On the plus side, adhering to the status quo would avoid all the uncertainties and risks of a transition.  It would maintain the possibility of “macro-flexibility,” that is the ability for the central government to reallocate resources by command in a rapid and large scale fashion. However, in view of the numerous “macro errors” made possible by a centralized command economy (the 10 million ton sugar harvest of 1970, the “New Man” endeavor, shutting down half the sugar mills), “macro-flexibility” may be a disadvantage.  There are major advantages for the Communist Party in maintaining the institutional status quo in the economy, namely enabling political control of the citizenry (a disadvantage from other perspectives) and continuing state control over most of the distribution of income (also a disadvantage from other perspectives).  The approach also helps foster good relations with North Korea (I am running out of advantages).

There are also major disadvantages. The centralized planned economy and public enterprise system generates continuing bureaucratization of production; continuing politicization of state-sector economic management and functioning; continuing lack of an effective price mechanism in the state sector and continuing perversity and dysfunctional of the incentive structure. The result of this is damage to efficiency, productivity and innovation.

 OPTION 2. Mixed Economy with Intensified “Cooperativization”

zzzA second alternative might be to promote the authentic “cooperativization” of the economy in a major way.  This would involve permitting cooperatives in all areas, including professional activities; opening up the current approval processes; encouraging grass-roots bottom-up ventures; providing import & export rights; and improving credit and wholesaling systems for coops.

 This approach has a number of advantages. First, it would strengthen the incentive structure and elicit serious work effort and creativity on the part of those in the coops.  This is because worker ownership and management provides powerful motivation to work hard and profit-sharing ensures an alignment of worker and owner interests. This approach would generate a more egalitarian distribution of income than privately-owned enterprises. Cooperatives may possess a greater degree of flexibility than state and even private firms because their income and profits payments to members can reflect market conditions. Perhaps most important, democracy in the work-place through effective and genuine coops is valuable in itself and constitutes an advantage over both state- and privately-owned enterprise.  [Workers’ ownership and control proposed in Cuba’s cooperative legislation is ironic and perhaps impossible since Cuba’s political system is characterized by a one-party monopoly.  On the other hand it may help propel political democratization.]

The “second degree cooperatives” or “cooperative coalition of cooperatives” called for in the cooperative legislation is particularly interesting as it may permit  reaping organizational economies of scale (a la Starbucks, McDonalds, etc. ) for small Cuban coops in these areas.

An emphasis on cooperatives would help to maintain ownership and diffused control and profit-sharing among local citizens, thereby promoting greater equity in income distribution.

But cooperatives also face difficulties and disadvantages.  First, are they really more efficient than state and private enterprises? Generally speaking, cooperatives have passed the “survival test” but have not made huge inroads against private enterprise in other countries over the years.  Perhaps this is because the “transactions costs” of participatory management may be significant.  Personal animosities, ideological or political differences, participatory failures and/or managerial mistakes may occur.  And for larger coops, complex governance structures may impair flexibility.

 Second, Cuba’s actual complex co-op approval process is problematic and creates the possibility of political controls and biases. Certification of professional cooperatives is unclear. Also, the hiring of contractual workers is problematic

  • The “Hire or Fire after 90 days” rule may curtail job creation;
  • The 10% limit on contractual labor also may curtail job creation;
  • Governance may be impaired if uncommitted workers have to join.

Finally, what will be the role of the Communist Party in the cooperatives?  Will it keep out of cooperative management?  Will Party control subvert workers’ democracy and deform incentives structures?

OPTION 3. Wide Open Foreign Investment Approach zzzzA third possibility would be to open up completely to foreign investment. This would involve a rapid sell-off of state oligopolistic enterprises to deep-pocket foreign buyers such as China, the United States (in due course), Europe, Brazil, or elsewhere.  The buyers might be the Walmart’s, Lowes, Subways, or Starbucks of this world, wanting to acquire major access to the Cuban market. This is a strong possibility if existing state oligopolies (e.g., CIMEX and Gaviota) were to be privatized in big chunks. The policy requirements for this approach to occur would be rapid privatization plus indiscriminate direct foreign investment and takeovers by large foreign firms.

 This approach does have some advantages.

  • It would generate large and immediate revenue receipts for the Cuban government;
  • It would lead to large and rapid transfers into Cuba of financial resources; entrepreneurship and managerial talent; physical capital (machinery and equipment and structures); most modern technology embedded in machinery and equipment; and personnel where and when necessary;
  • The results would be rapid productivity gains, higher-productivity work and rapid GDP gains.

However, there would also be disadvantages such as:

  • Profits would flow out ad infinitum;
  • Income concentration: profits to foreign owners (e.g. the Walton family of Arkansas who practically own Walmart) and profits to oligopolistic domestic owners;
  • Oligopolistic economic structures would be damaging in the long run;
  • There would be a strengthened probability of lucrative employment and ownership for the civilian and military “Nomenclatura”;
  • Blockages or inhibitions to the development of Cuban entrepreneurship;
  • “Walmartization” of Cuban culture; dilution of Cuban uniqueness;
  • Further reduction of the potential for diversified manufacturing in Cuba (e.g. due to the  Walmart/China  mass-purchaser/mass-supplier symbiosis);
  • Probably a blockage of export diversification.

 OPTION 4: Pro-Indigenous Private Sector in a Mixed Economy

zzzzzA fourth possibility would be for Cuba to promote its own small-, medium- and larger enterprises in an open mixed economy. This would require

  • An “enabling environment” for micro, small and medium enterprise with a reasonable and fair tax regimen; an end to the discrimination against domestic Cuban enterprise (See Henken and Ritter, 2015, Chapter 7);
  •  The establishment of unified and realistic monetary and exchange rate systems;
  •  Property law and company law.

A liberalization of micro-, small and medium enterprise would also be necessary to release the creativity, energy and intelligence of Cuban citizens.  This would involve open and automatic licensing for professional enterprises;  an opening up for all areas for enterprise – not only the “201”; permission for firms to expand  to 50 + employees in all areas; creation of wholesale markets for inputs; open access to foreign exchange and imported inputs;  full legalization of “intermediaries” ; and permission for advertising.

 This approach has some major advantages:

 Oligopoly power would be more curtailed compared to Option 3;

  • The economy would be more competitively structured with all the benefits this generates;
  • It would encourage a further flourishing and evolution of Cuban entrepreneurship;
  • It would permit the development of a diversified range of manufacturing and service activities and also a greater diversification of exports;
  • It would provide a reduced role for the “Nomenclatura” of military and political personnel and their families that would otherwise gain from the rapid privatization of state enterprises;
  • It would decentralize economic and thence political power and reduce the power for government to exert political influence through economic control;
  • It would generate a more equitable distribution of income among Cuban citizens and among owners than Option 3;
  •  Profits would remain in Cuba;
  •  There would be a stronger maintenance of Cuban culture.

There would be some disadvantages with this approach.

  • There would be no massive and immediate cash infusion to Government from asset sell-offs.   Or is this an advantage?  [more effective use of in-coming revenues]
  •  Perhaps there would be a slower macroeconomic recuperation;
  • There would be slower inflows of technology, finance, managerial know-how – but more domestically controlled.


Most likely, Cuban policy-makers in the government of Raúl Castro, the government of his immediate successor, and future governments of a politically pluralistic character will design policies that ultimately will lead to some hybrid mixture of the above four possibilities.  I of course will have little or no say in the process. However, my personal preference would be for an economy resembling the structure in the accompanying chart, with a large “indigenous” private sector, a significant cooperative sector, of course a large public sector for the provision of public goods, a small sector of government-owned enterprises, and a significant private foreign and joint venture sector. zzzzzzSo my bottom-line recommendations for current and future governments of Cuba would be:

  1. Utilize Cuba’s abundant resource — well-educated, innovative, strongly-motivated entrepreneurship — effectively, by further liberalizing the regulatory and fiscal regime for the indigenous micro-, small and medium enterprise sector, thereby also promoting Cuba’s indigenous economic culture;
  2. Use Cooperatives and “Coops of Coops” where possible;
  3.  Avoid “Walmartization” & homogenization of Cuban economy and culture by utilizing an activist policy towards direct foreign investment.


Feinberg, Richard E., Cuba’s Economic Change in Comparative Perspective, Brookings Institution, 2013

Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba, 2014

Ritter, Archibald and Ted Henken, Entrepreneurial Cuba, The Changing Policy landscape, Boulder Colorado: Lynn Rienner, 2015


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Huffington Post 01/25/2016;

Original Article here: Cuba’s Entrepreneurs

Ted A. Henken, Former President of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) and Baruch College (CUNY) Professor

Cuentapropista (a Cuban entrepreneur) is a term that up until a few years ago would not have been used to describe a large sector of Cuba’s centralized and still heavily planned economy. But despite heavy odds, I have recently witnessed the proliferation of Cuban entrepreneurship and its positive effects on the Island. As a Yuma (a Cuban term of endearment referring to visiting Americans), I’ve seen Cuba’s “non-state” sector expand considerably, giving testimony to the entrepreneurial successes that everyday Cubans are achieving, and hunger to expand upon.

Engaging directly with Cuba’s entrepreneurial sector — while we push for an end to our pernicious trade embargo — allows us to remove the U.S. as the Cuban government’s bête noir and empower more Cubans to be the masters of their own fates. Some hardliners in the U.S. would argue that engaging any sector in Cuba is helping the monopolistic and undemocratic Cuban government consolidate its power. However, the last 50 years have shown that isolation has only aided the Cuban government in strengthening its monopolies while deflecting blame for its failing economy onto the U.S. embargo. Engagement with cuentapropistas, on the other hand, gives us the chance to begin to build relationships of trust and mutual benefit with the Cuban people.

In the face of constant economic instability and state control, cuentapropistas are the defining social and economic catalyst for Cuba’s future. They are men and women who display incredible motivation and creativity in their business ventures, and are willing to take risks, often at great personal cost. As a result, the burgeoning private sector is now one of the most productive areas of an otherwise failing economy.

In a fact sheet I recently released in partnership with Engage Cuba and the Cuba Emprende Foundation, we found that while Cuba has the most educated, low-cost labor force in the world, private sector opportunities for Cuban professionals continue to be severely limited. As a result, entrepreneurial Cubans have taken their fate into their own hands and are now estimated to be one-third of Cuba’s total workforce. The rate of self-employment has surged to new heights in the last five years, rising from just under 150,000 to over half a million cuentapropistas by mid-2015.

A surprising area of self-employment growth is in telecommunications. The chronic scarcities and bottlenecks caused by the lethal combination of state socialist planning and the U.S. embargo have resulted in the incubation of a true “maker” culture. Highly trained but underemployed computer programmers and telecom agents have started launching innovative start-ups like AlaMesa and Conoce Cuba or designing “lean” software and offline mobile apps for both a Cuban and international clientele. Aiming to encourage this dynamic phenomenon, new U.S. regulations issued by the Obama Administration during 2015 now allow the contracting of Cuba’s private sector IT and other professionals.

But don’t be fooled. There are still drastic internal barriers for motivated, business-minded Cubans. The tax structure is burdensome, the private sector is legally cut off from international trade (apart from imports and exports via “suitcase commerce”), and cuentapropistas enjoy little reliable access to wholesale goods, rental space, credit, or foreign investment. Basic infrastructure is woefully outdated, and Internet access — the driver of any modern business — is still very limited and costly. Perhaps this is why despite unprecedented growth over the past five years, the cuentapropista sector contracted for the first time in the second half of 2015, falling to 496,400 by January 2016.

There are also serious structural workforce issues. For example, every year over 4,000 information technology engineers graduate across the country, but there are a limited number of state positions available to them. Therefore, many of these graduates are forced to join the historic exodus of young professionals abroad in order to find an economic return on their educations.

The possibilities for these young entrepreneurs will be virtually limitless once the island is equipped with a modern telecommunications infrastructure — something that can be made possible with the help of American investment. But in order for U.S. telecommunication services and other businesses to help bring meaningful change in Cuba, Congress needs to lift the trade embargo.

Because while American entrepreneurs and businesses await an end to the embargo, both Americans and Cubans are missing out. It is estimated that the U.S. is currently forgoing 1.6 billion in potential sales to Cuba annually due to current policy. Americans from across political parties have duly noted this fact. According to a Pew Research Center report, 72 percent of Americans, including 59 percent of Republicans, favor ending the Cuban trade embargo.

It is ironic that many embargo supporters rightly critique the Cuban government for restricting the free market inside the Island while simultaneously supporting an embargo that unfairly restricts American businesses abroad and any benefits they could bring to Cuba’s struggling entrepreneurs and its people. By allowing Americans to bring business and investment to the Island, we will grow our own economy while supporting the Cuban people, including cuentapropistas, in the process.

henkenteaching_001_jpgTed A. Henken, Ph.D., is the President Ex-Officio of the Association for Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) and co-author of the book “Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape.” Henken is a member of the Policy Council of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing American businesses and non-profit groups to support the ongoing U.S.Cuba normalization process.

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How media smugglers get Taylor Swift, Game of Thrones, and the New York Times to Cubans every week. VOX; Original article here: CUBA’S NETFLIX, HULU, AND SPOTIFY By Johnny Harris on September 21, 2015

In Cuba there is barely any internet. Anything but the state-run TV channels is prohibited. Publications are limited to the state-approved newspapers and magazines. This is the law. But in typical Cuban fashion, the law doesn’t stop a vast underground system of entertainment and news media distributors and consumers.

“El Paquete Semanal” (The Weekly Package) is a weekly trove of digital content —everything from American movies to PDFs of Spanish newspapers — that is gathered, organized, and transferred by a human web of runners and dealers to the entire country. It is a prodigious and profitable operation.

I went behind the scenes in Havana to film how El Paquete works. Check out the video above to see how Cubans bypass censorship to access the media we take for granted.

There are two Paquete king-pins in Havana: Dany and Ali. These two compete to develop the best collection of weekly digital content and in the fastest turnaround time possible for their subscribers. It’s a competitive market playing out in the shadows of a tightly controlled communist economy.

Paquete subscribers pay between $1 and $3 per week to receive the collection of media. It’s either delivered to their home or transferred at a pickup station, usually in the back of a cellphone repair shop, a natural cover for this type of operation.

Dany relies on data traffickers to deliver the files, but said he didn’t know how those sources obtained the content in the first place. I gathered that most of it is being digitized via illegal satellites that are hidden in water tanks on rooftops. It’s unclear how they get ahold of the content sourced from the internet (digital news publications, YouTube videos, and pirated movies, for example). Only 5 percent of Cubans can access the uncensored World Wide Web, and when they do, the connection is horrendously slow. It’s not the type of connection that would support downloading hundreds of gigs of content every week. Instead, some speculate that content is physically brought onto the island by incomers from Miami.

I sat down with Dany in his pink-walled apartment in Havana. While I expected a mob-like character to be at the root of this extensive black market of pirated media, I found a 26-year-old guy who looked more like a stoned surf bum than the conductor of a giant black market operation.  Dany’s office shows off a lot more brawn than he does. It’s a simple room with two gigantic computers, their innards visible, tricked-out lights arbitrarily flickering. Hard drives are littered around the room, stacked and labeled. Two large screens are full of Windows file directories, and in the corner of one of the screens is a live feed from Telemundo, a popular Spanish-language station, with the words “Grabando” (recording) in the corner.

“Everybody has their responsibility,” Dany told me. “Everyone gathers a certain type of content, and they bring it to me. I organize it, edit it, and get it ready for distribution. And then we send it through our messengers.”

This is hard work. “A lot of the time is spent finding and embedding subtitles” he laments. Much of the content is pirated from American TV and movies. He and his team have scour the internet for any existing subtitle files.

The government hasn’t tried to stamp out El Paquete, and Dany works to keep it that way. “We don’t put anything in that is anti-revolutionary, subversive, obscene, or pornographic. We want it to stay about entertainment and education,” he says, and I catch a glimpse of the shrewd business behind the baby face and board shorts.  It might as well be Netflix

A look into an edition of El Paquete reveals a vast array of content ranging from movies that are in US theaters right now to iPhone applications. Havana-based artist Junior showed me around. He’s a pensive and gentle 34-year-old who is remarkably talented, judging by the stunning art pieces that hang from the wall. Junior paints and tattoos full time but he used to be a Paquete dealer. He’s now just a consumer. He takes me through the 934GB of data he has recently transferred from his provider.

I’m immediately struck by how polished the Paquete system is. As Junior files through the meticulously organized files, I realize it mirrors the consumption of a typical internet user. He opens the movie folder, and we browse through dozens of movies, many still in US theaters. All of them come in HD and with subtitles and poster art as the thumbnail of the file. The videos are high-quality with accurate subtitles. I have to remind myself that we are not browsing Netflix, but instead looking at an offline computer that is displaying content that has physically traveled to get here. The methods couldn’t be more different, but the result is strangely similar.

He moves on to TV shows. “So do you think they have—” I start, but am interrupted. “They have everything,” Junior says emphatically. Sure enough, the show I was thinking of, Suits, was there, with the latest episodes ready to watch.


We continue to browse and look into some of the more routine but most interesting parts of El Paquete: There are folders dedicated to antivirus software that can be updated weekly to the latest versions. “But there’s no internet, so there can’t be viruses,” I say. “Most of this stuff has touched the internet in some way. This software protects against anything that has snuck its way on into the content,” Junior says.

Junior clicks over to the “Apps” folder and shows me a smorgasbord of iOS and Android apps. Many are gaming apps with updates that can be loaded in every week. But there is another called “A la mesa,” a Yelp-type app that helps connect clients to restaurants in Cuba using maps, reviews, and in-app menus. Then there’s the PDF folder, which holds newspapers, magazines, and screenshot material from dozens of online publications, everything from tech news to sports. It’s the internet in a box.

In addition to the subscription fees, revenue for El Paquete comes from a classifieds section called “Revolico.” Within El Paquete, you click a file that opens Revolico in your browser. But it’s an offline version that runs from a file structure on your local computer. There, you can click around as if you were browsing Craigslist, looking at thousands of listings of everything from house rentals to big-screen TVs to car tires.

Sellers pay to list their items, and you can get a premium listing if you pay more. Revolico is the cash cow of El Paquete. It also happens to be one of the first semblances of an advertising market for Cubans who have lived in a world of central planning and price control.

The depth and breadth of El Paquete is astounding, so much so that I, an American who lives and works on the uncensored internet, feel a twinge of envy that I don’t have El Paquete delivered to my house every week for $2.

When I asked Dany if he is afraid that the internet will wipe out his operation, without missing a beat, he replied, “Nah. We offer a product that is like one giant webpage where you can see all the content you want for a very low price. The internet might take over some clients, but we offer something different and very effective.”

“Speed is key to beating the competition,” Dany said. When asked how quickly he can get a movie or TV show after it airs in the US he says, “The next day.” Last year, Dany started sending a hard drive on a plane to the far corners of the island.

After spending a week in Cuba, it was refreshing to talk to someone with the appetite to grow an enterprise. Most people I spoke to in Cuba work for the state and have zero incentive to deliver anything above the bare minimum. They get paid the same either way. Even the private restaurants lack the fervor of a competitive business, since the economic environment they work in is still completely controlled even if they themselves are private.

But in Dany’s office, I felt the thrill of cunning innovation and strategy at work. I got the sense that something big is happening. And indeed, I wasn’t just standing in some dingy apartment, but rather in what may be largest media distribution company in the history of Cuba.


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14ymedio, Havana | Junio 13, 201513, 2015

Original article here: 14YMEDIO  504,613  

At the conclusion of the month of May, the number of self-employed persons in Cuba had risen to 504,613, as shown in a report from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MLSS) published Saturday. Of these, at least 17 percent combine their work in the private sector with a government job.

The document also notes that among people with a license to practice an occupation on their own, there are some 155,605 young people, a number that grew by 7,912 during the first quarter of the current year.

Moreover, some 154,756 women are self-employed, while 62,043 retired people have chosen to re-enter working life through this non-State form of employment.

The report also reveals that the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Camaguey, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba lead the rest of the country, accounting for 66 percent of workers engaged in these occupations.

The most common activities are still making and selling food, transport of cargo and passengers, renting of housing, rooms and spaces, telecommunications agent, and contract workers, the latter associated primarily with the first two listed activities.

The expansion of the process of self-employment began in October 2010 and the promising initial growth has been overtaken in the last year by a slower increase. Self-employed people complain about the high taxes, the lack of a wholesale market, excessive restrictions on what they are allowed to do, and the lack of permits to import raw materials.


Cuba April 2015 032Flamenco Music and Dancers at a State Restaurant.

Cuba April 2015 043Private Transport and Tourist Guide

Cuba April 2015 114At the Arts and Crafts Sales Center

Cuba April 2015 112Arts and Crafts Market

Cuba April 2015 120Food Vendor

Cuba April 2015 168“Cafetera”

Cuba April 2015 179Mobil Phone Repair

[photos by A. Ritter, April 2015]

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Nora Gámez Torres;  El Nuevo Herald, 02/21/2015

Original here: http://www.elnuevoherald.com/noticias/mundo/america-latina/cuba-es/article10895450.html#storylink=cp

En los parques de pueblos en el interior de Cuba y en algunos barrios de la capital, los niños se entretienen montando carretones tirados por caballos y cabras. No es una actividad lucrativa que se asociaría inmediatamente con el término “pequeño empresario”, pero el “servicio de coche de uso infantil tirado por animales” es una de las 201 actividades que el gobierno cubano ha autorizado a ejercer “por cuenta propia”.

No es, por supuesto, lo que tienen en mente funcionarios del gobierno y congresistas estadounidenses que han visitado recientemente la isla cuando hablan de ayudar al florecimiento de los negocios en Cuba, pero quienes pasean a los niños en coches forman parte, junto a dueños de “paladares”, taxistas, fotógrafos, reparadores de todo tipo de objetos y “arrendadores de vivienda”, entre otros, de un emergente sector privado, al que la nueva política exterior de Estados Unidos ha colocado en el centro de atención.

El objetivo declarado es estimular a este sector para la mejoría económica del pueblo cubano y la promoción de una sociedad civil independiente que, eventualmente, podría promover un cambio político en la isla. Pero ¿qué dimensiones reales tiene ese sector y qué potencialidades tiene para expandirse bajo el control del gobierno de Raúl Castro?

Según las últimas cifras oficiales publicadas en el periódico estatal Trabajadores en enero, 483,396 personas laboraban “por cuenta propia” en Cuba. Una pequeña cifra todavía, en comparación con los más de cuatro millones empleados en la economía estatal.

Estos trabajadores necesitan una “licencia” u autorización gubernamental para operar en una de las 201 actividades permitidas y deben pagar mensualmente las cuotas fijadas por el Estado. En su mayoría son oficios o servicios que requieren poca capacitación e infraestructura tecnológica, como “forrador de botones”, “rellenador de fosforeras” y “cuidadores de baños públicos”. Entre los que arrojan más beneficio se encuentran la gestión de restaurantes o “paladares” y los servicios de taxi.

“Aunque Raúl ha hecho cambios significativos en cuanto a la economía y la microempresa en Cuba, no son cambios suficientes para lograr las metas del gobierno de crecimiento y de transferir a los trabajadores estatales al sector no estatal, privado o cooperativo”, explica el profesor de Baruch College, Ted Henken, autor junto al también profesor y economista Archibald Ritter, del libro Cuba empresarial: un contexto de políticas cambiantes, del cual este reporte tomó prestado el título.

“Hay un grupo de obstáculos burocráticos y de regulaciones. Por ejemplo, muchos profesionales no pueden trabajar en su profesión en el mercado laboral privado. La mayoría de los 201 oficios no son productivos, son de sobrevivencia”, apuntó.

Si las remesas son la principal fuente de inversión en los negocios privados en Cuba, como argumenta Henken, la nueva disposición anunciada por el gobierno de EEUU de eliminar restricciones a envíos destinados a “actividades de personas particulares y organizaciones no gubernamentales que promueven la actividad independiente para reforzar la sociedad civil en Cuba y el desarrollo de empresas privadas”, puede estimular la expansión de los negocios ya existentes o el surgimiento de otros. Pero la casi total ausencia de créditos nacionales es un obstáculo importante para aquellos que no tienen familiares o contactos en el extranjero.

Existe, además, “un obstáculo mayor del que todos se quejan: que no hay un mercado mayorista”, observa Henken.

Los altos impuestos es otra de las críticas a las regulaciones actuales, que establecen un impuesto progresivo sobre las utilidades hasta del 50%, más otros tributos por ventas, servicios, utilización de fuerza de trabajo, contribuciones a la Seguridad Social así como tasas por anuncios y publicidad comercial.

Los impuestos por utilidades comienzan en un 15% y llegan al 50% por ganancias superiores a $2,000 al año, lo que unido a las tasas arbitrarias de gastos deducibles, pueden generar impuestos reales que superan el 100 por ciento de lo generado en un año. “Obviamente esto podría matar a la empresa o promover el fraude”, argumentan los autores de Cuba empresarial.

En plena temporada de declaración de impuestos, algunos cuentapropistas han hecho pública su insatisfacción en cartas a medios oficiales como Granma o comentarios dejados en las páginas en internet de estas publicaciones.

La lectora Elizabeth González Aznar se quejó en Cubahora del bajo índice de deducción de gastos (hasta un 40% en dependencia del tipo de actividad) en el régimen de contribución de los cuentapropistas en condiciones en que “no existe mercado mayorista”, “los productos se adquieren en mercados minoristas y a precios muy altos”; “las tarifas eléctricas suben cada vez más” y “se abrió el cuentapropismo sin crear mecanismos elementales que mantuvieran una oferta de productos acorde a la demanda”.

González Aznar dijo verse obligada a comprar productos más caros en las tiendas de recaudación de divisas solo para poder obtener comprobantes que luego puede presentar al hacer su declaración.

Pero este no es el peor escenario. Históricamente, cada vez que el gobierno cubano ha permitido pequeños espacios para la iniciativa individual, ha perseguido duramente a quienes considera acumulan capital o se convierten en una competencia para el estado, como sucedió con la prohibición de comercializar ropa importada en 2013 o el cierre de paladares como El Hurón Azul.

La clausura de las salas de cine privadas en noviembre del 2013 ilustra, además, que el gobierno no está dispuesto a ceder en el control de espacios que considera esenciales, como la distribución de información y productos culturales, zonas que, por ahora, están vedadas a los negocios privados, al menos legalmente.

Que los emprendedores hayan reaccionado con la creación de “los paquetes”, un compendio de programas extranjeros distribuido informalmente en dispositivos portátiles de almacenamiento, ilustra que las autoridades solo pueden desplazar—pero ya no controlar—estas actividades hacia el mercado informal, que sigue interesado en este tipo de oferta.

Una última limitación impide la expansión de capital nacional en inversiones de mediano y gran alcance. La Ley 188, de inversión extranjera aprobada por el parlamento en marzo del 2014, regula las inversiones en Cuba de “personas naturales” y “jurídicas extranjeras”, así como las llamadas empresas “mixtas” con capital del estado cubano, pero no menciona que los cubanos, residentes o no en la isla, tengan el derecho de invertir en Cuba.

Para estimular las inversiones, el gobierno otorgó una excepción de ocho años a las empresas extranjeras que abran negocios en Cuba, entre otras facilidades, a las que no tienen derechos los pequeños empresarios cubanos, lo que constituye “un tipo sorprendente de discriminación en contra de los ciudadanos cubanos”, según escriben Henken y Ritter.

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PRIMAVERA DIGITAL, febrero 18, 2015

Ensayo original aquí: Las TRD Mal Administradas por los Militares,

Por Osmar Laffita

Cuba actualidad, Capdevila, La Habana, (PD)

 A los dos años de ejercer Raúl Castro como presidente, enviaba señales de que su política económica se desmarcaba del estatismo que aplicaba su predecesor, Fidel Castro, quien prácticamente había liquidado la actividad privada a pesar de que por ley estaba autorizada.

Como muestra de que su gobierno no iba en esa dirección, la primera medida del gobierno de Raúl Castro dirigida a reactivar los pequeños negocios privados fue la puesta en vigor de la Resolución No. 32 de 7 de octubre de 2010 del Ministerio de Trabajo y Seguridad Social (MTSS), en la que se autorizaba nuevamente el ejercicio de178 actividades para ejercer las cuales se podía sacar licencias. Entre ellas estaba la no. 71, de modista y sastre.

El gobierno de Raúl Castro vio inicialmente la ampliación de la actividad privada como una vía para generar empleo para los casi 1 200 000 trabajadores que sobraban en las plantillas de las empresas estatales, resultado de la política voluntarista e irresponsable de pleno empleo que aplicó Fidel Castro.

El 6 de septiembre de 2012 el MTSS puso en vigor la Resolución No. 33, la cual ampliaba a 181 las actividades que se autorizaban a ejercer. En dicha Resolución se mantuvo la no. 71 de modista y sastre.

Tal fue el crecimiento de los pequeños negocios privados, que prácticamente en todas las ciudades y pueblos de la isla, comenzaron a funcionar cafeterías, pequeños restaurantes, pizzerías, casas destinadas al alquiler de habitaciones. En los portales de las casas, así como áreas y locales especialmente habilitados, había pequeños negocios en los que vendían ropa, calzados y bisuterías para el hogar y de uso personal. La mayor parte de estas mercancías eran traída de los Estados Unidos, Ecuador, Panamá y México. Pasaban por la aduana, eran declaradas como artículos sin carácter comercial, hasta un límite de 100 libras, y sus propietarios pagaban los impuestos correspondientes.

Tal fue el incremento de las ventas de productos importados que al finalizar el año 2012 estaban dedicados a este negocio, amparados en la licencia de sastre y modisto, cerca de 90 000 personas. Tal fue la aceptación por el pueblo de estas mercancías, principalmente por mujeres y jóvenes, que dejaron de ir a comprar en las Tiendas de Recuperación de Divisas (TRD). En estos pequeños negocios privados se encontraban mercancías variadas, más modernas y bien confeccionadas. Si bien los precios eran altos, se podía regatear con el dueño.

En las TRD muchas de esas mercancías no se ofertaban, y si tenían la suerte de encontrarlas, estaba pasada de moda, mal confeccionada y con precios muy elevados, que no se correspondían con su mala calidad. Como el dueño es el Estado, en las TRD no se puede regatear: lo tomas o lo dejas.

En el primer trimestre de 2012, con miras a ampliar el control de los militares sobre la economía, el gobierno tomó la decisión de traspasar al Grupo de Administración Empresarial(GAE), perteneciente a las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, la dirección de los diferentes grupos empresariales que se ocupaban de la venta minorista en dólares, léase CIMEX y su red de más de 2000 tiendas, gasolineras, cafeterías, servicios navales, bancarios, inmobiliarias, y CUBALSE, hoy desaparecida, que además de a las actividades que realizaba el CIMEX, también se ocupaba de los servicios al cuerpo diplomáticos y las empresas extranjeras radicadas en Cuba. Esta última actividad se la asignaron al Grupo Palco, junto con todas sus tiendas, hoteles, restaurantes, dulcerías, casas de modas y cafeterías, ahora bajo la dirección del GAE.

El grupo Palco fue liberado de la dirección del Palacio de Convenciones, PABEXPO, EXPOCUBA, el centro de reuniones “El Laguito” y las casas de protocolo, que pasaron a ser dirigidos directamente por el Consejo de Estado.

La Cadena Caracol, que era dirigida y administrada por el Ministerio de Turismo, también pasó a manos de los militares. Todas las tiendas que funcionan en los hoteles y en las diferentes instalaciones de veraneo, las agencias de renta de autos y las bases de ómnibus destinadas al servicio de los turistas nacionales y extranjeros, pasaron al GAE.

Por decisión del director ejecutivo del GAE, el general de brigada Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, los trabajadores de todas las TRD pasaron a ser trabajadores civiles de las FAR y los obligaron a integrarse al sindicato de la Defensa. En una de las tanta reuniones del GAE celebradas en los primeros meses de 2012, su dirección pudo conocer de la caída en las ventas en las TRD y del alarmante crecimiento de los inventarios de los almacenes. Al analizar las causas, detectaron que las pérdidas eran originadas por la proliferación de miles de pequeños negocios privados debidamente autorizados que vendían disimiles artículos importados.

13 23  72Para parar esto de raíz, el gobierno dio instrucciones a la titular del MTSS, Margarita González Fernández, para que sobre la base de argumentos legales, demostrara que la licencia de sastre y modista no facultaba a sus poseedores para importar y comercializar ropa, calzado, bisuterías y otros enseres, porque representaba una violación de lo establecido.

Para aniquilar el floreciente negocio de las ropas y enseres importados que habían sumido en la quiebra a las TRD, el MTSS puso en vigor la Resolución No 42 de 2013, en la que se fijaba el alcance de cada actividad autorizada. A los poseedores de mercancías importadas les dieron un plazo para liquidarlas antes del 31 de diciembre de 2013.

Ahora el GAE tiene el monopolio del mercado minorista de venta en dólares. La vicepresidenta de su principal conglomerado comercial, la corporación CIMEX, anunció que la facturación por las ventas realizadas en 2014 ascendió a una cifra muy cercana al monto total de lo recibido por el país por concepto de remesas recibidas desde el extranjero. Esto da una idea del enorme poder económico del GAE.

Un reportaje realizado por las periodistas Juanita Perdomo Larezada y Betty Beatón Ruiz, del semanario Trabajadores, bajo el título “Hay, pero no me gusta”, publicado el 9 de febrero, se refiere al desastroso estado de desabastecimiento de las TRD de Santiago de Cuba y Matanzas.

No es solo en esas ciudades. En el resto del país se repite similar situación. Cuando la población va a hacer sus compras en las TRD, chocan con un pésimo servicio y productos de la mala calidad. Pero ahora no tienen otra opción estos establecimientos, porque desaparecieron los vendedores particulares. Y los militares son administradores ineficaces e incompetentes. Para Cuba actualidad: origenesmadiba@gmail.com Foto: Osmar Laffita

osmarlaffita-150x150Osmar Laffita

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By Nora Gámez Torre

elnuevoherald.com, 22 January 2015

Original here: Cuentapropismo, Importaciones, Normalizacóin

La lista que el Departamento de Estado está confeccionando con bienes y servicios ofrecidos por empresarios cubanos privados que podrán ser importados en los Estados Unidos será amplia para estimular la creatividad de los “cuentapropistas” y el interés del gobierno de la isla por ampliar sus exportaciones, dijo una fuente que ha tenido acceso al borrador del documento.

Las nuevas regulaciones que comenzaron a regir el 16 de enero prevén el apoyo a los pequeños negocios, pero el Departamento de Estado debe decidir quiénes estarán comprendidos dentro de este sector privado y cuáles serían los productos a importarse desde la isla.

Una de las mayores limitaciones de la política económica actual respecto al “cuentapropismo”, como se designa el trabajo privado en la isla, es que de las 201 actividades ahora permitidas por el gobierno de Raúl Castro, la mayoría son oficios que requieren poca capacitación e infraestructura tecnológica —“vendedor ambulante de alimentos”, “rellenador de fosforeras” y “barberos” son algunos ejemplos— y el espacio para el empleo de profesionales es mínimo.

Por eso la fuente consultada por el Nuevo Herald cree que el Departamento de Estado no confeccionará la lista a partir de la legislación vigente, sino que intentará “abrir la puerta lo más amplia posible, para que sea el gobierno cubano el que decida si va a eliminar los obstáculos a los empresarios y, si esto no sucede, que ellos sepan que es por culpa del bloqueo interno”.

En la lista, que iría cambiando a partir de las dinámicas en Cuba, estarían incluidos servicios profesionales de traducción, programación o de construcción que no están autorizados actualmente en Cuba, por lo que se trata de “anticiparse un poco al futuro”, agrega.

Consultado al respecto, el profesor de Sociología de Baruch College, Ted Henken, cree que este enfoque es positivo pero “la gran pregunta es si esto tendrá impacto o si el gobierno cubano permitirá este intercambio”.

El profesor de Economía de la Universidad de Carleton en Canadá, Archibald Ritter, comentó a el Nuevo Herald que uno de los principales obstáculos para que Estados Unidos pueda apoyar a la empresa privada es el monopolio que tiene el estado sobre las importaciones y las exportaciones.

En las nuevas regulaciones, también se autoriza la exportación a Cuba de materiales de la construcción, herramientas y maquinaria agrícola a los cuentapropistas, pero según Ritter “esto requiere cambios en el monopolio del estado sobre el comercio exterior”, pues actualmente no existe un mecanismo que permita que los empresarios privados puedan importar o exportar. Tampoco existe un mercado mayorista donde ellos puedan adquirir sus insumos.

En la nota de la Agencia de Información Nacional sobre las nuevas regulaciones, el único reporte que fue publicado en todos los medios nacionales, no se hace referencia a la posibilidad de exportación de productos cubanos hacia Estados Unidos, provenientes del sector privado.

También se hace notar que “se mantienen las restricciones a las exportaciones de Estados Unidos a Cuba, especialmente de productos de alta tecnología, con excepción de limitadas ventas de materiales de construcción, equipos e implementos agrícolas que se permitirán realizar a particulares, al parecer a través de empresas cubanas”.

Y según la fuente consultada por el Nuevo Herald, el Departamento de Estado estaría considerando utilizar a una empresa estatal cubana como intermediaria, si se ofrecen garantías de que los productos y materias primas llegarán a manos de los cuentapropistas.

Presentación de libro sobre cuentapropismo en Cuba

Ritter y Henken son expertos en el tema y publicaron una investigación sobre el cuentapropismo titulada Cuba empresarial: un contexto de políticas cambiantes, que será presentada el viernes en la libraría Books and Books a las 6:30 pm, un evento auspiciado por el Cuban Research Institute de la Universidad Internacional de la Florida.

En el libro, en el que realizan una comparación entre las políticas de Fidel y Raúl Castro sobre la empresa privada, Ritter y Henken hacen un balance del estado de esa actividad en la isla y advierten de los altos impuestos, y la “discriminación” en términos fiscales que favorece a empresas mixtas con capital extranjero.

Si la liberalización del cuentapropismo tenía como objetivo absorber el millón de trabajadores de la economía estatal que Raúl Castro consideró como “redundantes”, a los que se les llama eufemísticamente como “disponibles”, los autores del libro concluyen que esta meta no ha sido alcanzada. Más bien, argumentan, el cuentapropismo ha venido a legalizar muchas actividades que trascurrían en el mercado informal.

Aunque según estadísticas del Ministerio de Trabajo y Seguridad Social hasta septiembre del 2014, el número de empleados en estas actividades aumentó a 471,085 en todo el país, cifras de la capital hasta marzo de ese mismo año indicaban que solo 63 de los cuentapropistas registrados habían perdido sus empleos (“disponibles”). El 15 por ciento de los cuentrapropistas habaneros eran también trabajadores estatales mientras que el 63 por ciento, cerca de 80,000, no tenían “vínculo laboral previo”, según publicó el portal oficial Cubadebate.

Los autores señalan que aunque en la prensa se ha comenzado a eliminar el estigma en torno a la empresa privada, el cierre de negocios exitosos, sobre todo paladares, apunta a que la acumulación de capital todavía no es bien vista por las autoridades.

Ritter y Henken concluyen que aunque la reforma de Raúl Castro ha sido significativa, “no es suficiente” para promover el desarrollo económico a gran escala y que medidas que permitan un mayor protagonismo de la diáspora así como mayores garantías y beneficios a la pequeña y mediana empresa son indispensables.

 More Cuenta Propistas

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Ted A. Henken, Associate Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies at Baruch College, New York City, and, Archibald R.M. Ritter, Economics and international Affairs,  Carleton University,  Ottawa

Huffington Post, January 20, 2015

Original Article here: INTERNAL EMBARGO

In scores of interviews conducted over the past 15 years with Cuban entrepreneurs, we often heard the following saying: “El que tenga tienda que la atienda, o si no que la venda” (Whoever has a store should tend to it, and if not then sell it). This pungent adage demands that the government turn over to Cuba’s burgeoning private sector those economic activities it cannot operate effectively itself — many of which are already widely practiced in Cuba’s ubiquitous underground economy.

In other words, the U.S. embargo — recently dealt a near-fatal blow by the joint decision by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations after almost 54 years — is hardly the principal “blockade” standing in the way of Cuba’s economic revitalization. Though the American “bloqueo” has long been the target of withering and well-deserved international condemnation, on the island Cubans themselves are much more likely to criticize what they bitterly refer to as the “auto-bloqueo” (internal embargo) imposed by the Cuban government itself on the entrepreneurial ingenuity and basic civil and political rights of the Cuban people.

While it is good and necessary for the United States to open up to Cuba and vice versa (to paraphrase the late Pope John Paul II), little economic progress or political freedom will be enjoyed by Cubans themselves until the Cuban government opens up to its own people, ceases to demand their acquiescence as subjects, and begins to respect them as citizens, consumers and entrepreneurs with defensible and inalienable economic and political rights of their own.

In fact, two weeks following the historic mid-December Obama-Castro announcement, the Cuban government received its first public test of whether its internal embargo would now be relaxed in light of the sea-change in U.S. policy. On December 30, 2014, the internationally renowned Cuban artist Tania Bruguera organized a public act of performance art in Havana’s iconic Revolutionary Plaza. Dubbed “#YoTambienExijo,” Bruguera invited Cuban citizens to “share their own demands” on the government for one minute each at an open-mic set up in the Plaza.

Predictably, the government responded by arresting and detaining scores of artists, activists and independent journalists, which amounted to an even more public “performance” of its own typically repressive tactics, as news of the event echoed in the international media on the final day of the year. Thus, while we can celebrate the fact that the U.S. and Cuban governments have finally agreed to begin respectful, diplomatic engagement, the Cuban government’s failure to respectfully engage with the diverse and often dissenting voices of its own citizens makes us wonder with Bruguera whether “it’s the Cuban people who will benefit from this new historic moment,” as she put it in her open letter to Raúl Castro.

Before 2006, President Fidel Castro pursued an economic policy retrenchment that gradually phased out the pro-market reforms of the early-1990s, indicating that he was more aware of the political risks that popular entrepreneurship would pose to his centralized political control than of the economic benefits it could provide. Therefore, he was unwilling to transfer more than a token portion of the state “tienda” to private entrepreneurs. However, his brother Raúl Castro, whose presidency began in 2006, has begun to heed the popular wisdom cited above and deliberatively shrink the state “store,” transferring the production of many goods and services to small private and cooperative enterprises. In fact, the number of Cuba’s licensed self-employed has grown from less than 150,000 in 2010 to half-a-million today.

Still, much more needs to be done so that Cuban entrepreneurs can contribute fully to economic growth. For example, 70 percent of the newly self-employed were previously unemployed, meaning that they simply likely converted their clandestine enterprises into legal ones doing little to absorb the 1.8 million workers slated for layoff from the state sector. Moreover, only seven percent of self-employed are college graduates and most them work in low-tech activities because almost all professional self-employment is prohibited. This acts as an effective “blockade” on the productive use of Cuba’s well-educated labor force.

Effectively “ending the embargo” against Cuban entrepreneurs and facilitating the emergence of cooperative and small-enterprise sectors will require deeper, more audacious reforms. Among these changes is

  • opening the professions to private enterprise;
  • implementing affordable wholesale and credit markets;
  • ending the fiercely guarded state monopoly on imports, exports and investment;
  •  permitting the establishment of retailing enterprises; and
  • relaxing the tax burden on small enterprise, which currently discriminates against domestic enterprises in favor of foreign firms.

 Progress in all these areas would be greatly facilitated by access to U.S. investors and markets, which will soon become possible as Obama’s historic policy changes are implemented during 2015.

However, does Raúl have the political will to double-down on his reforms? The prohibition of activities the government prefers to monopolize allows it to exercise control over Cuban citizens and impose an apparent order over society. However, this comes at the cost of pushing all targeted economic activity (along with potential tax revenue) back into the black market — where much of it lived prior to 2010. On the other hand, the legalization and regulation of the many private activities dreamed up and market-tested by Cuba’s inventive entrepreneurial sector would create more jobs, a higher quality and variety of goods and services at lower prices, while increasing tax revenue. However, these benefits would come at the cost of allowing greater autonomy, the concentration of wealth and property in private hands, and open competition against long-protected state monopolies.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called “90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations.” The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

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Photographer with museum quality camera at the front of the Capitolio

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Restaurant Metropolis, 19 y “L”, Vedado,  with its menu on display  (below)

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Vegetable and Fruit Vendor, Central Havana

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By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Foreign Staff, January 13, 2015

Original here: Cuba’s Culinary Revolution

Cuba Mar 2011 038The “Dona Eutimia” Paladar, by the Plaza de la Catedral (photo by A. Ritter)

HAVANA — Private restaurants in Havana are exploding in number and soaring in quality, providing a treat for visitors and a surprising bright spot in a nation better known for monotonous food and spotty service.

Havana now boasts nearly 2,000 private restaurants offering a range of cuisine from traditional Cuban to Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese and other ethnicities. From caviar to lobster bisque and on to pizza, everything seems to be available. Usually set in private homes, some of the restaurants offer Old World charm with starched white tablecloths and real silverware. Heirlooms fill shelves. Other restaurants hunker in basements or peer from walk-up seafront buildings, sometimes with funky or retro décor.

“Gastronomy is on the rise in our country,” said Jorge Luis Trejo, son of the proprietors of La Moraleja, a restaurant in Havana’s Vedado district with wild rabbit flambé and chicken confit on the menu. His family’s restaurant opened in January 2012. Donning the chef’s apron is a cook who once worked in France, the Netherlands, Greece and England, Trejo said.

“We try to make traditionally Cuban dishes with fusion sauces to entertain our clients,” he said.

At the end of each meal, waitresses carry a humidor to diners and offer them a choice of complimentary hand-rolled cigars.

Private restaurants first arose in Cuba in 1993 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s longtime patron, only to be reined in as authorities worried that small eateries were relying on pilfered supplies and surpassing the legal limit of 12 chairs, essentially three tables. The restaurants were known as paladares, a Spanish and Portuguese word that means palates, a moniker taken from the establishment of a food vendor in a popular Brazilian soap opera. For periods in the 1990s, small restaurants could offer neither seafood nor beef, which were needed for the official tourist industry. Owners were ordered to buy at retail prices in official stores. Most employees had to be family members.

Those rules drove most restaurants out of business, choking them with a web of taxes and arbitrary enforcement that underscored how wary Cuba’s communist officials were of private enterprise. By 2010, state media reported that as few as 74 private restaurants were operating in Havana.

Then things began to change. Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl, who’d taken control of the government, ordered more flexible rules for restaurants at the end of 2011, raising the limit on chairs to 50 and issuing new licenses. There are still rules to be skirted, and supplies can be hard to come by, but a rebirth is taking place.

“There’s undeniably a boom, a significant increase in both the numbers of people who have licenses in the food service area and the emergence of a haute cuisine, or as they say in Cuba cocina de autor,” or creative nouvelle cuisine, said Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York who’s written about the phenomenon.

Today, Havana is dotted with private restaurants with elaborate menus, identifiable only by single small signs on the outsides of buildings.

In Cuba’s moribund economy, bad service is the norm in most offices, hotels and state-run businesses, but not in the private restaurants, which often have the cozy feeling of private dining since they occupy what once were people’s homes.

“You feel like, ‘Oh, I’m in someone’s old living room, and sipping a mojito,’ ” Henken said.

It’s a feeling that more Americans may experience. On Dec. 17, President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, broken in 1961. Obama also said he’d further relax restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba without lifting the long-standing trade embargo, which only Congress can do.

The easing of U.S. rules will include permitting U.S. banks to accept credit card transactions conducted in Cuba. Many Cuban restaurateurs await a growing flow of American visitors.

At Paladar Los Mercaderes, which sits on a bustling pedestrian street in renovated Old Havana, handsome waiters in crisp black uniforms buttoned to the neck take orders in a multitude of languages. Modern Cuban art adorns the walls. Musicians croon Cuban ballads as breezes waft through the high-ceilinged rooms. Among the entrees, one could pick from smoked pork loin in plum sauce ($15.75), filet mignon in mushroom sauce ($18), shrimp risotto ($17) or a grilled seafood platter with lobster tail (variable price), among other dishes.

“We built a restaurant like one we’d like to go to,” said Yamil Alvarez, one of three owners of the business, which opened in December 2012. “We bet on hiring young people who are well educated but without any experience.” “We’ve got boats fishing for us, so we always have fresh fish. We’ve got a contract with a farm for fresh produce,” said Alvarez, an engineer who was once a guide at a cigar factory.

While Alvarez aims for a bit of glam, or what he labels a “unique experience,” other restaurants shoot for different diners, mostly foreign but also some Cubans with access to hard currency.

El Litoral, a trendy spot on the seaside boulevard in Vedado, is filled nightly with diplomats, artists, well-heeled tourists and a smattering of Cubans. Opened a year ago, the restaurant offers a high-end menu that includes a soupçon of molecular cooking (foams), puff pastry entrees, a roasted seafood platter, and a kebab of shrimp and bacon in the fresh split-pea soup, among other offerings.

A different clientele comes to Nazdarovie, mainly those with connections to the former Soviet bloc but also those drawn by Soviet kitsch. The name is a toast to one’s health.  “This restaurant is inspired by the memories and nostalgia felt by the thousands of Cubans who spent many years of their youth studying in the USSR,” the menu notes.

A bust of Lenin peers out from the bar. Copies of Sputnik, a magazine, and matryoshka dolls fill shelves. In a decidedly modern touch, big red art deco lamps shine above deep black tables. A terrace looks out on the sea. The food, far from bland, includes borscht, stroganoffs, chicken tabaca and the shashlik kebabs popular in Eastern Europe.

“The chef is Cuban but he studied at the Cordon Bleu school in Miami,” said Yansel Sergienko, a 22-year-old bartender sporting a visorless Soviet naval cap.

There still is a Wild West feel to Havana’s private dining scene. Many restaurateurs must skirt the rules to keep their larders filled, employing “mules” who travel to Mexico, Spain and Florida to bring back supplies and more exotic ingredients. Until the Castro government gets out of the way of the growth and clarifies regulations, the Havana restaurant scene won’t truly take off, experts say.

“You have to be partly a wily rule bender” to keep restaurants in business, Henken said, “and that needs to be solved before Havana becomes a tourist draw for people on the culinary circuit. . …….. . Now it’s more of a curiosity than an eater’s paradise.”

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Quasi-Paladar Restaurant in the Barrio Chino

Cuba Mar 2011 030Hotel Inglaterra Bar: Great State Sector Restaurant Decor (Photos by A. Ritter)

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