If you've been with JDC to Cuba on a mission, you'll probably find the below article fascinating ...
Amid Fealty to Socialism, a Nod to Capitalism
By VICTORIA BURNETT
New York Times, Thursday May 2, 2013, page A6
HAVANA — In many ways, it was a typical May Day: Hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers — doctors, sailors, dancers, bank clerks — marched Wednesday toward this city’s vast Revolution Plaza, waving flags, holding aloft banners that proclaimed fidelity to socialism and tooting plastic horns.
But dotted among the throngs of state employees bused in before dawn to observe International Workers’ Day, there was a novel, and increasingly favored, breed: entrepreneurs whose private businesses the government is counting on to absorb thousands of the state workers it considers redundant and hopes to shed.
Their presence — albeit limited — at one of the most important fixtures in the Castro-era calendar reflects the shifting economic mix in a country where, for decades, private enterprise was anathema and the state officially provided everything anyone could need, from a job to the sugar people put in their coffee.
But the state’s ability to do that has declined significantly over the years, with salaries and subsidies like food rations unable to cover even basic needs.
“This is a way of showing solidarity with the workers and of showing that we, too, are workers,” said Orlando Alain Rodríguez, a former sommelier at a state-run hotel who opened a restaurant on a busy intersection in downtown Havana nine months ago.
“I have 19 employees with me, people who otherwise might not have jobs,” said Mr. Rodríguez, clad, along with his staff, in a yellow T-shirt that bore the name of his restaurant, Waoo Snack Bar.
The government seemed keen to send that message, too. Carmen Rosa López, second secretary of the Cuban Workers’ Union, expressed hope before the march that entrepreneurs would come. “For us, they are all workers who contribute to the development of the country,” she said, according to a state-run news agency.
That said, entrepreneurs were a tiny minority in the river of public servants and employees of state-owned companies that flowed, waving placards calling for “prosperous and sustainable socialism” to the plaza, where President Raúl Castro stood beneath a huge statue of José Martí, the revolutionary and poet.
A sea of red-clad Venezuelans and Cubans held banners dedicated to Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader and beneficent ally of Cuba who recently died, while a truck mounted with television screens projected pictures of the smiling former leader to the crowd.
Groups of actors and artists lent the march a carnival atmosphere, and even at 7 a.m. instructions blaring from loudspeakers were all but drowned out by drummers leading a crush of workers raising their hands and swaying their hips to a conga. Students from the National Schools of Art walked on stilts; one peeped out from a huge, papier-mâché figure of an independence fighter. Farther back, a female sailor in a crisp white uniform jiggled from one foot to another in a barely suppressed salsa move.
Since late 2010 when the government began issuing new licenses for Cubans to work for themselves and employ one another, more than a quarter of a million entrepreneurs and their employees have joined the private sector, taking the total to about 400,000.
Economy Minister Adel Yzquierdo told the National Assembly in December that, including independent farmers who lease land from the government, the number of nonstate workers was 1.1 million, double the figure in 2010. Mr. Yzquierdo said the government had, over the past two years, cut more than 350,000 people from the bloated public sector, which still employs well over four million Cubans out of a population of about 11.2 million.
The government has also turned over about 2,000 small state-owned businesses to their employees, according to news reports, part of a much-anticipated but closely guarded plan to create business cooperatives.
Many Cuban entrepreneurs and economists say the growth of the private sector has been excruciatingly slow. There is still no wholesale market from which businesses can buy the goods they need, and the government still limits the types of businesses open to entrepreneurs to fewer than 200, a situation that some hope will improve with the expansion of cooperatives.
However small, though, the private sector is changing the work culture on an island where state employees earn meager salaries and are known for surly service, inefficiency, absenteeism and pilfering.
Sergio Alba Marín, who for years managed the restaurants of a state-owned hotel and now owns a popular fast-food restaurant, said he was very strict with his employees and would not employ workers trained by the state.
“They have too many vices — stealing, for one,” said Mr. Alba, who was marching with his 25 employees and two large banners emblazoned with the name of his restaurant, La Pachanga. “You can’t change that mentality.”
“Even if you could, I don’t have time,” he added. “I have a business to run.”
Such dismissals aside, the private and state sectors compete on some levels and cooperate on others.
The state, which once had a tiny, $4 ceiling on any contract with a private-sector worker, now buys products — from vegetables to billboards — from entrepreneurs. Margaly Rodríguez, a caterer, said she had been hired several times by Palco, a state holding company, to cook for events; she, in turn, rents glassware and crockery from a state-owned restaurant.
It can be a curious symbiosis: thousands of privately owned cafes, taxis, restaurants, photocopy shops and stalls selling hardware, clothing, shoes and DVDs all compete with state-owned enterprises. But many people work in both sectors, filching goods from their state employer to supply their private business.
There are signs that state-owned companies are responding to competition, adding modern touches at dreary supermarkets (a neon sign, conveyor belts and shelves stocked with candy at checkout) and redecorating restaurants.
“We’re in this very interesting phase in which the public and private sector collaborate and compete at the same time,” said Richard E. Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who is doing a study of Cuba’s private sector.
New economic freedoms and the taxes paid by private-sector workers are also beginning to alter the relationship between individuals and the state, analysts say.
“The willingness of people to express an alternative point of view has definitely expanded,” Dr. Feinberg said. “But it’ll take a while before they begin to develop a class consciousness and a political articulation of their interests.”
The very fact that some of Cuba’s new entrepreneurs chose to demonstrate their solidarity at Wednesday’s highly orchestrated march is evidence that the state still has enormous power.
And, of course, many workers — both state and nonstate — stayed home. Several people who work in the private sector said that, after years when they felt pressured by their state employer to march, they would no longer go.
Others simply could not leave their businesses. One woman, a 59-year-old former nurse who said her name was Virgen and sold tiny cups of sweet coffee to people en route to the march, said she had marched every year except this one.
“If I go to the parade, who’s going to sell this?” she asked.