Doubts linger as Cubans pursue dreams

For
some, it is the pursuit of a dream, for most, a necessity. Whatever the motive,
a steady stream of Cubans are taking the government up on its offer to let them
work for themselves instead of the state.

At
municipal labour offices around the country, Cubans are filing in with plans
that include everything from opening small restaurants to renting out rooms as
they seek one of 250,000 self-employment licenses to be issued in Cuba’s
biggest reform in years.

About
30,000 of the permits have been handed out, state-run press reported, and
another 16,000 are pending in the first few weeks of President Raul Castro’s
plan to improve the Communist-led Island’s economy by expanding the private
sector and cutting government’s role.

The
licenses are key to Castro’s gamble that he can slash 1 million jobs from state
payrolls, absorb the unemployed through private businesses and keep Cuba on the
socialist straight-and-narrow for years to come.

The
government, which controls most of the economy and employs 85 per cent of
Cuba’s workforce, has outlined 178 jobs or sectors where self-employment will
be permitted. It will retain a heavy dose of control through regulations and
stiff taxes of 25 per cent to 50 per cent of net income.

The
reform is criticized by some experts as being too limited, but others view it
as a reasonable first step toward greater change in one of the world’s last
Communist countries.

Cubans
receive various social benefits, but they earn an average salary equivalent to
about $20 a month and insist that they need more to live.

There
is a large concern that taxes and regulation may be too big a burden for the
new entrepreneurs, particularly in a country where taxes have been almost
nonexistent under the Communist government installed after the 1959 revolution.

There
are other worries as well.

Many
people fear that the government will open the door to private enterprise, and
then close it as it did during the economic crisis of the 1990s.

While
that experience has discouraged some would-be entrepreneurs, it helped Emilio
Perez decide to seize the moment and seek a license to rent out a room in his
house and to sell food.

“You
have to grab this chance. It’s now or never,” he said. “This is Cuba,
what will happen tomorrow, I don’t know, but he who doesn’t take the risk
neither wins nor loses.”

WORLDcubansSTORY

A man sells newspapers on a street in Havana.
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