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As Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolution fade, is Cuba rising?

Seismic changes in the communist economy built by Fidel Castro are enriching some Cubans, scaring others, and sparking imaginations: Will the Caribbean gem shine again?

By Sara Miller Llana / Staff writer, with a correspondent, Photos by Alfredo Sosa/ Staff Photographer / November 27, 2010

As Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolution fade, a revolution of reform is afoot in Cuba. Manuel Fernandez is a retired state employee who won a rare private business license 20 years ago to operate a repair shop on his front porch in Havana. The government is now pushing as much as 10 percent of its employees into such entrepreneurial work.

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MEXICO CITY and HAVANA

Antonio Santana and Marina Suarez are children of Fidel Castro's revolution – born into the communism that swept across this island of mambo and mob ties in 1959.

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Now thin and graying, with government-issue glasses, Mr. Santana – a pseudonym he asked the Monitor to use out of concern he should not talk to foreign journalists – has had a long career as a state barber. Snipping no-nonsense cuts in a society that overthrew the glamour and glitz of the corrupt Batista dictatorship for social egalitarianism, he and his wife were able to raise twins, a boy and a girl now grown, on his paltry $12-a month salary.

Ms. Suarez, who manages a tidy, crisp look in Cuba's tropical heat, had a career as a government secretary and raised two sons – now 15 and 24 – on her own. Though her $14-a-month salary was pitifully small, she valued the job security.

IN PICTURES: Cuba Economy

Like all of their contemporaries who have been housed, fed, and employed by the state, Santana and Suarez grew up as pawns in Mr. Castro's trial of free health care and education, state-owned industry, and collectivized agriculture.

As waves of their fellow countrymen fled, and as Castro raged against the sea of capitalism that isolates this island – even providing the stage for cold-war nuclear brinkmanship – the lives of people like Santana and Suarez have been calm if grindingly poor. Never forced to fret over college funds and health-care copays or contend with gaping divides between rich and poor, they've never faced the dramas of market-driven economies. Like most Cubans, they've earned little in their lives – because they have needed little.

But now these children of the revolution have awoken to the hint of a new revolution: In the waning days of Castro's power, a decided tilt toward a market economy has shifted the paternalistic burden from the struggling government onto individual citizens.

Ever since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of support from Cuba's communist brethren, steady tinkering with the economy has given way to the biggest economic upheaval the island has faced since the revolution – the layoff of half a million workers and a push toward private entrepreneurial activity.

The bottom line for Suarez, for example, was a pink slip and a sense of betrayal: "I never thought Cuba could do this, because the government always protected us."

But for Santana, being kicked off the government payroll has been dazzling. Told to start his own business, he has to pay rent; and if his scissors dull or clippers break, he shoulders the expense. But he's also pocketing the pesos he earns – the equivalent of $40 a month, more than three times his previous income.

"I am not a millionaire, but I am better off than others," says Santana. "[I have] the liberty to have my own schedule, prices, and services. I am the boss of myself. Everything that happens is my responsibility, and that is a good feeling."

• • •

When The Atlantic magazine journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked Castro in September if the Cuban economic model was still worth exporting, Castro answered: "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."

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