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?
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And that is why US policy on Cuba hasn't budged. The US embargo, imposed nearly 50 years ago, has been supported by 11 American presidents. And while the Obama administration has relaxed some rules, such as remittances and travel to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, the president has barely responded to both Cuba's release of political prisoners this summer – the largest in more than a decade – and the more recent announcement that some free markets will be tolerated. Despite growing pressure from some lawmakers, the US maintains its longstanding demand that free and fair elections and freedom of expression be implemented before American policy will shift radically.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Cuba Economy: glimpses of a new order
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If the past is any indication, Cubans, analysts, and US officials are right to be skeptical about the staying power of experimentation in Cuba. In the early 1990s, known as the "special period," after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in turn took down the Cuban economy, the Castro government grudgingly allowed some small businesses to emerge. Many of those reforms were rolled back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after other players such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez stepped in with subsidies.
During the "special period," more than 200,000 Cubans were registered as self-employed; today Cuba counts 143,000 such licenses. Many of the new establishments, such as paladares, small restaurants usually off the side of a private house, were so tightly controlled that many never had a chance to survive. Part of the problem was that the very concept was anathema in a country whose motto, sprayed across billboards, is "socialism or death."
In a scathing piece last year, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, whose blog Generacion Y openly criticizes the government, detailed the case of Huron Azul – a well-known restaurant shut down, she wrote, for: "Selling prohibited food such as lobster and beef; having more than twelve seats in the restaurant; giving credit to the painters to eat there; becoming a patron of the arts; paying a huge electricity bill; having a lot of cash; and – what nerve – wanting to open a restaurant in Milan."
But many suspect Raúl Castro is finally fully exercising his reputation as a pragmatist, ready to usher in change. "There was drive [in earlier reforms of the 1990s] done out of necessity and mostly against will," says Paulo Spadoni, an expert on the Cuban economy at Augusta State University in Georgia. "What differs from previous attempts is the guy pushing reforms [now] isn't the same guy pushing reforms [during the 'special period' of the early 1990s]. Now they're pushing for reforms because it's exactly what they want to do. It is a signal that those reforms are here to stay."
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Many Cubans, like Santana, the barber, are ready for change, to be their own boss. His shop sits in the middle of a bustling office complex. No sign advertises the shop – such investments are still prohibitive. The tiny space, 20 feet by 13 feet, is simple: white walls, with a floor-length mirror in front of a single barber's chair. A cement table in the back holds all of his cutting tools.
Santana says that, except for the $40 in rent and tax he pays to the government, he gets to keep the full 50 cents he charges for a cut. "It gives me a better margin of earnings to feed my family," he says, noting that his grown twins still live with him. This, he says, is "the best thing that could have happened."