Cuba: Private Sector Gets a (Tentative) Boost

By Ricardo Torres*

Morning Street Market in Trinidad, Cuba/ Bud Ellison/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The Cuban government has announced measures that represent a significant shift in its treatment of the private sector, but the reforms will not have the desired impact without supporting legislation and other steps. In one of its more important announcements on reform, authorities abandoned their focus on listing permitted categories of work, and instead issued a list of prohibited activities – leaving open the rest of the economy for private individuals.

  • On February 11, the Labor Ministry issued for public discussion a list of 124 activities, based on an international classification of job categories, that will remain off-limits for cuentapropismo (self-employment). Among the most prominent professions that will remain under state control are journalists, lawyers, accountants, architects, and engineers – as well as some positions in the value chain in tourism.
  • The reasons for these restrictions range from political and social sensitivity; poor coordination and improvisation among various agencies that were working on the initial drafting of the list; and the protection of the narrow interests of various industries, such as in some parts of tourism.

The benefit of these prohibitions is questionable from the perspective of national economic development. The Cuban economy appears likely to continue shifting toward specialization in services, but the next stage in that process will require expansion into areas that are more complex, more deeply integrated into the productive system, and more focused on foreign markets. This stage will require the skills of Cuban professionals, many of whom today, seeing few good prospects at home, are leaving the country frustrated in search of opportunities to use their talents and build a good life for themselves elsewhere. For a country with a demographic profile that’s already adverse, the brain drain will be even more damaging.

  • The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that, in medium- and high-income countries, companies with up to nine workers represent 32‑38 percent of all employed persons, while another 42 percent work in entities that have between 10 and 49 employees. Cuban labor, in sharp contrast, is divided into state enterprises (with an average of 800 workers); agricultural cooperatives (94 workers); urban cooperatives (typically 39 workers); and cuentapropistas working alone or with one partner. This labor structure is simply not adequate for future needs.

The new measures raise other questions about the objectives of the reforms. Of the 600,000-plus cuentapropistas, some 100,000 are de facto companies – without full legal personality and its protections. Cuba lacks a solid framework for the development of the private sector. Consideration of the small and medium enterprise law promised by the government years ago is still in limbo, with no clear date. Cuban law also does not clearly distinguish between subsistence production and dynamic undertakings, nor between owners and workers. It does not establish the formal channels necessary for communication with the sector, nor how to apply laws dealing with social rights, environmental protection, and similar requirements. There is also no sign of specific legislation permitting work by truly independent workers and cooperatives.

The challenge ahead lies in the fact that the political documents for these and other reforms over the years – such as Conceptualización (during the 7th Party Congress in 2017) and “Plan 2030” present only a narrow, schematic concept of private-sector development. The omissions and ambiguities in them are huge. Without effective follow-up, the full intent of even these new steps will not be realized – and progress will yet again be delayed. A holistic vision of reform and its objectives is necessary now more than ever. No one knows, however, if the Cuban leadership has the appetite and political space within the party and government bureaucracy to make it happen.

March 15, 2021

* Ricardo Torres is a Professor at El Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

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