Thursday, June 01, 2017

In Cuba, Entrepreneurs Start First Private Business Group

In Cuba, Entrepreneurs Start First Private Business Group

A group of entrepreneurs have quietly formed communist Cuba's first
private small business association, testing the government's willingness
to allow Cubans to organize outside the strict bounds of state control.

More than a half million Cubans officially work in the private sector,
with tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more working off the books.
Cuba's legal system and centrally planned state economy have changed
little since the Cold War, however, and private business people are
officially recognized only as "self-employed," a status with few legal
protections and no access to wholesale goods or the ability to import
and export.

The government is expected to take an incremental step toward changing
that Thursday when Cuba's National Assembly approves a series of
documents updating the country's economic reform plan and laying out
long-term goals through 2030. Those goals include the first official
recognition of private enterprise and small- and medium-size businesses,
although it could be years before any actual changes are felt on the
ground in the country.

The Havana-based Association of Businessmen is trying to move ahead
faster, organizing dozens of entrepreneurs into a group that will
provide help, advice, training and representation to members of the
private sector. The group applied in February for government
recognition. While the official deadline for a response has passed, the
group has yet to receive either an OK or negative attention from
authorities, leaving it in the peculiar status known in Cuba as "alegal"
or a-legal, operating unmolested but vulnerable to a crackdown at any time.

"People have approached with a lot of interest but they don't want to
join until we're officially approved," said Edilio Hernandez, one of the
association's founders. Trained as a lawyer, Hernandez also works as a
self-employed taxi driver.

"Many people really understand that entrepreneurs need a guiding light,
someone who helps them," he said.

Another founder, Rodolfo Marino, has a construction license and has
worked privately and under contract to state agencies. He said
organizers of the association have gone door-to-door trying to recruit
members by convincing them they need independent representation.

The group says roughly 90 entrepreneurs have signed up. Without legal
recognition, the group is not yet charging membership fees, the
organizers say. Until then, they meet occasionally in Marino's Havana
home to plan their path forward, which includes legal appeals for
government recognition.

"We hope to push the country's economic development forward," he said.

The number of officially self-employed Cubans has grown by a factor of
five, to 535,000 in a country of 11 million, since President Raul Castro
launched limited market-based reforms in 2010. The government currently
allows 200 types of private work, from language teacher to furniture
maker. In reality, many officially self-employed people have become
owners of small business, some with dozens of employees and hundreds of
thousands of dollars in annual revenue — big number for a country where
the monthly state salary is about $25.

Without access to government-controlled imports, exports or wholesale
supplies, business owners are emptying the shelves of state stores,
either by snapping up items as soon as they arrive or buying them stolen
on the black market. That leaves them vulnerable to crackdowns and
frequent extortion from state inspectors.

The government has taken a few tentative moves toward easing the
situation in recent months — opening stores where owners of some of the
country's 21,000 bed-and-breakfasts and 2,000 private restaurants can
buy large quantities of goods, although still at retail prices.

The state has also promised special access to gas and car parts to taxi
drivers who comply with widely flouted government caps on fares.

Along with those small steps, the future of the Association of
Businessmen is a gauge of Cuba's openness to private enterprise and its
ability to move forward, the group's founders say.

"We really hope they approve us," said Hernandez, the lawyer and taxi
driver. "If they don't, we'll be in the hands of a state that considers
us illegal and we won't be able to reach our goal of representing
entrepreneurs. If they do, it will be a sign that things are changing.

Source: In Cuba, Entrepreneurs Start First Private Business Group - NBC
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