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In Cuba, Hopes for a New Capitalist Season

Idalberto Estrada reaches for a squash at his stand in Cojimar, a Havana suburb. He and other vegetable vendors are among the few Cubans who have licenses to run private businesses.
Idalberto Estrada reaches for a squash at his stand in Cojimar, a Havana suburb. He and other vegetable vendors are among the few Cubans who have licenses to run private businesses. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
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The longtime leader complained about "inequalities" that self-employment was creating and railed against a "new rich class" that was paid by tourists in U.S. dollars that had much more buying power than the Cuban peso. In 2004, his government stopped granting self-employment licenses for 40 types of businesses. Among those who could no longer work for themselves were masseuses, magicians and clowns. Other businesses remained technically legal but were effectively closed because licenses weren't renewed.

The number of self-employed Cubans plummeted from 200,000 in the mid-1990s to 100,000 now, according to Antonio Jorge, a recently retired Florida International University economics professor who was a top finance official in the first two years of Fidel's reign. The Cuban government says 150,000 people are self-employed.

There was also a major crackdown on paladares, the small restaurants that were thriving because their owners were preparing meals that were far superior to the drab offerings in most state-run restaurants. In the late 1990s, it was estimated that Havana had more than 1,000 paladares; some of their owners were achieving worldwide fame. Now, there may be fewer than 100, said a Cuban government economist who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

Privately, another Cuban official justified many of the closings, saying paladares were shut down for sanitation violations. But the Cuban government economist said the majority were forced out of business by the state, which then clandestinely became the real owner of several successful paladares that pretend to be privately owned. Other paladares stayed in business by bribing government officials.

"They want to get rid of us all," said a paladar owner who asked that his name not be revealed.

Raúl Castro hasn't focused on Cuban restaurants in his public speeches, but he speaks frequently about the farmers who supply them. Jorge and the government economist each predicted that Ra¿l might begin deeding farmland to campesinos, or poor farmers. During a speech last July, Raúl -- who is known for his wry, biting humor -- said he'd admired the marabú growing on the roadsides. Marabú is a thorny bush that spreads across untilled fields. The message was clear: Cuba's government-controlled farmers were not doing their job well. Currently, half of Cuba's arable land is not cultivated, but many here believe private ownership of some farmland would free farmers to produce more in a country that imports 80 percent of its food.

Estrada, the Cojimar produce vendor, often buys his squash and yuca from José Francisco Anaya León, a 58-year-old Cuban. Unlike Estrada, Anaya León is not self-employed. He farms government land, then sells three squash at very low prices to the government for every one he sells to vendors such as Estrada at a higher price.

Anaya León may have a guaranteed buyer for most of his crop, but he doesn't make enough to live decently. Estrada said he has no guaranteed buyers, but he flipped a cabbage in his hand and smiled anyway.

"Everybody in the world would want this, to be independent," he said. "Human beings are ambitious."

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