Two weeks ago, Cuban government officials announced plans to expand Cuba’s private sector by issuing more permits for private businesses and self-employment, and by laying off 500,000 state workers in 2011. To say that Cuba is expanding its private sector is somewhat inaccurate, because Cuba does not have a private sector in the same way that other nations do; if this plan takes shape the way it has been described, the Cuban government will effectively be sparking the development of a small, highly regulated, but nevertheless private sector. This is serious news.
At present, while the great majority (eighty percent) of Cubans hold government jobs, most supplement the meager state salary of 300-500 pesos per month ($12-$20 USD) by other means, often through buying, selling, and trading goods and services within Cuba’s vast informal economy. Although some Cubans are legally self-employed (chiefly as restauranteurs and taxi drivers) many more conduct business “underground.” Self-employment has long been a contentious political issue in Cuba, and government efforts to limit informal earnings have reached perverse levels over the past two decades, at certain moments. For example, there was a period in the late 1990s when Cubans were prohibited from keeping their own vegetable gardens, the rationale being that if they were to sell the vegetables, this would give them an unauthorized (and therefore illegal) source of income. Never mind the nutritional value of the boniato.
The new legislation will allow Cubans who currently work for the state to leave their jobs and apply for permits to start their own businesses, or to work in cooperatives that are operated through partnerships between individuals and the state. If the plan really works, the formerly forbidden boniato may finally come out of the shadows, alongside the previously “unauthorized” car mechanics, cobblers, and computer repairmen who until now have operated without license because the government does not issue licenses for these occupations. Although these kinds of jobs are fairly common, they have always technically constituted an illegal source of income.
It is too soon to know exactly how these plans will take shape, and what they will mean for the Cuban economy in the long term. But if they are carried out as they’ve been described, Cubans may begin to see the underground or realidad social of society rise to the surface and begin to interact with–and in most cases become–the realidad oficial, or that which is recognized (and authorized) by the state. Over time, this could make for a very different kind of Cuba than the one we have today.