Cubans like to live under communism

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Warning - here comes the boring introduction you have ever read: Guillermo Portero is buying an apartment. The hairdresser Gilberto Valladares hires an apprentice. Luis Pelaez is taking a business administration course. Ernesto Lopez drives from house to house selling broccoli, herbs and tomatoes. Rachel Carvajal has opened a café.

Banal? But what if these people did all the everyday things for the first time in their lives? What if each of these little events was a revolution in itself? A revolution in one of the last communist-ruled countries?

It's nine in the morning, one of those mornings in the Caribbean when it's so hot your brain feels like fried calamari. Guillermo Portero doesn't care. He is on the verge of realizing the dream he has had all his life: an apartment of his own. The 48-year-old is standing in the garden of a four-room apartment on Calle Paseo in Havana. Portero offered just over $ 100,000 for "everything I have." If he wins the contract, he wants to use the front room as living space and convert the back room into a studio and office. "I want to design clothes and sell them."

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That would have been completely unthinkable not even a year ago. More precisely: illegally. In Cuba, apartments and houses were only allowed to be exchanged, but not to be bought or sold. According to the guidelines of the Marxist hardliners at the top of the state, property was theft. And independent retail was also banned.

But Cuba is changing. Drastically. For the first time since the glorious revolution / the communist coup * (* please delete a variant depending on your political orientation) 53 years ago, the country is flirting with capitalism. President Raúl Castro, who officially succeeded his brother Fidel in the top office in 2008, passed new laws that allow entrepreneurs to set up businesses and do business, be it cabbages or condominiums. Actualización - The communist party calls it updating. The term doesn't even begin to capture the meaning of the reforms.

Joel Begué sums it up in big words: »Sex! What happens here is as exciting as sex! ”He laughs heartily at his comparison, sweat pearls on his black mustache. Begué, 43, is a born entrepreneur. For years he served guests in state-owned restaurants in Cuba what the communists understood by food: tough, gray pork. Begué was always convinced that he could do better. When the government then issued commercial licenses to small businesses last year, he opened the “Habana Chef” restaurant in the elegant Vedado district of the capital.

Begué had so many guests in the house that he was able to repay half of the $ 25,000 he borrowed for the opening. Now he is planning a second restaurant in downtown Havana. He only has to wait with large advertising campaigns. In Cuba, the billboards are reserved for murals and posters, which are intended to remind the residents of how inhumane capitalism is, which begue indulges - and which the cabinet is now promoting.

These plaques no longer seem like a funny anachronism, more like memorials of a failed economic experiment. Everywhere you look in Havana, entrepreneurs feel their way around capitalism in small steps. In public parking lots, car dealers exchange papers and license plates for cash. On handouts on the trees along the Prado, people offer their services as park rangers or clowns for children's birthdays. It's hard to believe, but until last year it was forbidden to be a freelance clown.

And the companies? Some grow so quickly that the first conflicts arise. The English teacher Rachel Carvajal, 27, runs the popular »Café Punto G« (Café G-Punkt) in the backyard of her house near Calle G. A few months ago, a certain Armando Puentes paid her a visit, the man has one around the corner Opened cafe of the same name. Carvajal relates: “He was shouting that he had a right to the name because he lives on G street. I would now like to register the trademark, but there is still no trademark law in Cuba. But it was my idea and I'll keep the name too. After all, it's about business. ”Donald Trump couldn't have said that nicer.

Perhaps Cuba will soon produce its own Donald Trump: around 200 students are currently studying at the university how to raise capital, draw up business plans and bring goods to market. The spiritual father of the course is the 37-year-old Father Yosvany Carvajal, a Catholic priest from Havana. He explains that his church - which the communists once fought - supports the government's economic reforms: “God wants people to be successful and independent. A few years ago, an entrepreneur was considered a criminal, a criminal. Today business people are seen as patrons of society. But they have no tools. So we want to teach them how to run a business. "

Admittedly, the old Cuba still exists two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The government controls the big business: oil and mining, banking and telecommunications, medical care and tobacco growing. However, Cubans can now apply for a small, pink ID, the "Autorización Para Ejercer el Trabajo por Cuenta Propia" (permission to work on their own account). This allows them to start a business and hire people as they please.

A tradition has remained: Even the new laws that control who is allowed to open a shop where and how are miserably long, hellishly complicated - and occasionally bizarre. The beautiful and creative in Havana, for example, are now allowed to earn a living as "costumed professional dancers", but only if their costume is based on Benny Moré, a Cuban potty singer of the forties.

Shrill outfits or not, Raúl Castro's message is clear: Plan A, naked socialism, has failed. It's time for Plan B. And it also attracts guests to the country. The Briton Andrew Macdonald is marching through Havana with half a billion dollars in his pocket. He is researching investment opportunities for his Anglo-Cuban company Esencia. Esencia is restoring hotels and is currently building the first giant golf course with 900 apartments on 220 hectares in Carbonera, 100 kilometers from the gates of the capital. Thanks to the reforms, foreigners may soon be able to buy villas - for the first time since the revolution. Macdonald has brought a few famous names on board, the Aman Resorts hotel group and the designer Terence Conran. He says: »Cuba is by far the largest growth market for the tourism industry in the Caribbean. The country is one of the five most important growth markets worldwide. It takes forever and three days for something to happen here, but the potential is huge. "

The question is: why is Cuba's leadership suddenly making common cause with capitalists like Macdonald? Because Cuba doesn't work. After the fall of the Soviet Union paymaster in 1991, the country had to tighten its belt drastically. At that time, annual net subsidies of $ 2 billion collapsed, as did export revenue, which caused Cuba's economy to shrink by a third. Cubans are poorer today than they have been in years. The wage level is 50 percent of that in 1989. There is a basic state wage of $ 20 a month, but of course that's barely enough to survive. The anglers on the Malecón, Havana's promenade, do not catch their fish to pass the time. There is a lack of 1.6 million new apartments, which means that the centuries-old houses in Havana's old town are degenerating into overcrowded slums. A few months ago, four young people died there in a house collapse.

The problem is that the government sector, which controls more than 80 percent of the economy and almost all services, is chronically inefficient and completely unprofitable. Corruption and abuse of office are rampant. Agriculture doesn't work either, Cuba has to import more than half of its food. And if a banana republic no longer even produces bananas, it is clear that something has to change.

More elastic than broadband

But it is not only Cuba's internal problems that give Raúl Castro a headache. The island hangs on Venezuela's oil drip. Even under Fidel, Cuba had signed a contract with President Hugo Chavez to send 40,000 doctors, specialists from the news and security industry and other workers to Caracas. In return, Venezuela delivers oil worth around 3.5 billion dollars to Cuba - at a very reduced price. That is around 115,000 barrels a day, around two thirds of Cuban consumption. Together with other investments, Venezuela's aid amounts to five billion dollars.

But Chavez, 58 years old, is said to be still seriously ill. Now the Cuban government is very concerned that the deal could be dissolved should Chavez lose the battle with cancer. Then everything becomes even more difficult.

No wonder Raúl Castro is in a hurry. Over the next few years he wants to lay off 20 percent of government employees - a million people. The hope is that they will find a place in the new private sector while rising tax revenues fill the treasury. In addition, the cabinet wants to give farmers greater incentives to grow and sell food. Smallholders have the right to lease 66 hectares of land - instead of the previous 13 hectares; They are also allowed to bequeath the land to their children and sell their income directly to private customers and hotels.

"We have to turn things around, otherwise we won't have the time to steer past the abyss and we'll go under," explained Raúl Castro. Fidel himself recently let himself be carried away by the remark in front of an American journalist that Cuba's economic model "no longer serves any purpose even for us" (but later claimed that he had been misquoted).

Some political observers believe that the brothers' change of heart is more aimed at preserving their legacy. Raúl is 81 years old, Fidel 86 and frail. A successor is not in sight. Some say that allowing capitalism in small doses is the last attempt to breathe life into the Cuban model.

The big question is whether the Castros will succeed with it. After all these years, are the Cubans suitable for capitalism? Will the private sector work? Twice before, in the 1980s and 1990s, the cabinet had liberalized the private sector to stimulate growth. But as soon as people got a taste for it, the decisions were overturned.

Enrique Nuñez also hit it back then. The now 43-year-old had to be Havana's most famous in 2009 paladar (a kind of family restaurant) close »La Guarida«, so much the regulations at the time were bothering him. Today Nuñez is back in business. The photos of his most famous guests - Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon, Naomi Campbell - are again hanging on the ramshackle walls of his place. But Nuñez fears that the government will again raise concerns and backtrack: “Allegedly, people want us to set up a livelihood, but they hate terms like 'capitalist' or 'private sector' so much that they don't even mention them. There is only ever talk of the 'non-state economy'. "

Jorge Fonseca, on the other hand, believes in "a new era". There is no going back. For 30 years the man prepared Cuban weightlifters for international competitions for a meager state wage. Today he has reinvented himself - as Cuba's most famous personal trainer. He's been standing in a gym in Vedado since the early hours of the morning to encourage a group of clients to exercise. It's humid and warm in the hall, and you can almost cut the air with a knife. Fonseca's income has grown faster than his clients' biceps, now making nearly $ 200 a month. Instead of collecting money from the state, he pays 20 percent tax. With a smile, Fonseca explains his philosophy: “When you work on your own, you are much more careful. You try harder. The money is yours, but you also pay taxes. Everyone benefits from it. That's the only way forward. «The number of men like Fonseca in the private sector rose from less than 150,000 to 358,000 in 2011, according to the state statistics office. And there should be a lot more.

That is entirely possible, but only if Cuba develops the basic tools that every consumer society needs. The banks hardly grant any loans. There is no wholesaling that makes buying goods cheaper. "I have to buy my supplies in the supermarket at full price," complains Rachel Carvajal, the operator of the "Café Punto G". The communication technology is lousy, only one in ten Cubans has a cell phone, a much lower rate than in most other countries in the Caribbean or Latin America. And the happy 500,000 citizens who have Internet access at home or in the office are surfing at a snail's pace. Yondainer Gutierrez, a 24-year-old IT entrepreneur who has just set up AlaMesa - an online restaurant guide for Havana - scoffs at the fact that one should speak of "rubber band rather than broadband".

Not to forget the biggest hurdle: 90 miles from Havana lies the world's largest economic power. But free trade with the US is still not possible. This prevents the trade embargo imposed by the US Congress at the height of the Cold War in the hope of ushering in the overthrow of Fidel Castro. The trade ban costs Cuba billions of dollars annually. The biggest Cuban export hits - »Havana Club« rum and luxury cigars - can hardly dominate the world market if the market, which makes up 40 percent of the world, excludes them.

After all, President Barack Obama has eased the restrictions on American travelers to Cuba. There are 50 flights a week from New York, Tampa, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and soon also from Washington. Influential art dealers from the USA are now among those arriving at José Martí Airport. The prices for Cuban art have almost doubled in recent years, reports Luis Miret, 53, who runs the leading art auction house Subasta Habana.

Maybe the Cubans will become really good entrepreneurs. Perhaps Raúl Castro means what he says. Maybe the credits will flow soon. Perhaps President Obama will ease the restrictions even further when he moves into the White House for a second term. But even if everything goes well, there is still a huge problem. Cuba would like to accomplish a feat that only a few countries have managed so far: The Castros want to partially deregulate the private sector and at the same time maintain a tightly controlled state economy. Despite the latest reforms, three quarters of the economy remain in state hands. Many believe that Cuba will just update and make socialism viable again. For comparison: Former communist states like China or Vietnam, which are in excellent shape, are now almost completely organized on a market economy. Critical voices demand that the deregulation must be pushed further, otherwise Cuba would remain on an unhealthy mixture of communism without state subsidies and capitalism without capital.

So could there be a middle ground between capitalism and communism? You can get a good impression on a walk through the old town of Havana to Calle Aguiar. Halfway up on the left is a dark brown door. A cracked marble staircase leads up to the second floor to Artecorte, a hairdressing salon run by a bald man. Gilberto Valladares, 42, left his job at the Habana Libre hotel to open this shop. It makes good money, but Valladares doesn't keep everything to himself. He spends part of the pesos on educating street children. A similar concept to Jamie Oliver's “Fifteen” restaurant - only with scissors instead of kitchen knives. Valladares also supports a school, promotes artists and has opened a café. The application to open a bakery has already been submitted. And he would also like to run a pension.

Valladares considers the reforms to be »justified and necessary«, but he finds it important that the companies operate in a morally sound manner: »Life in Cuba has a lot to offer socially and culturally. We must not sacrifice that to predatory capitalism. I was in Miami. I don't want to live like that. The people there live to work. I run a prosperous business here - but I also live well. "

Translation: Stephan Klapdor
© Bulls Press / News International / Sunday Times Magazine

Photos: Mark Read