Wed, Dec 28, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Cuba opens up retail services to citizens

NEW APPROACH:Moving retail services from state control to the private sector is one of the reforms approved earlier this year to improve the communist country’s economy

Reuters and AFP, HAVANA

A tricycle taxi driver waits for customers in front of a clothing shop in Havana, Cuba, on Monday.

Photo: EPA

Cuba will open up more of the country’s retail services to the private sector next year, allowing Cubans to operate various services such as appliance and watch repair, and locksmith and carpentry shops, official media reported on Monday.

The measures are the latest by Cuban President Raul Castro in his attempt to reinvigorate Cuba’s struggling Soviet-style economy by reducing the role of the state and encouraging more private initiative.

A resolution published in the official gazette on Monday said the new reforms would take effect on Jan. 1.

Earlier this year, the Cuban government turned over about 1,500 state barbershops and beauty parlors to employees.

Former state employees now pay a monthly fee for the shop, purchase supplies, pay taxes and charge what the market will bear.

Shortly after former Cuban president Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, all businesses in Cuba were taken over by the state. However, since the former leader handed power to his brother in 2008, the policy has been openly criticized as a mistake.

Ordinary Cubans have long complained about dismal state services, including small retail services, which they say have deteriorated because of a theft of resources and a shortage of sufficient supplies from the government.

Cuba has been moving over the last year to liberalize regulations over private economic activity. Since then, tens of thousands of Cubans have taken out licenses “to work for themselves,” a euphemism used by the government to describe operating mom-and-pop businesses.

Cuba plans to have 35 percent to 40 percent of the labor force working in the “non-state” sector by 2016, compared with 15 percent at the close of last year.

Raul Castro, faced with stagnating production and mounting foreign debt, has made clear the economy must be overhauled if the socialist system he and his ailing brother Fidel installed is to survive.

Moving most retail services to the “non-state” sector is one of more than 300 reforms approved by the ruling Communist Party of Cuba earlier this year to “update” the economy.

The measures aim to introduce market forces in the agriculture and retail services sectors, cut subsidies and lift restrictions on individual activity that once prohibited the sale and purchase of homes and cars.

Cuban Economy Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez told a year-end session of the Cuban National Assembly last week that the number of state jobs would be reduced by 170,000 next year, with 240,000 new jobs likely to be added to the “non-state” sector.

Meanwhile, protests hit prisons around Cuba on Monday as inmates irate at not being among those to be freed in a large government pardon vented frustration, some even sewing their mouths shut, a key dissident said.

Raul Castro unveiled plans on Friday to release some 3,000 prisoners in the largest mass pardon in the regime’s history. Since then, about 2,000 have been released, said the dissident, Elizardo Sanchez.

“The extremely limited scope of the pardon” sparked demonstrations at some prisons, said Sanchez, who leads the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

One of the most surprising protests took place in Boniato, in Santiago de Cuba Province, where “about 10 prisoners sewed their mouths shut and went on hunger strike,” Sanchez said.

Some smaller demonstrations were reported at other prisons including Cuba’s biggest, Combinado del Este in the capital, Havana, Sanchez said.

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