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HAVANA, Mar 22 2011 (IPS) - Havana is being reborn. I can’t be sure whether this is taking the best form possible. The first elements of the “updating of the Cuban economic model” have been made official. At the meeting of the Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in mid- April, this model will be given a definitive form and plans. The effects of the new policy have begun to be felt in an accelerated fashion on the face of a city that for the last fifty years seems to have been stuck in time (and even slid backwards with intensifying deterioration).

Thus far the most striking and visible opening in the country is the revival of self-employment, with a broadening of the allowed categories and activities (nothing spectacular- it has been concentrated in lower-level jobs and small businesses rather than professions). To spur the expansion in this direction, a significant number of new licences have been issued, although at the same time the government has imposed heavy taxes on these forms of work, which raises doubts about whether many people will be able comply.

This newly-approved form of self-employment, long prohibited and even stigmatised, fulfils various purposes, from absorbing a part of those government employees who will be newly “available”, to use the Cuban euphemism for laid off. It is calculated that more than a million people will fall into this category by the time the process is completed, though it seems to have slowed already as it has become evident that the Cuban economy and society simply cannot generate enough jobs for the number of people who need them.

At the same time, the self-employment initiative is part of an effort to give a gentle but necessary push from below towards the decentralisation of the economic structures of a model in which, until today, the presence of the state was essentially divine: it was felt everywhere, though not always in a visible or tangible manner. In the labour market, of course, the government’s presence was absolute and hegemonic, though since the crisis of the 1990s it suffered substantial desertions as state salaries were too low to cover the basic expenses of the average employee and many people of working age simply preferred to turn to what Cubans call “invention”, meaning anything you can do to get by.

Among the forms of “new business” that Cubans have resorted to after the recent changes in the law, two stand out: food services and the sale throughout the city of farm products. The avalanche of new cafes, small restaurants, and street vendors (which require little or no up-front investment) has introduced an environment of creativity and movement that is giving the city the feel of a country fair in which people are selling anything they can however they can. The hundreds of cafes cropping up on corners, in doorways, or out in the country (which may make you wonder whether there are enough possible clients to keep them afloat in a country where most people barely make enough money to survive) have little or no sophistication and in most of them you eat or drink standing on the sidewalk, which conveys a sense of poverty and transience.

Meanwhile, those selling farm products have set up shop in places that are even more shoddy and badly put together. Some simply sell their wares in the wooden crates they were shipped in. Without a hint of sophistication, convinced that demand will far exceed supply, and with no effort at attracting customers with quality, presentation, or good prices, these little operations are reviving in Havana less a look of poverty or improvisation than a backwards rural feeling that the city left behind decades ago.

Another form of employment that has sprung up with official approval is selling music CDs and television and film DVDs pirated in the most imaginative ways. This business, though it springs from an illegal activity, has flourished in Havana since the state endorsed it and now taxes the proceeds. Thus on rough boards set up in alleys and doorways you can buy the latest releases of American movies and recordings of mega stars at prices that draw foreign tourists as well.

The search for individual solutions in these small businesses and the absence of regulation of their look or location has given Havana the feel of a bustling country fair, uncontrolled and unlimited, of a city where the urban and the rural mix with improvisation and novelty, and where ugliness and the feeling of poverty have come to define it. In the end, Havana is changing because it has to change, and one of the costs of this is yet a further loss of its already diminished beauty. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

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