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Latin America

Cuba's private sector fearful of Trump

Despite his business background, Cuban entrepreneurs fear Trump may hurt the island's emerging private business sector.
17 Ene 2017 – 07:00 AM EST
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A few years ago Havana barber Gilberto Valladares said seeing an American in his city was a strange sight, “like seeing the Devil,” he jokes.

These days, Americans are everywhere in Cuba, pouring off cruise ships and numerous daily passenger flights at half a dozen cities across the island, thanks to President Barack Obama’s two year-old policy of engagement with Cuba.

“The secret to it is culture,” said Valladares. “The line between the two people was eliminated … That personal, human closeness between both peoples is what’s going to determine our future.”

Valladares, known to his friends as “Papito,” says the recent arrival of the Americans, combined with the loosening of all kinds of legal and business restrictions in Cuba and the United States, has helped boost a blossoming private business sector, once banned by Cuba’s Communist Party rulers.

If Donald Trump wants to see more change in Cuba after he takes office, he should continue Obama’s legacy and keep the door open to Cuba, many in the island’s private sector say.

“Obama cleared the path Any decision that goes against what’s been achieved in the last two years between Cuba and the United States will not only have a political effect, but also economic, and of course social,” said Valladares.

The success of the private sector - which now employs more than half a million Cubans - is seen by many experts as key to the country’s economic future in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro, the island’s iconic revolutionary leader.

After Castro’s death on Nov. 25 Trump warned on Twitter that he would "terminate" Obama's engagement policy “if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole.”

However, three quarters of Americans support the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, according to a December poll by the Pew Research Center.

In a letter to Trump, five former U.S. ambassadors urged him to ban U.S. companies from partnering with Cuban government entities, especially in the tourist sector. Instead of making life better for Cubans, Obama's opening "has had the effect of giving a new economic lease on life to the regime," they wrote.

While there is no public polling data in Cuba, it’s no secret on the streets what most Cubans seem to think.

“If Trump was sitting here in front of me I would tell him ‘In my house I make the rules, and in your house you make the rules.’ We’d sit down and show each other respect,” said Manuel Reina, a strapping tattoo artist with long braided hair with a studio in a run-down part of Old Havana, far off the tourist trail.

“It’s always good to get on with your neighbor,” he added. “I go to my neighbor … and I say, lend me a little coffee and my neighbor says lend me a little sugar, and between my neighbor and me we make a good cup of coffee.

Reina said his life has changed since he started his business. He served eight years in jail for stealing from his state job, and it was behind bars that he developed his tattooing skill. “What I hear in the street is less complaints. You sit down and look around, and you see things are changing. These days, we’re not just surviving, we’re living,” he said.

Designer Idania del Río, founder of Clandestina, a hip clothing store, added; “If Trump says everything has to be reversed it would be horrible. I think people don’t want to stop any of this, it’s their dream. No one wants to shut it down.”

Del Río opened her store in 2015, featuring recycled secondhand imported clothing, to take advantage of Cuba's new private sector opening. "Cuba is changing a little . The laws are changing," she said, pointing to free market reform s introduced by Cuban president Raúl Castro in recent years, such as laws allowing the sale of homes and cars, licenses for private restaurants and bed and breakfasts, as well as numerous other small businesses.

Valladares and del Río both attended a meeting between Cuban entrepreneurs and Obama in March during the president's historic visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting American president in 88 years.

Despite the official hostility of Cuba's leaders towards capitalism, Obama used the visit to stress the importance of Cuba's private sector in creating badly-needed jobs, as well as economic freedom.

"It’s about self-determination -- the opportunity to forge your own future," he told the entrepreneurs. "Cuba’s economic future -- its ability to create more jobs and a growing middle class, and meet the aspirations of the Cuban people -- depends on growth in the private sector, as well as government action," he added.

With or without U.S. pressure, Cuba may have no option but to continue opening up its economy. The island recorded negative 0.9 percent economic growth in 2016, Castro told the National Assembly earlier this month in a closed-door speech, and warned of falling oil shipments from Venezuela, Cuba's principal socialist ally.

The irony of Obama's policies potentially being friendlier to Cuba's private sector is not lost on Cubans.

Obama isn’t a businessman but he’s the one who promoted us," said Valladares. “Trump is a businessman so we hope he gets it and doesn’t interrupt things. We hope he uses his business instinct with Cuba, rather than his political instincts, because if he does the latter he will fail.”

Valladares and others warn that Cuba’s communist leaders are deeply sensitive to the island’s long history of resisting United States efforts to dominate the country politically and economically for its own interest.

If Trump tries to bully Cuba into changing its communist system, the island’s leaders are likely to dig in their heels, and relations will return to the hostility of the Cold War era, they argue.

“They have to understand that we have a different culture. The United States is more individualistic. In my society, there is no benefit to my being the only economically prosperous person on this street, or this barrio," said Valladares.

He is proud of the results, turning what was once a scruffy street in a neglected part of Old Havana into a hive of private businesses, known as the Alley of the Barbers, numbering 20 private businesses with almost 100 employees, including his salon, a hair dressing school for the blind, and his wife’s restaurant, El Figaro, across the street.

“It’s contagious. Our job is to spread the word,” he said.

In communist Cuba, that's easier said than done. Despite the reforms, some professions remain off limits, such as lawyers and doctors, and many onerous restrictions still apply. Businesses complain they are not permitted to buy wholesale or import from abroad, and must instead purchase a limited range of goods from the state.

Building a business in Cuba is not easy. "This is all new. We are like children learning to walk. We are way behind where we should be,” said Arian Gonzalez, who manages a café and children’s amusement area at a private shopping complex, 25th Boulevard, in Havana’s Vedado district.

"It’s been very difficult,” agreed del Río. “Here in Cuba people dance from the day they are born, they understand music, they live it and feel it practically as soon as they open their eyes. But this culture of starting a business, opening a store, doesn’t exist," she said.

"Now you can see people are beginning to understand and are getting better at it. After all, it's not like it's rocket science," she said.

When Obama gave del Río a shout out during his speech in March she was stunned. "Oh, boy!" she recalled. "I was super nervous just being there."

Later at the event she had a chance to speak to Obama. "I honestly don't recall a word he said. I was blown away," she confessed.

She too takes great pride is what she has achieved, against the odds. “Our Cuban products may not be the best quality in the world, the best finished, but they have something, a bit of our soul. I wear them with pride.”

When Trump decides on his Cuba policy del Río hopes he understands what Cubans have been through to get to this point.

"There are a lot of very well trained people here. Until now, they didn't have the opportunity. Now it's here, and they're seizing it," she said.