A handful of entrepreneurs have quietly formed communist Cuba's first private small business association, testing the government's willingness to allow Cubans to organize outside the strict bounds of state control. More than a half million Cubans officially work in the private sector, with tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more working off the books. Cuba's legal system and centrally planned state economy have changed little since the Cold War, however, and private business people are officially recognized only as "self-employed," a status with few legal protections and no access to wholesale goods or the ability to import and export.
The government is expected to take an incremental step toward changing that Thursday when Cuba's National Assembly approves a series of documents updating the country's economic reform plan and laying out long-term goals through 2030. Those goals include the first official recognition of private enterprise and small- and medium-size businesses, although it could be years before any actual changes are felt on the ground in the country.
The Havana-based Association of Businessmen is trying to move ahead faster, organizing dozens of entrepreneurs into a group that will provide help, advice, training and representation to members of the private sector. The group applied in February for government recognition. While the official deadline for a response has passed, the group has yet to receive either an OK or negative attention from authorities, leaving it in the peculiar status known in Cuba as "alegal" or a-legal, operating unmolested but vulnerable to a crackdown at any time.
"People have approached with a lot of interest but they don't want to join until we're officially approved," said Edilio Hernandez, one of the association's founders. Trained as a lawyer, Hernandez also works as a self-employed taxi driver.
"Many people really understand that entrepreneurs need a guiding light, someone who helps them," he said.
The group says roughly 90 entrepreneurs have signed up. Without legal recognition, the group is not yet charging membership fees, the organizers say. Until then, they meet occasionally in Marino's Havana home to plan their path forward, which includes legal appeals for government recognition.
The number of officially self-employed Cubans has grown by a factor of five, to 535,000 in a country of 11 million, since President Raul Castro launched limited market-based reforms in 2010. The government currently allows 200 types of private work, from language teacher to furniture maker.
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