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Cuba moves closer to market economy

  |   Dec. 29, 2011 at 5:04 PM
HAVANA, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- As seismic shifts go, Cuba's embrace of a socialist-coated market economy is going ahead in full stream as if it was the most natural thing for its authoritarian government to do in between Communist Party conferences and populist pep talkathons.

After many fits and starts, Cuba the emergent capitalist economy is about as real as its platoons of card-carrying Communist Party members. No one -- except those out of Cuba -- seems perturbed by what, at the very least, would appear to be a classic dichotomy.

Elsewhere, in Eastern Europe and in China, the economic shifts were heralded by ideological squirming and reinterpretations of communism and socialism as they existed before dissolving into thin air. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously prescribed, "Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious." It was advice millions of Chinese took to heart.

No such revisionism taints Cuban communism rhetoric yet. But President Raul Castro has got on with a phased ushering in of capitalist paraphernalia and explained it all with an occasional waving of the magic wand of pragmatism, amid warnings about the "edge of the cliff." Cubans aren't complaining.

In China, Deng expounded on Chinese duality and pragmatism, "By following the concept of 'one country, two systems,' you don't swallow me up nor I you."

Alongside practical considerations, the buzz words most bandied about in Cuba are efficiency and rationalization of costs of the state, still Cuba's biggest employer.

In the latest installment of economic reforms, the government announced it would allow more Cubans turfed out of government jobs to become entrepreneurs and operate appliance repair and services -- the bane of the old system where those routine comforts were routinely crushed under the burden of bureaucracy.

Locksmiths, carpenters and other tradesmen can now ply their trades independent of the government and become self-employed small businesses. These follow barbers, beauticians and hairdressers let loose in a largely unexplored capitalist wonderland earlier this year.

Some tethers remain. Former state employees going solo are still required to pay rent or something akin to franchise fees to the state but can buy supplies and charge what the market determines -- more or less.

It's more than 60 years since Cuba last had the retail experience, as most businesses were seized when elder brother Fidel took over in 1959. Current projections call for up to 40 percent of Cuba's labor force going private in an evolving non-state sector within five years.

As the economy transforms into something yet undefinable, the government expects a good proportion of the self-employed to become owners of cars, farmhouses and own homes. At the same time, the government hopes to keep paring down the state subsidies on food, energy and other essential goods and services.

Havana's taxi drivers are already on the lookout for growing tourist trade, as they are among the emerging multitudes of the self-employed.

An estimated 170,000 other state employees will join them next year as would-be self-employed -- or wannabe tycoons.

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