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Another step toward capitalism in Cuba

September 21, 2010 | 11:44 am

Prepping sandwiches cuba ap

Cuba's plan to lay off half a million state workers is another bid to save its economy through gradual but strictly controlled reforms that lean toward, if not fully embrace, capitalism, Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times.

Since it lost its chief patron when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the tiny Communist nation has struggled to sustain itself in a globalizing market economy. Recent help from Venezuela, the Cuban revolution's foremost cheerleader in Latin America, "can't last forever," Wilkinson writes.

Under the new plan, unproductive or overpaid state workers will be let go and allowed to enter into small mom-and-pop-style businesses. Lack of expertise and resources stirs doubt about how successful the plan might be, but a similar program for taxi drivers suggests that there's money to be had for the average Cuban.

Private taxi drivers make 33 times more than state-employed taxi drivers.

Wilkinson writes: "The list of approved businesses includes upholstery; repair of dolls, toys and umbrellas; animal shodding; music teaching; sales of flowers, herbal medicines and brushes; and manicures and eyebrow waxing."

And then there's the Castro quotient. In recent interviews with foreign journalists, Fidel Castro, the regime's looming former leader, has praised Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, and said Cuba's socialist economic model "doesn't even work for us anymore." He later backtracked on the comments.

Castro and his brother, Raul, who is now Cuba's president, have attempted to make it clear that they are not abandoning the revolution, or at least their grip on power. Since July, the government has released 36 political prisoners -- but booted most of them to Spain. The intelligence firm Stratfor reports that when Fidel Castro delivered a speech to students at the University of Havana earlier this month, which he used to backtrack on the economic-model statement, the aging former leader wore green military fatigues for the first time in four years. 

So far, Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, has offered to help Cuba with its layoffs and small-business development plans. On Monday, a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives said he is not giving up on seeking legislation that would relax travel and trade bans between Cuba and the United States.

The Times editorial board backs relaxing the bans, and so does the White House. In a 2009 story from the island, Wilkinson reported that "Havana is crawling with Americans these days."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Workers prepare Cuban sandwiches at a snack bar in Havana. Credit: Associated Press