Andrea Rodríguez / AP

Andrea Rodríguez / AP

Customers enter through the back of the Mercabal wholesale market to load their merchandise, in Havana, Cuba, on Thursday, July 30, 2020. Photo: Ismael Francisco/AP.

Cuba accelerates economic reforms

Help us keep OnCuba alive It took nine years for Antonio “Tony” Baró to start his business, a restaurant where many tourists came to taste Cuban-style pork, rice and beans. But the new coronavirus forced him to close his business in March. Baró hopes to reopen next week, although for a time there will be no foreign diners and he’ll have to settle for local customers. The good news is that now he will be able to buy supplies in the island's first wholesale market, which began operating in late July. With a declining economy, no tourism, increased spending to deal with COVID-19, and pressure from U.S. sanctions, the Cuban government has started dusting off economic reforms postponed for years. The first was authorization for canteen and cafeteria owners to buy in bulk; among others, beer, flour, yeast, shrimp, sugar or oil with a 20% discount. “This initiative is very good, it still doesn’t meet expectations, but hopefully it will in the future,” Baró, 51, told The Associated Press when he went to the new wholesale market to complete the required registration procedures. He is the owner of El Portal de Calzada paladar―as restaurants are called here. The lack...

A sign saying “Closed for coronavirus COVID-19” hangs on the window of a business in Havana, Cuba, on Friday, April 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Cuban entrepreneurs hit by COVID-19

Until March, Julio Álvarez had a dozen cars in motion, classic Chevrolet and Ford from before the 1959 revolution in which tourists toured the Havana Malecón for 30 dollars an hour and took pictures. Now the cars are parked in his garage, the visitors have disappeared, and his drivers remain at home. Until the arrival of the new coronavirus, there were some 600,000 entrepreneurs in Cuba―a record number since former President Raúl Castro approved limited economic reforms in 2010― of whom at least 139,000 temporarily turned in their licenses and thousands of others closed due to the measures taken by the authorities. “We are in an impasse,” said Alvarez, co-owner of Nostalgicar, a family business that emerged nine years ago. “We had 16 contracted workers. I can’t keep them. They earned their money and are living off their savings.” Like many, Álvarez is concerned about the situation of the island’s vulnerable private sector, where small and medium enterprises still don’t have legal status and entrepreneurs made their way with difficulty after six decades of a centralized state model. These days it is common to see the “Closed” sign in cafes, bars, restaurants or home rentals and the private taxis―the classic...

Geraudis Mustelier works in his accounting business in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, January 27, 2020. Photo: AP/Ismael Francisco.

Cuban SMEs still waiting for law to regulate them

In 2006, Geraudis Mustelier was an employee of the Cuban government whose job was to support the organization and accounting of several firms. Now he has his own management business and important corporations on the island stand out among his 400 clients, but by law his business is not an enterprise. The lack of a norm that formalizes small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Cuba―inherited from Soviet statism that stigmatized the private sector―still limits the development of entrepreneurs like Mustelier. “There’s a cultural, mental resistance to change,” Mustelier said to AP. He and other colleagues operate as “self-employed,” which implies that, among other things, they cannot separate their personal finances from those of their businesses, have schemes for bankruptcies or differentiated tax systems. At the end of December, it was reported that Parliament was studying the possibility of enacting a Law on Enterprises that would regulate state and private enterprises, but there are no details about it. It would be ready by April 2022, deputies said, although officials said progress could be made in regulatory measures starting this year. Mustelier and half a dozen entrepreneurs with whom AP spoke indicated, in addition, that the norm would benefit them because...

In this photo of October 28, 2012, Cuban dancer Viengsay Valdés performs at the inauguration of the 23rd International Ballet Festival, in Havana’s National Theater. Photo: AP/Ramón Espinosa/Archive.

Viengsay Valdés, between Ballet of Cuba’s legacy and renovation

Alicia Alonso’s successor in the emblematic National Ballet of Cuba (BNC) hopes to update the institution after the death of its legendary director by introducing new choreographies, bringing teachers and supporting performances of dancers who emigrated to other companies. In an interview with The Associated Press, 43-year-old Viengsay Valdés said that Alonso's insistence on classical technique and repertoire worked for decades and increased the company's prestige, but modernizing the BNC is now imperative. Valdés is looking to incorporate new pieces and bring dancers from other countries, including those who left the cast, to help teach the huge amount of new dancers and young colleagues on the island. “Something that I defend is that the classic is the artistic technical basis for a good dancer and from there it’s possible to grow in another type of choreography,” Valdés said this Thursday. “What we have to do is enrich what we have today, develop what we have,” she added. “Without this study of the past we cannot progress and yes, we must update the company.” Valdés, one of the most recognized artists produced by the National Ballet of Cuba, in January became its artistic deputy...

Cars at a gas station in Havana, Cuba, on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Photo: Ismael Francisco / AP.

Fuel supply improves in Cuba after impact of sanctions

After a month and a half of lines at gas stations and a shortage of public transportation that led President Miguel Díaz-Canel to stop his caravan to board passengers, Cubans saw this week an improvement in fuel supply, although instability continues. The precedent of the recent energy crisis on the island was due to the sanctions imposed in April by the United States against shipping companies so that they would not bring Venezuelan oil, on which Cuba depends, as part of a series of Washington pressures to promote a political regime change model in both nations However, the population’s restlessness was contained thanks to government measures to facilitate Cubans’ transportation, President Díaz-Canel’s public handling of the situation and the fact that the South American nation’s crude oil again started getting to Cuba. “It was 11 days with the car put away without being able to work. At home without doing nothing,” 33-year-old Frank Ramírez, who supports his family working as a taxi driver, told the Associated Press (AP) agency. His vehicle―a 50-year-old Plymouth―needs about 30 liters of diesel daily to get around. Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez. This week Ramírez managed to buy fuel, but “there is still...

Daymé Arocena. Photo: Ismael Francisco/AP.

Daymé Arocena, the strong beats of Cuban jazz

Daymé Arocena's heartbeat is heard loudly. With her new album, Sonocardiogram, the Cuban singer opens a loophole to the world to show what a new generation of jazz is doing on the island, full of talent but not very visualized. The production of 12 cuts―an intro, an interlude and 10 songs―was released this Friday by the British label Brownswood Recordings, created by French-born presenter and DJ Gilles Peterson. It is her fourth album after Nueva Era (2015), One Takes (2016) and Cubafonía (2017), and like all her work it has influences of Afro-Cuban music. "It's the sincerest record I've made so far," said Arocena, 27, in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday in Havana. "It is based on personal experiences, love and lack of love in life, the spirituality of the attitudes one takes," added the composer, who is preparing for a tour that will begin in Colombia and will take her to New York, London and Paris, among other cities, until the end of the year. Surrounded by images of Afro-Cuban saints in the house of her parents Dagoberto and Angela Mercedes―Daymé’s name comes from the union their names―, with her round face and a wide smile...

Tombs decorated with the Star of David and one that lacks the image of a person, in the Jewish cemetery of Guanabacoa, east of Havana, Cuba, on June 12, 2019. Photo: Ramón Espinosa / AP.

Restoration of first Jewish cemetery in Cuba

There are still broken tombstones and marbles scattered across the floor. In some vaults, the vegetation has won a battle against the cement, but little by little the first Jewish cemetery in Cuba started being rescued and, with it, the memory of this small community on the island. "I feel a very great peace and tranquility when I visit the cemetery.... For me it's like being with my mother, my only sister and my nephew," Adela Dworin, president of the Hebrew Board of Cuba, standing next to a tomb adorned with small stones that Jewish relatives often use to pay homage to their dead, said to AP. The Star of David decorates a tomb eroded by moss in the Jewish cemetery of Guanabacoa, east of Havana, Cuba, on June 7, 2019. Photo: Ramón Espinosa / AP. Here and there you can see those rocks―an equivalent of flowers among Catholics―next to the plaques that immortalize the name of a grandfather, a father or an aunt surrounded by Stars of David and words of consolation in Yiddish. Elsewhere, a workers' brigade polishes the engravings, cements streets or frames a pantheon that was looted. "The people who came fleeing...

In this picture taken on May 13, 2015, tourists stroll in a classic convertible in Havana. Photo: Desmond Boylan / AP.

Figures show how U.S. policy damages Cuban private sector

Despite U.S. President Donald Trump's restrictions toward Cuba, hundreds of millions of dollars from citizens from that country continue flowing into the Caribbean island’s strategic tourism sector, much of it managed by the military. And contrary to what the White House affirmed was its objective - to benefit the private sector - emerging entrepreneurs such as landlords or private restaurants are among the most disadvantaged. Trump announced in mid-2017 the reestablishment of limits for his fellow countrymen to travel to Cuba in order to stifle state enterprises, including some under the control of the Armed Forces. The U.S. administration even blacklisted hotels and firms with which no financial transactions could be made. The goal expressed by the White House was to press for a change in the political model on the island and channel the money to the small businesspeople that emerged in the heat of the reforms promoted on the island by former President Raúl Castro and stimulated by the influx of tourists. But at the same time, he authorized U.S. cruise lines to make short trips to the island. Now thousands of Americans prefer to come on those cruises whose itineraries are coordinated by Cuban state travel...


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