HAVANA (AP) — Opening a small business is a bureaucratic headache in many parts of the world. In Cuba, it's an adventure in largely unknown territory.
Most sorts of private businesses have been banned for more than 50 years, even if hundreds of thousands of Cubans in recent years have taken advantage of reforms that opened up cracks for small private enterprise in the once-solid wall of the state-dominated socialist economy.
Now, after five years of waiting, a new legal system takes effect Monday that could greatly expand the scope of private businesses, and give them greater legal certainty in efforts to help an economy in crisis.
Cautious or enthusiastic, business executives are concerned about an inefficient credit system, the requirement to have U.S. dollars the state itself does not sell and limitations on hiring professional services.
"Knowing that I can have a company, a business in Cuba, in my country, invest, take risks in the markets and that this is supported by law is peace of mind for me," said Carlos Gmez, the 35-year-old owner of the audiovisual production company Wajiros Films.
The company has made at least 35 films since its opening in 2017, short, long and international co-productions, all under the label of "artistic creation collective" but without a legal status. That carries negative consequences such as the impossibility of having bank accounts, the lack of distinction between business and family assets, and the impossibility of importing equipment.
At the end of August, Cuban authorities published in the Official Gazette about 20 norms that allow and regulate small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which were eliminated in 1968 in a revolutionary offensive against the last vestiges of private property.
At that time, warehouses, bars or repair shops were closed or absorbed by the state, which struggled to manage those businesses efficiently.
But the government legalized a tightly limited — but legal — form of self-employment in the early 1990s to cope with the crisis caused by the collapse of Soviet aid. It taxed and squeezed, but never eliminated the sector.
Cuban leaders had always been uneasy with private economic activity, previously describing it as an evil that was necessary to provide jobs and services the state could not during hard times.
The government had also complained about inequality associated with self-employment, since a private worker could earn much more than a state worker.
But as of 2010, former President Ral Castro recognized the lack of productivity and slightly opened the economy to individual initiative. Some businesses ended up having more than 50 employees despite the fact that they were officially "self-employed."
In 2019, before the pandemic and the effects of the US sanctions that suffocated the economy, there were about 600,000 "self-employed" workers, most of them linked to the tourism market.
"One was tied to a 'self-employment' license that had many limitations. With the legalization (of SMEs), new possibilities and perspectives are opened. Among these is the recognition of several partners in a business and legal status," said Lauren Fajardo, designer and co-owner of Dador, a clothing workshop created by her and two friends that employed about 10 people.
Like hundreds of other initiatives, the business has been paralyzed by the pandemic.
The new regulations establish SMEs — a mandatory status for companies with more than three workers — will be established as "limited liability" companies that must be approved by the Ministry of the Economy.