Cubans welcome softer laws on business and art

Cuban entrepreneurs and artists

HAVANA, Dec. 12th (AP) Cuban entrepreneurs and artists are welcoming a series of government decisions to soften laws that they said would have sharply limited private enterprise and artistic expression.

The partial rollbacks announced last week may provide important clues to the governing style of President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first person from outside the Castro family to hold the country’s top position since its 1959 revolution.

The new laws were announced in July, three months after Diaz-Canel took office, and generated bitter complaints from entrepreneurs and artists. The measures included limits on the number of business licenses per household and barred more than 50 seats at private restaurants. They also granted a corps of cultural “inspectors” the power to immediately close any art exhibition or performance found to violate the country’s socialist revolutionary values.

Last Tuesday, the country’s vice minister of culture said the art regulation would be delayed, and the inspectors’ power would be limited to making recommendations to higher-ranking cultural officials. In addition, they will not be able to inspect any studio or home that is not open to the public.

The next day, the government eliminated the limits on tables and business licenses, along with new taxes and financial requirements for entrepreneurs.

“It’s nice they realized that the rules were badly done,” said Niuris Higueras, owner of one of Havana’s best-known private restaurants, Atelier, which would have had to limit its number of tables under the original law. “These new regulations were a step backward, a big mistake.”

Communist Party leader Raul Castro expanded the country’s private sector after assuming the presidency in 2008, and businesses serving tourists in particular boomed after the declaration of detente with the U.S. in 2014. That boom enriched a small but attention-getting upper-middle class in a supposedly egalitarian socialist society, and led to a government crackdown that included the freezing of licenses and the tougher new rules.

But Cuba is facing another year of cash shortages and stagnant growth — unlikely to be much above 1 percent this year, the third in a row of zero to low growth.

“Rationality and common sense imposed themselves. If they had followed the path they were on, they were going to create tensions and have a negative economic impact,” said Carlos Alzugaray, an ex-diplomat and political analyst.

The new controls provoked private and public complaints from entrepreneurs and artists, an influential group in a country that prides itself on a system of state arts school that have produced hundreds of world-class musicians and painters.

“Today’s Cuba is telling us that continuity isn’t synonymous with senselessness, that firmness and flexibility can be twins,” said Silvio Rodriguez, the trova singer who runs a blog that publishes commentary on Cuban current affairs.

Diaz-Canel himself cast the reversals as examples of flexibility, not government fragility, saying on Twitter last week that, “There’s no reason to believe that corrections are setbacks or confuse them with weakness when one listens to the people.”

Strict new rules on private taxi services remained unaltered, and they have led to reductions in availability of transportation in many areas.

Still, for some analysts, the changes in art and business regulations were a sign that Diaz-Canel, a 58-year-old engineer, is being forced to listen to the people in a way that his predecessors, the founders of communist Cuba, never had to.

“He doesn’t have the same historical legitimacy as Raul or Fidel, or the same ultra-concentrated power, and the people know it,” said Ted Henken, a City University of New York professor who studies Cuban entrepreneurs.

Cuba remains a single-party autocracy whose leaders generally receive more than 90 percent of votes, which are simple “yes” or “no” decisions for candidates pre-selected by the government.

Harold Cardenas, a professor of Marxism and blogger, said he saw the recent changes as positive signs that the government is taking public opinion into consideration.

“With national leadership that is showing itself to be receptive to dialogue with civil society, the participation of various sectors of society is more important than ever,” he said.