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For US, renascent private sector in Cuba is crucial

President Obama during his earlier visit to Cuba


Havana / DPA

Tourists from the United States love it in the restaurant with Soviet-style decor in Havana. They even enjoy it when the lights go off, as is frequent in Cuba because of power cuts.
The manager of Nazdarovie said that visitors are amused when they have to dine by candlelight in the Russian restaurant with Soviet motifs he runs in Havana.
“They’re in a blackout and they’re happy,” says Luis Augusto Diago, 28, wonderingly. It’s symbolic of today’s Cuba too.
Since President Raul Castro began opening up the economy to the private sector when he became the nation’s leader in 2008, Cuba has seen a rush of small businesses spring up. Restaurants and shops are thriving, even though they face infrastructure issues.
More and more US visitors are travelling to Cuba following the warming up of relations between Havana and Washington that began late last year after decades of hostilities.
Under an embargo imposed by Washington since the early 1960s remains, US tourists always found a way to make it to Cuba, even though it meant travelling to a third country to avoid being punished by their
Nowadays, tourists are being given far more opportunities to plan a trip to the “forbidden island.”
Earlier this year, shortly before his own historic state visit to Cuba with his family, US President Barack Obama relaxed travel restrictions even more. In addition to being allowed to travel to the island for family reasons or cultural exchanges, US citizens can now travel individually and not only in groups.
The measure, part of the so-called “people-to-people” effort, involves visiting with Cuban people to talk about life in the United States and life in Cuba.
In an interview, Obama explained that he was seeking through dialogue and by opening up to encourage change in Cuba, something that Washington was not able to bring about with a tough approach and isolationism over half a century.
He said in Spanish that to the degree that more US companies are investing in Cuba, more people will travel there, and more Cuban-Americans will be able to interact with their relatives, including some they may not have seen in decades, and this would make it more probable that the kind of hoped-for changes would take place.
A current “boom” of US tourism to the island would appear to confirm Obama’s remarks.
In 2015 Havana reported an increase of more than 17 percent in tourist arrivals. That increase is believed to be mostly due to US tourists, though they are not recorded as such in published Cuban statistics.
According to insightCuba, a non-profit US travel organization that has been taking Americans legally to Cuba since 2000, as cited in the Washington Post, hotels are fully booked for over a year ahead and many travel companies are block-booking hotels several years ahead.
The easing of travel restrictions “has created a 77-per-cent increase in U.S. citizens travelling to the island,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, an interest group lobbying in favour of Washington lifting the
“You can see that for yourself on the streets,” Diago, from the Nazdarovie restaurant, told dpa. Nazdarovie is on the well-known ocean walk in Havana’s central district.
“We can take having a few more (US visitors), especially those of us who are self-employed,” he said.
Travellers from the United States “have an important role supporting the incipient ‘self-employed’ community in Cuba, made up of independent workers in the tourism sector who are boarding-house owners, taxi drivers and tourist guides,” said Williams of Engage Cuba.
In addition to restaurants, small clothing shops, handicraft workshops and bicycle repair shops, are popping up in Havana.
In the countryside, where the state-run farming was the norm for decades, peasants are now farming land released for their own use.
It is those self-employed workers whom the new US policies are aimed at. Washington wants to foster exports by the Cuban private sector.
“Any measure that the United States might take to add to the capabilities of the Cuban people to have greater economic freedoms seems to me extremely important,” Peter Schechter, with the Washington-based Atlantic Council, a think tank.
Schechter, who said he did not believe there would be political changes in Cuba in the short term, told dpa that for that reason international efforts should focus “on trying to foster economic liberties.”
He said that the Cuban government should apply more measures to open up the private sector.
According to the latest figures, authorities have issued roughly half a million licences to so-called self-employed entrepreneurs.
Cuban authorities aim to trim down the bloated state sector.


Luis Augusto Diago, 28, behind the bar in Nazdarovie, a Havana restaurant with Soviet-style decor that is popular with US tourists. (File photo, March 14, 2016.)


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