RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Starting a small business can be tough - getting financing, maybe finding the right real estate, dealing with suppliers. So imagine doing that in a communist country where the entire notion of being an entrepreneur is at odds with the prevailing political philosophy. It's a challenge our colleague David Greene saw firsthand when he was in Cuba last week.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: We came to Cuba to listen to people on the streets, to business owners, government officials and dissidence. There has been talk of change in this country for years and no doubt the society is evolving. But what has it really meant to people's lives? Impatience is growing even as people try to find their way in this murky society created by the Castro brothers and largely cut off from the United States. Now, one change that's been taking place slowly is in small business. There are more small business owners on the island than ever before - half a million, that's about a fifth of the workforce. A lot considering President Raul Castro insists he's still committed to socialism. We went to meet one. A young woman at a loud market in central Havana. Her name is Barbara Fernandez Franco, she's 28 years old and she sells baby clothing at the last stall on the left.
GREENE: You're selling jewelry, shoes, sandals, jeans, belts and she has a little area of the store for herself and a little counter where - there's her baby clothing, it's beautiful, it's pink, blue, yellow. She's standing there really proudly, everything is hung up on little hangers behind her and she looks like a proud business owner.
But there's something sad here. A section of Barbara's shelves is totally bare and roped off. She said it wasn't always like that.
BARBARA FERNANDEZ FRANCO: (Through translator) It was full of clothing and this was not divided, it was just one big stand.
GREENE: It turns out these empty shelves tell us a lot about Cuba today. Barbara brought us to her home to tell her story and to tell us what went wrong. She lives in the community hidden behind the walls along a narrow street in Havana. I just want to describe for a minute - we're standing just outside Barbara's door, I mean, this little alley, which feels really cozy. I mean, neighbors must really know each other, you've got neighbors chatting, a baby crying. I mean, is this neighborhood - sort of everyone knows each other and talks to each other?
GREENE: Barbara used to work at a medicine factory, she made $35 a month - believe it or not, that's about average for people in government jobs. When she was pregnant, she gave up her job. She had a baby girl. She relied on family for a while and then she decided to take advantage of a new opportunity. The Cuban economy was struggling and the government had begun laying off hundreds of thousands of government workers. And it was permitting more people to become independent business owners - in Spanish, cuentapropistas.
FRANCO: (Through Translator) I just decided to do this. I always liked to have my own money. And then the government said that people are going to be able to have cuenta propia because there was a high unemployment rate and that everyone could do - everyone who wanted to could do it.
GREENE: That is if the profession was approved by the government. Now, being a seamstress was allowed. Trouble was Barbara had no idea how to sew, so she interpreted the category broadly. Instead of making clothing, she sold it, baby outfits that were made by her friend. She rented the stall at the market and she noticed something - other vendors were selling watches and records from other countries, and so she followed their lead. The kind of decision any resourceful business owner would make.
FRANCO: (Through Translator) She would buy jeans for women, jeans for men, panties, bras.
GREENE: Where would you buy them?
FRANCO: (Spanish spoken) - Peru, Ecuador, Mexico y Republica Dominicana.
GREENE: OK, this sounds like a good system. You're making some money.
FRANCO: (Through Translator) Yes, this worked very well.
GREENE: Really well. All those shelves were full. She was making $3,000 some months, almost 100 times her old government wage. But then something happened, she was reminded of where she lives.
FRANCO: (Through Translator) They put it in the official gazette and in the newspaper and it said starting on - December 31 is the last day to sell imported clothing, it cannot happen.
GREENE: Just like that the government banned the sale of imported clothes. She and thousands of other vendors doing the same thing were competing against state-run stores, and so the government shut them down. Some vendors have kept selling underground, but Barbara decided to play by the rules. This time she taught herself to sew. She makes baby clothing and mosquito nets in her living room. She's even hired two employees and pays them for each piece of clothing they make. Barbara is not making anywhere close to the money she was making before.
And so are you making a profit right now after paying your employees for what they make, paying the government in taxes, license fees?
FRANCO: (Through Translator) Very little, but I always make something. It's more than nothing.
GREENE: Just when Barbara was finding success, she was pulled back. Still, she sees the opportunities for cuentapropistas as a sign of progress in Cuba. But when her boyfriend of nine years came home, we heard a different story. He's got this enviable name.
MICHEL PEREZ CASANOVA: Michel Perez Casanova, that's my full name.
GREENE: Michel works as a promoter, he bring tourists to restaurants and hotels and collects commissions each time. This used to be illegal.
CASANOVA: Sometimes the cops - the policeman - they catch me and put me in the station because it was not official to talk with tourists. Nowadays it's a little more freedom, no?
GREENE: It is more free, he's actually doing this work as a legal cuentapropista now. But he says every time tourists come and ask about Cuba going through these big changes, he feels like they've got the wrong narrative.
CASANOVA: Tourists say that this country is growing up now and it's going to get better and better. We've been waiting and waiting. I don't know, I have many friends out of Cuba in the United States, in England, other countries, they say over there you have to work very hard but you can see the results. So I want to see the results here.
GREENE: And if he doesn't, Michel says he might try life in another country, which makes you wonder if Cuba is in a race against time. Will motivated and talented people like Barbara and Michel feel satisfied enough to stay and be part of future here or will they join so many other Cubans who have left?
MONTAGNE: That's our own David Greene who's just back from Cuba. We'll be hearing his stories each morning this week.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.