Cuba's New Mantra: Viva Private Business Cuban President Raul Castro's economic reforms are taking on a new urgency as the island's biggest benefactor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, battles cancer and faces re-election. Havana says nearly half of Cuba's economic activity will shift to the private sector in the next several years.

Cuba's New Mantra: Viva Private Business

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

In Cuba, the state employs 85 percent of the workforce, but that's changing fast. Cuban authorities say in the next four or five years, nearly half of the country's economic activity will shift to the private sector. Those plans signal a new urgency for economic reforms.

And one reason for that, as Nick Miroff explains from Havana, is the uncertain future of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the island's biggest benefactor.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: This year's May Day parade in Havana was a little different from the Soviet processions of the past.


MIROFF: Between the drumming and the dancing girls writhing around on floats in tight-fitting tops, it was hard to hear Cuban officials exhorting workers to greater efficiency and more discipline.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The state workers duty-bound to attend the parade were making the most of it, even if there wasn't a lot to celebrate. Average salaries here remain stuck at about $20 a month, with officials saying wages can't rise until productivity increases. Still, there was a growing contingent of new Cuban workers on the march this year - self-employed entrepreneurs and private business owners like Lazaro Enciso. Carrying a banner with some of his 20 employees, he said he'd come to show support for Cuban President Raul Castro's liberalization moves.

LAZARO ENCISO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: This is a new way to create jobs for our country, said Enciso, who runs a snack bar, a clothing shop and another business selling religious items. As long as you're entrepreneurial, honest and revolutionary, he said, there's no obstacle to success here.

Cuba needs budding capitalists like Enciso to succeed. Even as Cubans marched and chanted: Long Live the Revolution, the island's biggest financial backer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was in a Havana hospital for another round of cancer treatments. Chavez provides the island with two-thirds of its oil on favorable terms, along with more than $5 billion a year in exchange for the Cuban doctors and other professionals working in Venezuela.

Now, with Chavez so ill he's prayed to Jesus to spare his life on national television, Cuban economist Pavel Vidal said it's clear the reforms must move faster.

DR. PAVEL VIDAL: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Cuba's economy is small. And from a political-economic standpoint, it's closed, with a high level of dependency on access to hard currency for growth, said Vidal. A loss of support from Venezuela would send Cuba into a recession, he said.

Vidal and others say the damage to Cuba's economy wouldn't be as severe as the sudden demise of the Soviet Union a generation ago. The island's relationship with Venezuela is more interdependent. And even if Chavez is no longer in power it might take time for their two-way trade to untangle. Still, the possibility is putting pressure on Raul Castro to broaden the reforms. Cuban entrepreneurs still can't contract directly with foreign suppliers or wholesalers. And the government only grants licenses in about 200 types of trades and businesses.


MIROFF: This Havana car wash is one example of Cuban entrepreneurs learning to diversify beyond selling snacks or renting rooms to tourists. But the driveway-size business only has space to wash and vacuum one vehicle at a time and it's always full. Hildelisa Cespedes says her family is waiting to see if local officials will let them rent out a rundown garage around the corner that is owned by the state, the kind of arrangement Cuban authorities say they're still studying.

HILDELISA CEPEDES: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: If we had a bigger place, we could have more customers and hire more workers, Cespedes said. We're ready to make the investment.

Cuba's uncertain economic outlook may find a new lifeline, even if Venezuelan support dries up. A host of foreign companies are starting to drill for oil in the deep water off Cuba's north coast. If sizeable deposits are found, the crude could take years to bring to market, but economists say Cuba's government would get access to fresh lines of credit right away.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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