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12/06/13 - Washington Post - Cuba reforms seen as changing ideals, values

HAVANA (AP) - It's not dog-eat-dog. Not just yet.

But as more and more islanders go into business for themselves under
President Raul Castro's economic reforms, the ethos of capitalism is
increasingly seeping into Cuban daily life, often in stark conflict with
fundamental tenets of the Cuban Revolution.

These days it seems there's a mom-and-pop snack shop or pirate DVD stand on
every other block in parts of Havana. The chants of cart-pushing vendors
echo through residential streets. Farmers line up before dawn at an
open-air market to jockey for the best spot to sell their produce. After
decades of being urged to report any black market activity in their
neighborhoods, some Cubans now find themselves looking at their neighbors'
legal businesses and worrying that they're falling behind.

The free market is still limited in Cuba, but already it is altering lives
and reshaping attitudes in palpable ways. Some fear - and others hope -
that values anathema to a half-century of Communist rule are taking root
more with each passing day: It's OK to make money, within limits; workers
can reap the benefits of their own labor directly, instead of seeing it
redistributed; individual enterprise is rewarded.

"There have been changes, and as the country grows there will be more,"
said Luis Antonio Veliz, proprietor of the stylish, independent
cabaret-nightclub Fashion Bar Habana. "It's a very positive thing, but some
Cubans are having difficulty understanding that now not everything depends
on the state."

While many new entrepreneurs have failed, undone by a lack of supplies, a
limited customer base and scarce resources, many of those who have
succeeded have entered a glamorous world that disappeared after Fidel
Castro's arrival in Havana put an end to the freewheeling 1950s.

It's on display at Fashion Bar Habana, where Veliz has draped the walls in
luscious silver and gold brocade. He's done well enough that he recently
was able to relocate his business to prime real estate in the colonial
quarter that draws well-heeled tourists.

But with success, came sacrifice. Veliz realized he had to be on-call 24
hours a day to solve problems, an unthinkable notion when he was a
state-employed restaurant worker. He skipped vacations, and sometimes went
days without seeing his family.

"When you work for yourself, you have to look out for your own interests,"
Veliz said. "I've become harder, tougher, more confident."

The law of the marketplace visibly dominates places like Old Havana's Egido
Street, which teems with horn-blowing, smoke-belching cars and independent
pedicab drivers calling out to potential fares.

Dozens of entrepreneurs have moved in to take advantage of the foot traffic
around a farmer's market. They include 13 flower shops and at least seven
modest luncheonettes that all offer more or less the same ham and cheese
sandwiches for about 20 cents apiece. Sometimes street vendors park their
carts here, ramping up the competition further.

Yeska Estiu, a 44-year-old florist, recalled the dilemma she faced when
stores ran out of the green spray paint they use to spruce up the accent
ferns in their arrangements. In an inspired moment she hit on switching to
white paint - giving her bouquets a snowy touch that was a big hit with
clients.

Within a few days, the others had copied the technique.

"Here, sales are based on quality, on innovation," said Estiu, who also
tries to stand out from her neighbors by swathing her bouquets in brightly
colored paper and ribbons brought from overseas by her husband. "We are all
competing to have a better product."

The new business ethos comes with risks, some Cubans say. Gilberto
Valladares, better known as "Papito," worries that competition and
self-interest will eat away at revolutionary values such as solidarity,
unity and nationalist pride.

Valladares is the founder of the private Artecorte hair studio, which
resembles an opulent European salon for its mosaic floors, high ceilings,
intricate plaster molding and romantic candelabras.

He's on a mission to convince fellow entrepreneurs that they have a moral
duty to give back to the community. In recent years he has used his
Artecorte salon to bankroll a neighborhood revival project, opening up an
adjacent barbers' school, repainting shabby walls and installing plants and
street lights.

"I want people to understand that not only should there be economic
benefit, but they can contribute to the social benefit," said Valladares,
44.

For three decades after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, the Cuban
experiment more or less worked, helped along by generous subsidies and
trade from the Soviet bloc. The goal was to rebuild society in line with
Ernesto "Che" Guevara's concept of the "new man": honest, obedient citizens
who selflessly hold the needs of society above their own.

In return the government guaranteed every last islander a job, a home,
enough food to eat, even paid for honeymoons and birthday cake for their
children. Low salaries were offset by free health care and education, and
other benefits like subsidized appliances.

But the socialist contract began to fray in the 1990s after the collapse of
the Eastern Bloc sapped billions of dollars from the island's economy, made
worse by the U.S. trade embargo. Amid empty store shelves and chronic fuel
shortages, necessity forced Cubans to look out for their families and
themselves first.

Rooftop vegetable gardens sprang up everywhere. State television carried
programming demonstrating how to cook up grapefruit rind as a meat
substitute. Black marketeers sprang up offering all manner of services and
goods, much of it pilfered from state businesses.

Meanwhile tourists began arriving in droves as the state looked anywhere it
could for foreign revenue. They brought with them material goods rarely
seen in what had largely been an isolated society, as well as a dark side
in the form of hustling and prostitution fed by desperation for hard
currency.

Armando Changuaceda, a Cuban political scientist at Veracruzana University
in Mexico, said today's shifting attitudes are merely continuing an erosion
of values that began long ago.

"There are probably certain changes in the way of seeing things" due to the
reforms, he said. "But you can also see it another way, that society had
already changed but its policies had not. ... The reforms increase
inequalities in a society that was already more unequal than in the decades
from the '60s to the '80s."

The "Special Period" of austerity cemented in the Cuban identity islanders'
famed knack for finding a way to make do: Bartering pilfered flower for
equally pilfered eggs, for example, or keeping a 1950s Cadillac on the road
by swapping in a Russian Lada engine.

If the ingenuity and individualism of the 1990s was about getting by, for
many it's now about getting ahead.

Many islanders are using newfound income to build second stories and other
additions to their crowded houses. Even the very concept of the family home
has been turned on its head by a measure legalizing real estate sales.

Better-off Cubans wear the latest designs brought in from Miami, Ecuador or
Panama. Six years ago, cell phones were closely restricted and there were
only 330,000 of them for a country of 11 million. Today there are 1.8
million mobiles, according to government statistics.

Marketing-minded entrepreneurs are aggressively targeting this sector, with
some blasting out text-message ads for everything from beauty parlor
openings to Friday night two-for-one drink specials.

Some displays of wealth do cause eyes to roll, such as a thriving new bar
circuit catering to young, fashionable Cubans. Last month, costumed
20-somethings packed an air-conditioned basement club for Halloween - a
holiday that for more than a half-century has been observed by practically
nobody in a country where many aspects of American culture were branded as
imperialism.

Officials have repeatedly said state guarantees of free education, health
care and other things are sacrosanct, and the reforms aim to perfect
socialism, not embrace capitalism.

But the economic changes are bound to bring changes to the social fabric,
and some Cubans who aren't in business sense that the reforms may be
passing them by, particularly retirees living on pensions of around $10 a
month.

Back at Egido Street, Manuela Pena, 73, who has lived alone for 20 years in
her drab home with peeling gray paint and rickety chairs, complained that
prices are soaring. After hearing decades of Marxist preaching that all
Cubans should share the same fate, she's falling behind.

And all that bustle outside her front door? As far as Pena's concerned, all
it's done is fill the neighborhood with noise and litter. 

"The country is going from bad to worse," She said.

But steps away, workers at an independent restaurant have enthusiastically
painted the walls green and white and installed a shiny glass cabinet full
of sandwiches and bread spread with sweet guava paste. They talk excitedly
about determining their own fate through hard work.

"This works better for us than before," said Raidel Sanchez, 49. 


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