Free-market reforms take hold in Cuban countryside

November 7, 2011 • Business

In this Sept. 30, 2011 photo, vinyl records and the score for the song “Esto es melao,” written by Cuban singer Benny More, sit on display at a museum dedicated to More in Santa Isabel de Las Lajas, Cienfuegos province, Cuba. The town is the birthplace of legendary Cuban singer Benny More who immortalized it in the 1955 song “Lajas, Mi Rincon Querido” (“Lajas, My Beloved Place”). But it has experienced trying days since then, including the dismantling of one of its giant sugar refineries in 2002 and the temporary closure of another since then. Cuba, once famed for its lucrative sugar trade, has seen production plummet, with 2010’s harvest the worst in 105 years. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

SANTA ISABEL DE LAS LAJAS, Cuba (AP) — On sleepy streets plied by rickety horse-drawn carts and rusting 1950s automobiles, the sounds of commerce are once again being heard in Cuba’s countryside.

A private sandwich shop has opened in a town previously served only by a grim state-run cafeteria. A woman sells trinkets from a small spot of shade. A weathered farmer in dusty jeans has rigged up an ancient ice cream machine and is selling cones for 8 cents a pop.

Out of sight of Cuba’s dollar-spending tourists, in areas where money from overseas relatives trickles in only sporadically, dusty towns like this one slowly are being revitalized by a series of private enterprise initiatives ushered in by President Raul Castro.

Visits to more than a dozen towns in the central provinces of Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus found private businesses popping up on every main street, places hard hit by the decline of Cuba’s sugar industry and the general economic malaise that has settled over the country after more than half a century of Socialist rule.

Even in one-street hamlets like Yaguaramas, small businesses are buzzing while many residents, and most canines and livestock, lounge sleepily in the broiling midday sun.

The government says about 338,000 Cubans across the island now have licenses to operate private businesses, including more than 4,500 in Cienfuegos and 14,000 in Sancti Spiritus. While the number has not changed significantly since April, it is still more than three times the government’s goal for the year. The businesses are the result of Castro’s plan to inject a measure of capitalism into Cuba’s flatlining Marxist economy.

The new businesses are exceedingly modest. The income generated is nowhere Login to read more

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