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Stigma dogs businessmen going it alone in Cuba

Cuban private hairdresser Gilberto Valladares talks with the AFP in Havana, on April 13, 2016
AFP

Havana (AFP) – Anywhere else, Gilberto Valladares would pass for a small businessman with a sense of social responsibility, but in Cuba the hairdresser is stigmatized as “anti-revolutionary” because he has prospered on his own.

“Papito” Valladares, who is 46 and sports a buzz cut, worked as a barber for the communist state for 12 years before going into business for himself in 1999.

In the years since, his business has grown to the point where he now employs other Cubans in his shop in central Havana and in his spare time trains youths with hearing disabilities as stylists as part of a community program.

Despite all that Valladares is labeled a “cuentapropista,” a somewhat derogatory term that roughly translates as “on his own account.”

He is one of the many “cuentapropistas” who have emerged under the gradual economic opening ushered in by President Raul Castro starting in 2008.

Castro recognized that the economy needed to get out from under the crushing weight of the island’s Soviet-style state bureaucracy. That meant allowing Cubans to work legally for themselves in their own small businesses.

About 10 percent of the work force — or half a million Cubans — now work independently of the state. But despite the official encouragement they still meet “resistance” and people “who mark them down politically as counterrevolutionaries,” Valladares said.

“When I began, 95 percent of the hairdressers worked for the state. Today 95 percent are in the private sector,” he told AFP.     

“You can’t judge the revolution for having been paternalistic,” he said. But added, “Today I don’t think it carries the same weight because people slack off, and it bleeds the government.”

Valladares says some Cubans prefer things the way they were because “the state gave them everything and they earned a salary. Today they have to pay for electricity, water, they have to paint, fix things, and buy their products.”

“Some get ahead as entrepreneurs and others complain that they have to work more,” he said.

“In the state hair salons all the co-workers would say, ‘If this were mine, I would paint it, I would fix it up,’” he recalls.

– ‘Soul of an entrepreneur’ –

But when the state rented the hair salons to the independent stylists, Valladares said, many discovered that they lacked “the soul of an entrepreneur.”

Valladares said resistance to change was to be expected, adding that one of the things he strives for is not to be seen as a counterrevolutionary.

Instead of egalitarianism, Valladares likes to talk about prospering in order to reinvest in society.

He got to share his pioneering experience at a meeting with US President Barack Obama during his visit to Cuba last month, a milestone that raised hopes for the island’s emergence from more than half a century of Cold War isolation.

On Saturday, the Cuban Communist Party opens its first party congress since it gave its imprimatur to the economic opening.

Cuba watchers are not expecting the party to break much new ground at this year’s congress, but Valladares hopes it will expand the private sector’s role in the island’s economy even further.

Valladares invokes Jose Marti, Cuba’s national hero, to explain his vision of a country that is prosperous without emulating US-style capitalism.

“Marti always said, ‘Be prosperous to be good.’ I think he was referring not only to economic prosperity, but also to the individual, the human being, compensating society for that wealth.”

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