OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Photo: Granma

The owner of seven ancient cars would not qualify as a big businessman any place on earth, but becomes "the millionaire" in a Havana neighborhood, whose stories circulate much faster than his taxis. Nor would the proprietor of a couple of hostels with 20-some rooms be described as such, or the best-established restaurateur, or the owner of a pizza delivery business with a dozen motor scooters.

So why do people question such wealth? Why does the accumulation of capital and property constantly emerge in debates? The same discussion is taking place on the baseball controversy corner, in farmers markets where prices are going up, on university campuses, and among National Assembly deputies who voted in June to approve the programmatic documents guiding the process of change which has generated these concerns.

Is wealth becoming concentrated in a few hands in Cuba? The frequency with which this concern is expressed could be, rather than evidence of an already existent level of accumulation, a symptom of ambiguity and doubts about changes regarding the ownership of property, or a sign that people are noticing conditions, at least, that could lead to such a threat.

While the emerging fear that private businesses could expand to become pernicious to the socialist model - even detrimental to development

in other countries of the region - these companies have been on the scene for several years now. The updating of Cuba's economic model opened the doors for them, but in formats and dimensions that are clearly ambiguous.

Coexisting under the legal umbrella of self-employment are businesses of very diverse financial means, economic structures, and class interests. The statistics indicating that more than half a million Cubans are self-employed include producers and sellers as modest as peanut vendors, along with owners of means of production disposed to exploiting the labor of others.

The third group, those hired by private businesses, share the category with those who pay them, but have very different interests, which can come into conflict, regardless of the fact that they are grouped together for the purpose of the count, and to some extent, within the legal framework.

The two areas in which the greatest number of self-employed are working - the preparation and sales of food (59,368), and transportation of passengers or cargo
(54,663) - together do not match the number of workers hired by business owners (132,395), according to data from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security from January of 2017. They are wage-earners just like those working in state enterprises, but are subject to very different labor laws.

The language of the day aggravates these ambiguities, since vague terms to describe individuals who own businesses are gaining ground in some media. Words like "businessman" sound bad to some.

Such "illogical euphemisms to hide reality" were criticized by Raúl during the 7th Party Congress which, in April of 2016, approved the first official documents to explicitly recognize private companies in Cuban socialism.

Imprecise limits on the amount of capital these entities can possess create doubt and lack of confidence, just like the ill-defined legal environment in which these non-state initiatives operate. Raúl himself warned the Congress that "medium, small, and micro-businesses function today without proper legal status and are governed by law within a regulatory framework designed for individuals devoted to small businesses, run by the worker and family members."

Given the lack of a corporate law that recognizes private businesses on equal footing with state enterprises and cooperatives, these economic actors have depended on minimal legal support, in a few articles within tax laws and the Labor Code - when they hire an outside workforce - and resolutions regarding self-employment.

New legislation is not enough, however, if structural imbalances persist in the economic, commercial, and monetary contexts, such as the existence of two national currencies and exchange rates, and imperfect price-setting mechanisms.

In some cases these distortions favor state enterprises - the wholesale market, foreign investment, banking services, labor protection for workers - while in others, non-state producers and service providers benefit - salary options, flexibility in managing production expenses and hiring, family remissions providing investment capital, and autonomy in dealing with clients.

The difference in wages between those working in the two environments creates social inequality that magnifies the real dimensions of the wealth being accumulated by private businesses today. The capacity of this sector to show if it will cause damage or bring good fortune, to the society as a whole, is a pending issue. Before the question can be answered, the economic scene must be reorganized and get on track, and above all in the industries that support the true development of the country, the majority run by state enterprises.