HAVANA (Reuters) - Rolando has very big plans for the little gym he runs informally out of a garage in Havana. First he wants to legalize it, then buy new equipment and - why not? - even build a sauna.
But in order to become one of the 250,000 new business owners Cuba has said it will approve, he needs start-up capital and, in a communist-led country short on financial services, that usually means turning to relatives in the United States, home to 1.5 million Cuban emigres.
“My cousin recently came from Miami and took pictures of the gym. He said I could count on him for whatever I needed. I think the time has come to call him and let him know it is time to expand the business,” he said.
Rolando says he would need about $1,000 to revamp his gym, where for the equivalent of between $5 and $15 a month he makes his clients sweat on ingenious home-made machines such as a treadmill made of metal pipes.
President Raul Castro’s recent decision to almost triple the size of Cuba’s legal private sector from the current number of 143,000 self-employed is expected to accelerate cash flows from Cubans living abroad, experts say.
His plan to stimulate Cuba’s troubled economy calls for laying off 500,000 workers from state jobs and, among other things, creating small businesses to help take up the slack.
Despite decades of enmity between Cuba’s communist leaders and U.S.-based exiles, cash remittances by Cuban Americans are already a major source of foreign income in the country. The government has for years allowed those remittances and in its current financial straits is likely to continue doing so.
A foreign businessman with years of experience in Cuba, said the country has long seen the Cuban diaspora as a “strategic reserve” for times of crisis.
At least $1.2 billion in remittances are believed to have flowed into Cuba last year, with more than half the money coming from Cubans in the United States.
“Liberalizing the economy could lead to 10 percent of Cubans receiving remittances to invest in small businesses,” said Manuel Orozco, a remittances expert at the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue.
He said 750,000 Cuban households currently receive money from abroad and, of those, 75,000 to 100,000 Cubans are likely to invest in small businesses, with an average investment of $2,500.
Capital flows from immigrants were key for modernizing other socialist economies such as Vietnam’s in the 1980s, said a Cuban economist who asked not to be named.
“We know that here it would be the same. How much money are we talking about? Well, that’s something not even a magician will be able to tell,” the economist told Reuters.
Paolo Spadoni, an expert on Cuban economic issues at Augusta State University in Georgia, said remittances will rise as Cubans abroad see that new businesses are successful.
“It is not a potential increase of remittances from the United States that will determine the success of the new Cuban model, but the other way around,” he said, adding that much will depend on how the small businesses are regulated.
“The keys for the success of these reforms are the incentives, procedures and restrictions that will apply to the development of small business.”
The small print of Raul Castro’s reforms is still largely unknown, but a leaked Communist Party document suggests the new business class will have access to credit, be allowed to rent commercial real estate and even hire workers for the first time since small businesses were nationalized in 1968.
The document also says the new businesses will pay an average 35 percent tax on their gross income, which some experts consider a difficult burden for Cuba’s still flimsy private sector.
During the financial crisis of the 1990s, Cuba enacted similar reforms, only to backtrack from them when the economy improved.
That experience has made Rolando cautious about his big dreams.
“I even have the sign for my gym ready, but I am going to wait and see if this is all for real,” he said. “Only then I will hang it on the front door.”
Editing by Jeff Franks and Kieran Murray