WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
14 Mar 2016 | Commentary

Factsheet: Reforms in 21st Century Cuba

Over the past few years, the Cuban government has initiated a gradual but important process of reform. This includes economic changes that are moving a significant portion of the population out of the public sector and towards private employment. At the same time, Cuba has made a number of modest social and political reforms, including loosening restrictions on travel abroad, releasing political prisoners, and allowing religious and civil society groups to carry out previously prohibited activities.

Below is detailed list of some of the many ways in which Cuba today is home to a changing society.  While some of these may not seem dramatic to those outside the country, they are highly significant to those living in Cuba. In fact, the island is currently witnessing the most ambitious expansion of the boundaries of economic activity and political liberty in decades.

Non-State Employment and the Shift toward a Mixed Economy

  • In 2011 the government approved plans to reduce the state sector. At the outset the Cuban government claimed it was interested in trimming state payrolls by one million jobs, or more. In fact,  payrolls have been reduced by almost 600,000 since 2009. At the same time, self-employment, small-scale and cooperative farming, and non-agricultural cooperatives have grown.
  • The number of jobs that can be held by self-employed individuals has increased by more than 330 percent since 2008. Roughly 500,000 Cubans were self-employed as of December 2015, and accounted for 11 percent of the workforce. In 2009, by contrast, there were only 148,000 self-employed workers on the island.
  • While most of the self-employed sector is made up of individuals providing services, the self-employed are allowed to hire others to work for them, and some restaurants, workshops, and service providers have become small businesses, with owners and employees. About 115,000 people are reportedly working for others in the private sector.
  • Most farmland in Cuba is now held by agricultural cooperatives or private farmers, instead of bureaucratic state-owned operations. Over 167,000 land grants, mostly to individuals, have provided long-term, rent free leases of unused farmland to private farmers.
  • Between self-employed individuals, agricultural cooperatives, contractors, small farmers, and non-farm cooperatives, the country’s growing non-state sector is fueled by a workforce of nearly two million people. This accounts for well over a third of Cuba’s entire workforce.
  • Cuba is also gradually expanding its non-agricultural cooperatives. There are over 360 non-farm cooperatives today, involved in manufacturing, construction, food services, and the commercial sector.  The government has also announced plans to convert all of the country’s 8,984 state-owned restaurants into worker-owned, cooperatively managed businesses.

 Private Markets

  • Cuba legalized the private sale of cars and homes in late 2011, and also authorized banks to provide small loans for home repairs.
  • While Cubans could previously own their homes, this reform allowed homeowners to sell their property and rent out rooms on a private real estate market for the first time. Cubans have embraced this reform. Since the lodging service Airbnb began operating there, over 2,000 rentals throughout the country have become available on the platform.
  • In Havana and other major cities, a simple walk down the street shows that the country is currently witnessing a boom in home repairs. Often motivated by the prospect of selling their home, or of renting out rooms, an increasing number of homeowners are fixing up and remodeling properties. This has contributed to an increase in the demand for construction services, one of the most visible industries where non-farm cooperatives are emerging.

Foreign Investment

  • Cuba approved a new foreign investment law in 2014, offering steep tax cuts and promising a secure climate for international investors. Interest in Cuba is high among U.S. and foreign investors, who are increasingly looking at mid- and long-term prospects on the island.
  • Cuba opened a new deep water container port and special development zone in the city of Mariel in 2014, which has attracted even further attention from major companies. Corporations like Unilever have announced plans to open factories in Mariel, which will create new job opportunities for Cubans. The first U.S. company to invest in Cuba, Cleber LLC will open a plant in the Mariel trade zone next year.

Travel Abroad

  • In January 2013, Cuba eliminated its “exit visa” requirement, allowing citizens to leave the country without advance approval. In the first year following this announcement, travel abroad by Cubans increased by 35 percent.
  • The end of exit visas has allowed high-profile dissidents to travel abroad freely and return to Cuba. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez has visited the United States and Europe, and Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White, has visited Miami and Washington and testified before Congress.
  • Also in 2013, Cuba extended the period in which citizens can live abroad without forfeiting their Cuban residency. This allows thousands of Cubans to work abroad, making only brief visits home every two years in order to maintain the right to return any time they wish.

Political Relaxation

  • Human rights concerns persist, particularly over the issue of arbitrary short-term detentions of regime opponents planning meetings or demonstrations.  But Cuba has freed most political prisoners in recent years.  The government released 53 imprisoned dissident as a result of negotiations with the United States in early 2015, and in October authorities freed graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, who was identified in press accounts as the last “prisoner of conscience” in Cuba.
  • Recent years have seen major gains in freedom of worship on the island, and religious groups of all denominations are seeing important revivals.
  • In late 2013, the Cuban National Assembly banned workplace discrimination against gay men, lesbians, and bisexual individuals, as part of a new labor code.
  • Political debate has expanded significantly in Cuba, both in social media and in official media, where letters and readers’ comments increasingly reflect criticisms of official positions.  As New York Times editor Ernesto Londoño has noted, the boundaries of individual liberty in Cuba have expanded since the United States started normalizing relations with Havana, and Cubans have started to “debate once-taboo subjects and criticize their government more boldly.”  The Cuban blogosphere has expanded, and independent news, information, and entertainment is circulated widely through the “paquete semanal,” a weekly offering available via flashdrive and shared with thousands of Cubans.

Telecommunications and Internet Access

  • In 2008 Cuba legalized access to personal cell phone and text messaging services.  By 2014 there were 3 million cell phone users on the island, which amounts to 20 percent of the population.
  • Cubans can also access email on their phones; in 2014, about 100,000 Cubans had signed up for the service.
  • A growing number of Cubans are accessing the internet on public computers and in internet cafes. Cuba now has 63 wifi hotspots, where citizens can connect through mobile devices. There are plans to expand this number to 80 by the end of 2016. The cost of internet access remains prohibitively high for many, but a rate cut to two dollars per hour was recently announced.
  • Cuba has announced that it will attempt to provide half of its households with internet by 2020, a 900 percent increase in internet access over the next five years.
  • The number of daily internet users in Cuba has grown to 150,000, more than double the 2014 total.

Law Enforcement Cooperation

  • In 2013, Cuba joined the Latin America branch of the International Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body promoting policies against money laundering and terrorist financing. The country obtained full membership in 2015, after a review of its banking and money laundering regulations.
  • As part of a dialogue on law enforcement issues, Cuba and the United States have agreed to discuss the issue of returning certain U.S. fugitives living on the island. In the last few years Cuba has returned a number of fugitives in criminal cases as well as child custody cases.
  • Cuba and the United States are carrying out ongoing discussions on a number of security cooperation issues, cooperation between their respective coast guards and aviation security officials. A preliminary agreement to coordinate more closely on search and rescue operations was reached in 2013.
  • Cuba and the United States are also in the process of deepening bilateral communication on counter-narcotics efforts. In January 2016, Cuba was invited to participate for the first time in the Caribbean Nations Security Conference, a conference co-sponsored by the U.S. military’s Southern Command that focuses on fighting illicit trafficking.