Economic reforms are causing visible changes and raising expectations in Cuba, a Freedom House survey found. Self-employment is becoming more widespread, and more Cubans now prefer to work independently than for the government. Many Cubans welcome the opportunities that self-employment brings, but others are skeptical or even resentful about the changes taking place in Cuba.
This survey is based on field research conducted in Cuba after the Sixth Communist Party Congress, which took place in April 2011. A team of researchers trained by Freedom House conducted 190 interviews with Cubans about their perceptions and experience of change, their expectations for the future, and their access to information. The interviews were conducted from June 1 to 22 in six provinces of the country.
The main findings of the survey are as follows:
79 percent of respondents have noticed changes in the country over the last six months, particularly the higher number of cuentapropistas (self-employed people). “There are more cuentapropistas in the streets,” a respondent said. “There is one on every corner.”
Licenses issued for cuenta propia activities have become easier to obtain: 69 percent know or have heard of someone who has applied for a cuentapropista license; of them, 87 percent said the application was successful (and 11 percent said the application was still in process).
A majority of Cubans—63 percent—have a favorable view of the reforms. The benefits of self-employment were summarized by a retired man who now sells ice cream: “Imagine, I can make more money selling ice cream than I ever did as an accountant for the government.” The licenses issued for cuenta propia activities allow entrepreneurs to work legally. As explained by a man who sold CDs illegally for many years but recently obtained a license, “Now I can work without having to hide.”
There is a growing sense of optimism since the last round of field research conducted by Freedom House in December 2010. Forty-one percent believe the country is making progress, as compared to only 15 percent in the previous survey. Moreover, expectations are rising: 30 percent (up from 17 percent in December 2010) expect their family’s economic situation to improve in the next 12 months, although 62 percent say it will be about the same.
The reforms have, however, created a sense of insecurity among some Cubans. A woman from Santa Clara who works for the state said that “a lot of jobs are being cut off in the public sector; I see it every day where I work; and there is no place where you can put those people to work.”
More Cubans prefer to work in the private sector than in the state sector. Forty-nine percent say that it is better to work as a cuentapropista, while 44 percent feel that it is better to work for the government.
The risks associated with self-employment are discouraging for some Cubans. As an old mulato taxi driver explained, “by working on your own you can make a lot of money but it is uncertain, while working for the state you get a bad salary but it is stable.” Others lack the resources to start their own business. An 18-year old woman from Villa Clara said: “I would like to be a cuentapropista, but the problem is that I don’t have any money to start with. I think that those who start a cuenta propia must first have some family in the United States who sends them money.”
The relative success of cuentapropistas is creating resentment among some Cubans, particularly among educated professionals. An economics graduate complained that “It bothers me that the guy who is watching your car right now and who did not finish middle school makes more money than I do and I have six years of higher education.”
A growing proportion of Cubans want civil liberties. When asked what reforms they would like to see in Cuba, the largest number of respondents said they want increased freedom of expression and the freedom to travel. The most frequent responses to the question about desired reforms related to civil liberties as opposed to improved economic conditions, which topped the list of desired reforms in the last Freedom House survey.
The vast majority of Cubans—92 percent—still get their news from government sources. Only 8 percent get their news from independent sources.
While most Cubans are informed about major government decisions (80 percent of respondents have heard about the reforms), access to information about important international events is severely limited. Only 40 percent knew what happened to Egypt’s leaders, and only 36 percent knew what started the revolution in Tunisia.
The Cubans who receive independent news are far better informed: 57 percent knew what started the revolution in Tunisia, as compared to only 23 percent of Cubans who get their news from government sources.
Read the 43 page report Change Comes to Cuba.