- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2011

SANTA ISABEL DE LAS LAJAS, Cuba — On sleepy streets plied by rickety horse-drawn carts and rusting 1950s automobiles, the sounds of commerce are being heard once again in Cuba’s countryside.

A private sandwich shop has opened in a town previously served only by a grim state-run cafeteria.

A woman sells trinkets from a small spot of shade.

A weathered farmer in dusty jeans has rigged up an ancient ice-cream machine and is selling cones for 8 cents each.

Out of sight of Cuba’s dollar-spending tourists, in areas where money from overseas relatives trickles in only sporadically, dusty towns like this one slowly are being revitalized by a series of private-enterprise initiatives ushered in by President Raul Castro.

Visits to more than a dozen towns in the central provinces of Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus found private businesses popping up on every main street, places hit hard by the decline of Cuba’s sugar industry and the general economic malaise that has settled over the country after more than half a century of socialist rule.

Even in one-street hamlets like Yaguaramas, small businesses are buzzing while many residents, and most canines and livestock, lounge sleepily in the broiling midday sun.

The government says about 338,000 Cubans across the island have licenses to operate private businesses, including more than 4,500 in Cienfuegos and 14,000 in Sancti Spiritus.

The number has not changed significantly since April, but it is still more than three times the government’s goal for the year. The businesses are the result of Mr. Castro’s plan to inject a measure of capitalism into Cuba’s flat-lining Marxist economy.

The new businesses are exceedingly modest. The income generated is nowhere near enough to transform Cuba’s perennially weak economy.

But on the level of individual lives or the hopes of a small town, residents say the reforms have been a boon.

“It’s a way of having something that is all yours,” said Alain Suarez, who along with his family has opened a professional-looking “guarapera,” or sugar-cane-juice stand, in Santa Isabel de las Lajas, about 16 miles from the central city of Cienfuegos up a bumpy byway lined by tall fields of sugar cane.

The bright-faced 23-year-old points to a small pizza stand across the street from his establishment and to another stand that sells sandwiches. “All these businesses that have opened up recently have given the town new life,” he said.

While he spoke to a reporter, a dozen schoolchildren came over to buy drinks, and a huge press that Suarez’s father concocted with an old American electric motor whirred from a back room, sending sugar-cane juice running down a metal trough and through a little window into a bucket near the front counter. The children paid 4 cents each for a cup and went off happy.

As Mr. Suarez’s little juice stand shows, free enterprise starts off small in a place where most residents make salaries of about $20 a month and all private businesses, from humble grocery stores to electronics shops to giant factories, were taken over by the socialist state in the late 1960s.

Story Continues →