By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said his government’s last-minute changes to policies that went into effect on Friday following widespread criticism showed it listens to the people and were not a setback.
The Communist government this week watered down the most heavily criticized elements of new restrictions on free enterprise and promised to revise regulations accompanying a law on the cultural sector to address artists’ concerns.
The changes to policies published in July came the same week as Cuba finally launched mobile internet, a long-awaited service that many had been skeptical would ever arrive in one of the world’s least connected countries.
“There is no reason to believe the rectifications are setbacks nor to confuse them with weakness when one is listening to the people,” Diaz-Canel, who succeeded Raul Castro in April, tweeted. “None of us can do as much as we all can together.”
The government said on Wednesday it was lifting a cap of 50 seats for private restaurants and a ban on Cubans holding more than one business license.
Private sector workers, who make up around 13 percent of the island’s labor force, criticized the government for making such big changes so late.
Some restaurants had already shrunk capacity and fired staff, while many entrepreneurs had divested licenses or started the lengthy bureaucratic process of transferring them to others.
Overall they welcomed the move.
“I think it’s the first time they’ve really listened to the private sector,” said Mickey Morales, the owner of a 150-seat restaurant with panoramic views of Havana’s centuries-old port. “It’s a relief.”
On Thursday, the government also said it was consulting with artists on regulations on cultural activities to ease fears about increased censorship.
Ted Henken, a professor of black and Latino studies at Baruch College in New York, said Cuba’s unusual volte-face suggested it was becoming more open to feedback or less able to withstand growing discontent.
Diaz-Canel lacks the historic legitimacy of Castro, who fought alongside his older brother Fidel Castro for the 1959 revolution. He took power as the ailing economy faced dwindling aid from key ally Venezuela and a tighter U.S. trade embargo.
To date, Diaz-Canel has appeared to seek legitimacy through greater public interaction with Cuban citizens, companies and institutions than his reclusive predecessor, analysts say.
Until now, that change in style had not translated into substantive policy changes, nor had he openly met with private entrepreneurs or more critical actors of civil society.
“Hopefully this is the start of a change of course,” Ricardo Torres, an economist at a Cuban state-run think tank, wrote in a public post on Facebook, “where the rights and interests of the island’s inhabitants are adequately taken into account in the politics of the Cuban state.”
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Chang)