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A business-friendly Cuba gets a hand from Canada Add to ...

Perhaps most importantly, Diaz-Canel’s last name is not Castro – which increases the odds of reconciling with the United States. “Remove the Castro brothers, or at least move them to the background, and that defangs a lot of the hostility,” says Feinberg, the Brookings Institution expert.

Moreover, if Cuba can retain people like Betancourt, the university professor, its gamble will likely pay off. His family fled communism after the Revolution. But by the late 1980s – degrees, jobs and marriage behind him – he started to wonder what kind of future the U.S. could offer beyond his being “one more professional economist working and making money and consuming more and more.” So he returned to the island and began putting his skills to more fulfilling use. In addition to teaching economics, he has partnered with Biniowsky, the lawyer, on Havanada Consulting, which channels funds from social investors and philanthropists to nonprofit development projects in Cuba.

And while Betancourt, 60, agrees that new travel rules will allow his compatriots to follow a similar path, he offers a more succinct reason for the change: “The intent is to return basic rights to the population and to satisfy a very strong demand among our people.”

The extent of those rights, however, will be tested. Dissidents like Yoani Sánchez and Eliecer Avila took advantage of the reform and set out on foreign tours last winter. They returned with plans to launch a news organization and a political party, respectively – risky ventures, given the state’s history of reacting harshly to open political challenge.

Cuba also faces threats beyond its control. The government expects its economy to grow by no more than 3 per cent this year, short of its 3.6-per-cent target, thanks in part to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

Then there are those systemic problems. The dual currency, meagre state salaries, and limits on approved categories of private enterprise – you can be a tarot card reader, but not a clinical psychologist – are “driving a lot of young people out of the country or into a kind of underground professional economy,” Betancourt says. “It’s totally illogical.”

Credit is also only offered in pesos, meaning those looking for seed capital need to know someone abroad who can supply hard currency. And though the state is loath to admit it, Betancourt notes that this creates significant inequality “because it is the white, urban professional and middle-class person who has a family member that emigrated, who has a foreigner that wants to start a business with him.”

Not only that, simple purchases can be painfully bureaucratic. Buying a new blender last winter, for example, took me more than an hour and required three sets of forms.

It remains to be seen, too, whether the corruption crackdown has run its course. In a blistering speech to the National Assembly in July, Raúl Castro railed against his country’s moral decline. “I have the bitter sensation that we are a society ever more educated but not necessarily more enlightened,” he said, singling out both graft and theft by state workers – but also a laundry list of poor public behaviour by everyday citizens.

Those negatives aside, even the modest space opened to free enterprise has created an array of options for the emerging consumer class. Cubans with a few CUCs can watch 3-D movies or play paintball in their spare time. Those with a few more CUCs can splurge for their child’s quinceañera, the traditional prom-like 15th birthday party.

Like most people I talked to, Biniowsky believes Cuba is on the right track. “The irony is those that will save the Revolution are the emerging small- and medium-sized private businesses,” he says. “And those that could destroy it are those elements in the bureaucracy that resist these changes.”

Canada’s former ambassador, meanwhile, cautions those expecting to see capitalism embraced as Cuba’s new guiding light. “One has to actually listen carefully to what the Cubans say,” explains Entwistle, who logged more than 100 hours of face time with Fidel Castro. “These changes are intended to make the particular Cuban socialist model work better, not to replace it.”

One only has to look at Papito and his thriving salon to get the sense that’s already happening. “The most important thing is for the new private sector to have a social conscience and a social commitment,” he tells me, beaming. “It’s not all about profit; it’s also about values.”

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CLARIFICATION: Our September article on Cuba, "Revising the Revolution," said it was probable that Tri-Star Caribbean had received support from Canadian Commercial Corp. A representative of Tri-Star says it has never had support from the CCC.

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