Cuba's president, Raul Castro, was hardly launching a counter-revolution last week with word that the socialist island nation would spin off one-tenth of the government's work force to the private sector. Castro was simply being practical; that is useful at times for retaining power. Cuba is in dire straits and a thriving black market saps too much cash from the state-run economy. But the move creates an opportunity for Cubans to build better lives. And it creates an opening for the United States to push democratic reform through expanded trade and travel.
Castro said the government would dismiss 500,000 workers by April, with the goal of creating nearly that many jobs — 450,000 — in the private sector by the end of 2011. Leave aside whether Cuba can meet that goal; it certainly cannot continue to employ 85 percent of the workforce in the public sector. Castro said earlier this year the state had 1 million people on the payroll it could live without. Moving even half that number to the private market poses enormous challenges to a bureaucracy and culture that lack the tools industry needs — from tax incentives to access to capital — for business to function.
Still, Castro has taken another step away from the centralized economy since taking over from his sickened brother, Fidel, in 2006. Raul Castro has already leased state lands for private farming, scaled back controls on small businesses and allowed some mom-and-pop shops, such as barbers, to form cooperatives. The government is also relaxing restrictions on long-term leasing of state land by foreigners, which is aimed at attracting investors in new condominium and golf course developments. Castro has liberalized the economy in uneven ways, but it all builds on the entrepreneurial spirit.
The Obama administration moved relations with Cuba in a positive direction by relaxing the punitive restrictions on trade and travel that President George W. Bush imposed. The president should go further by making it possible to take direct flights to Cuba from beyond Miami, New York and Los Angeles, the only three U.S. cities where service is legally allowed. Direct flights to and from Tampa International Airport make sense, given the city's proximity and historical ties to Cuba. Washington should also relax financial restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba. That could bring big business to the Port of Tampa, and mark a major step toward ending the overall trade embargo.
The Castro brothers have made it clear after five decades in power that change will come slowly in Cuba. But the United States has a responsibility and security and economic interests in preparing for life after Castro. That period cannot be too far away.