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Free-market makeover

Why don't Cuba's barbers and beauticians like their new cut?

Now, with the new system, Navarro said he feels like he’ll be starting each month in a deep, $40 hole.

“In the past, you worked, reported your hours, earned a salary and took vacations,” he explained. “Now you don't have any of that. You just work and work.”

One older barber who’s been cutting hair for 35 years said he’s struggling to pay his taxes because most of his clientele is elderly and had been coming to him for decades. “I can’t double my prices on them overnight,” he said. “They can’t afford it.”

For the Cuban government, meanwhile, the benefits are clear. President Raul Castro wants to winnow Cuba’s notorious bureaucracy, saying in a recent speech that the government may have a million excess workers on its payrolls. The island’s reform advocates have been pushing to get the state out of the small-scale service sector by turning over things like cafeterias, repair shops and garages to employees who could work independently or in cooperatives.

The changes are being promoted in the name of efficiency and cost reduction, not capitalism.

For instance, the government used to assign teams of inspectors to police the state-run barbers and beauticians, sending them to sniff out bookkeeping irregularities or other infractions. But that just invited corruption and abuse.

One barber said that April 1, the day the new measures were announced, was “the happiest day of my life” because he would no longer have to stomach the regular shakedowns from government inspectors.

“We were at a meeting with all the old inspectors,” he said. “And afterward, one of them came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder, leaned in, and said ‘you’ll still cut my kids’ hair, right?’”

“Sure, I told her,” he said. “And I’ll charge you $7 (seven times the standard rate). Her jaw dropped.”

Whatever they think of the new arrangement, Cuba’s barbers and beauticians now face the kinds of decisions that entrepreneurs all over the world contend with. How much can they charge? And should they invest in fixing up the shops? Some said they didn’t have any money saved, while others complained it wouldn’t be worth the investment since the state still owned the building.

But Corso, the barber in Old Havana, said he was already thinking about sprucing things up a bit. “I’d love to a have a sink here, in order to wash customers’ hair,” he said. But he wasn’t contemplating anything too ambitious.

“I love the old-fashioned look of this place,” he said, “and I wouldn’t want that to change.”