Friday, April 20, 2012

Cuba's reforms bring hope amid austerity

Seminar on stewardship in Cuba
 (Photo courtesy FARMS International)
Cuba (MNN) ― All across Cuba, entrepreneurs striking out on their own as locksmiths, plumbers, electricians and the like. They've always existed, but operated on a smaller scale, illegally, in the informal economy.

When Cuba implemented its own austerity measures, they were denounced as "draconian." The cuts were painful. However, Joseph Richter with FARMS International says, "What I saw and what was described to me about what it was like, even a year ago, was very dramatic because now you see small businesses popping up along every street and small restaurants and small enterprises that weren't even heard of just a year ago."

In the past 24 months, Cuba's communist government has announced a series of economic openings intended to ease its announced plan to trim the country's bloated government by 1 million jobs and to make the government leaner. A lot of  jobs disappeared, along with the safety nets. Richter says, "What really impressed me was the work ethic of the Cuban people and their excitement about this new opportunity to work for themselves, to gain a profit and to help their family. They see a much brighter future."

FARMS was in Cuba to provide instruction, but they could also assess what was really going on and plan for more future work. Very little vocational training has been made available for Cubans as they transition into the marketplace.

Richter explains, "We were there to train people in economic stewardship, as far as the church is concerned--the whole issue of giving and tithing and how the church can be strengthened through families that prosper and families that give generously to their local church."

The reforms include expanded self-employment, a liberalization of rules surrounding family-run restaurants, greater flexibility for Cuban farmers to sell their products, Richter notes. "The government now is leasing land, or allowing farmers to lease land from the government, to produce crops and animals and those types of things that can be sold on the open market."

Most of the 181 newly allowed self-employment categories involve things like beauty salons, barber shops, plumbers, and other service oriented work. "This is a big change in Cuba. We need to be wise, we need to be thoughtful about the opportunities there for the Christians, and also the opportunities there for us to pray for our brothers and sisters in that country."

The opportunities are exciting. For one thing, says Richter, "There is more and more openness to help from the churches. This is something that will be a matter of prayer and a matter of thanking the Lord for because still, the country is under a lot of restrictions."

The time spent in the oppressive atmosphere has created spiritual hunger. The Church is growing, therefore, the Gospel is getting out.   Hope means Cuba can think about its future. "It's changing fast, and in a good way, I think. We're not concerned so much about  the political situation there; we're more concerned about the freedom in the church, and we're praying that God would just keep that door open."

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