Cuban farmers in Vinales, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba, on January 10, 2021.
Havana CNN  — 

Cuba took a long-awaited and likely irreversible step towards massively expanding the island’s private sector over the weekend.

On Saturday, Cuba’s communist-run government announced that Cubans will soon be able to seek employment or start businesses in most fields of work.

Previously, Cubans were restricted to working in just 127 officially approved private sector job descriptions. Some of those legalized activities over the years included working as a barber, tire repairer, palm tree trimmer or “dandy,” as the government referred to Cubans who dressed up to pose with tourists for photos.

But many Cubans chafed that the government’s list did not include opportunities created by recently increased access to the internet and Cubans’ own seemingly limitless ability to innovate and invent.

Now they will have the ability to work in over 2,000 different fields.

“The new measures for self-employment approved by the Council of Ministers will expand significantly the activities one can carry out. A new and important step to develop this kind of work,” tweeted Cuban official Marino Murrillo Jorge, “the reforms czar,” who has been overseeing its glacially-paced attempt to modernize the local economy.

Self-employment and capitalism were all but forbidden in Cuba until its near-total economic collapse, brought about by the fall of Soviet Union, then the island’s largest trading party.

People line up to buy food in Havana, on February 2, 2021, as Covid-19 cases surge in the island nation.

Gradually, and with regular backtracking, the Cuban government allowed Cubans to stop working low-paid state jobs and go into business for themselves. By the government’s own statistics, more than 600,000 Cubans now work in the private sector, although the number is likely far higher when accounting for the island’s thriving black market.

Still, Cuban government officials often have treated the island’s entrepreneurs as a necessary evil and a possible Trojan Horse that could allow opponents in the United States to at long last bring down the revolution.

And while the official line from Cuban officials is that they have been implementing free market reforms “without hurry but without stopping,” the opening had stalled out as the government seemed to doubt the wisdom of further empowering Cuban entrepreneurs.

But with the widespread impacts of the pandemic and as Raul Castro, 89, is expected to step down in April as head of the Cuban communist party, the organization that charts the island’s long-term economic planning, Cuba in 2021 has finally embarked on two major reforms: Unifying its labyrinthine dual-currency system and now lifting restrictions on jobs.

Thumbnail of Patrick Oppmann's pkg
Inside Cuba's anti-drug operation
03:25 - Source: CNN

The government will still prohibit or restrict Cubans from privately undertaking 124 activities. While those activities have yet to be disclosed, they will likely continue the state’s monopoly on health care, telecommunications and mass media.

The new measure, over time, will likely alter the face of the island’s economy, said Cuban economist Ricardo Torres.

“We don’t know yet which 124 activities will remain prohibited but it’s safe to assume that the possibilities will be expanded for professionals,” Torres told CNN. “An old demand in a country that has made an enormous investment in education. “

The changes come too as Cuba seeks to improve relations with the US after four years of a barrage of new economic sanctions from the Trump administration.

“This is long overdue, it’s welcome news, and the United States should affirm that the embargo was never intended, and will not be used, to penalize private enterprise in Cuba,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) posted on his Twitter account.

“After more than half a century isn’t it time to repeal a Cold War embargo that has failed to achieve any of its objectives, and has only made life harder for the struggling Cuban people?”

Earlier this month, Leahy, a long-time advocate for improved relations with Cuba, co-sponsored a long-shot bill to lift the nearly six-decade-old US economic embargo on the island.

Cuba’s endlessly inventive and long suffering entrepreneurs will be watching to see what happens.