Cuban exile group wants to start loan program for those on island

September 11, 2006

Sun Sentinel- Laura Wides-Munoz (AP)

MIAMI -- Several Cuban-American business leaders are seeking to boost the Cuban entrepreneurial spirit with small business startup loans that they believe could help stimulate the island's economy, but the plan first has to overcome restrictions enforced by the U.S. and Cuban governments.

The idea is to give microloans to people who want to start businesses such as selling food in the street. But the plan is a long shot, said Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of The Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan Washington-based organization that has pledged $10 million in seed money and plans to announce the program Tuesday.

The Cuban government prohibits most private enterprise, while U.S. law sets strict limits on sending money to the communist nation. Officials with the U.S. State and Treasury Departments had no immediate comment on the proposal. And despite Cuban President Fidel Castro's recent hand-off of power to his brother Raul, there is little sign of any major changes in Cuba's economic policies.

``But we believe we have to take risks and seize opportunities, and we believe change is under way in Cuba,' Saladrigas said. ``Raul Castro is not a spring chicken, and collective leadership always harbors the seeds of reform.'

Similar microloan programs have become popular throughout Latin America, in parts of Asia and even in some areas of the U.S. The loans would also be accompanied by training to Cuban entrepreneurs.

The Mexican bank Compartamos, which has offered microloans of less than $1,000 for more than 15 years, has agreed to work with the group if it gets permission.

``We realized it had a lot of sense, because in Cuba there are a lot of people with a lot of knowledge and education who don't have access to economic development,' said Javier Fernandez Cueto, Compartamos' strategic planning director.

Saladrigas said his group did not want to see Cuba repeat the mistakes made in Latin America and violence-torn Iraq, where the focus was on large-scale reforms and too little emphasis was placed on economic development at the grass-roots level.

``Democracies are not phoenix birds, they don't just rise out of the ashes of collapsing societies,' he said. ``This is a way to begin at the bottom of society and empower the individual and help them become a stockholder in the new society.'

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