Image: The farmer "Orlando" has worked around Cuba's communist system for decades and has been successful in private enterprise.
Felipe Leon  /  NBC News
The farmer "Orlando" who has worked around the Cuban system for decades and has been successful in private enterprise.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 5/6/2011 10:37:25 AM ET 2011-05-06T14:37:25

Just one look at Orlando and you know he broke a bunch of rules a long time ago.

Wealth sticks out like a sore thumb in Cuba, especially with a person like Orlando – who has amassed a small fortune for over 20 years – and lives in Cuba’s generally humble countryside.

Orlando's three-story stone white house with its hand carved wooden doors and tar paved driveway sits in shiny stark contrast to the surrounding homes, most of which are four-room small rectangles topped with thatched roofs and marked by exterior walls badly in need of a splash of paint.

So, for the record, Orlando is not his real name. For the most part, no one’s real name is used in this story about enterprising Cubans who have worked the system for years just to get by, some to thrive, and who hope to continue doing so in the future – legally. Having the courage to openly tell their stories could mean trouble with the authorities.

Providing a valuable commodity: food
All that said, it clearly wouldn’t take Interpol to figure out Orlando’s true identity – if the authorities were so inclined. It’s pretty clear Cuban authorities have turned a blind eye toward Orlando's business, perhaps because this 73-year-old farmer has performed a real service for two decades.

He grows and sells food.

Bottom line, he feeds people – and provides an honest day's work to dozens of farmhands who, in turn, feed their families

However, under the nation's constitution, individuals are banned from employing others, an act judged as “exploitation.” Violators face heavy fines and the confiscation of their property.

But just a few months ago, Cuba's pragmatic president, Raul Castro, pushed to modify that communist principle, since the country needs to offer alternative sources of employment to offset massive layoffs. About 1 million skilled and professional workers are scheduled to lose their state jobs by 2016 as Havana tries to tackle the country's fiscal crisis. 

The family farmer said he never set out to flout the law. “How was I supposed to harvest all this without help?” he asked, standing among acres of garlic, sweet potatoes, carrots and onions.

Orlando hires most of his employees on a seasonal basis to harvest land that has been in his family for generations. The farmhands also plant and pick produce on newly acquired fields Orlando leases from the Cuban government.

Orlando is one of 140,000 private farmers participating in a government program to cultivate crops on what had previously been barren state land.

Some private farmers grow export crops like tobacco and coffee but many, like Orlando, form part of the country’s drive to become self-sufficient in food production – to cut costly food imports while putting affordable provisions on the Cuban table. At the time the program began, in 2008, some 51 percent of Cuba’s arable land – about 9 million acres – was underused.

Castro’s idea of assisting private growers counts as another radical change in direction from the communist government, which had urged farmers since the 1960s to transfer their farms to the state or merge their lands into agricultural collectives.

Image:
Felipe Leon  /  NBC News
Some of the workers on Orlando's private farm.

Cubans take baby steps to reform — and hope they don't trip up

Dream: to buy a ‘gold-colored’ Mercedes
A portion of what Orlando grows is purchased by the state for public hospitals and school cafeterias.

Orlando’s family also hawks part of the yield from rustic stands set up along the back roads between the capital and the countryside.

But the bulk gets sold to middlemen who travel to the farm three times a week and haul the produce in private trucks back to the city to sell in urban markets.

Unlike small farmers in other parts of the world who often struggle to cover costs, Orlando's family makes a solid living from the land. In fact,private farmers here are some of society’s most affluent.

And Orlando has invested wisely, with holdings that flow beyond the fence circling his farm.

His adult sons manage a fleet of taxis; the family also dabbles in retail and quietly finances a handful of local eateries.

He says life is good but he does have one hefty gripe – he’s not able to spend his money without worrying about who may be looking over his shoulder.

He needs a new tractor but the only ones for sale that he knows of are stolen property – from either a state farm or a cooperative. Orlando won’t take the chance.

But his big dream is to one day be able march into a Mercedes Benz dealership to buy a new shiny full-size luxury sedan. “I would like a gold-colored one,” he said.

And if that time ever comes, when Cubans are allowed to purchase cars without first having to get a paper from the government authorizing the sale, this savvy businessman plans to pay cash.

Young Cubans deal with the unimaginable: pink slips

Underground entrepreneurs
Orlando is not the only Cuban entrepreneur who operates along the edge of the law.

Carlos and Kenya run an upscale B&B near Havana’s international airport. Officially their license only authorizes them to rent rooms to other Cubans, primarily locals needing a place to sleep before catching an early morning flight.

Off the books, they cater to Italian and Spanish tourists.

The married couple, in their late 30s, also operates a private car service and a neighborhood coffee shop. And for the last three years, they have been flipping real estate.

They get around Cuba’s restrictive property laws by buying and selling in other people’s names and, they also admit, greasing a slew of government housing lawyers and inspectors.

Neither went to college; they quit their jobs in the state sector 10 years ago to become their extended family’s principal breadwinners. Today they earn more than they can spend, something few Cubans can boast about.

Cuban restaurateur learns capitalism the hard way

‘Not in my lifetime’

People like Orlando, Carlos and Kenya, all support the notion of a free market economy yet hold little hope that the government plans to make such sweeping changes that Cuba would abandon its socialist path.

“Honestly, I’ll be happy if I could continue making money without breaking the law,” Carlos said.

That level of expectation falls in line with the economic concessions the Cuban government is prepared to make in hopes of reviving the island's failing economy.

But Alberto, 72, a plumber who has been his own boss for 25 years, doesn't believe much of what he hears.

“I'm too old and too tired to think about the economy," he said. “Every Cuban worries about the economy but we've been burdened with this mess for so long it’s a waste of energy to dream about what could or should happen. I just try to earn my measly four cents a day so I can get to see tomorrow.”

As far as he is concerned, the recent talk of economic openings is just empty words. “I've been hearing the same promises for years. Will I see anything change? Not in my lifetime,” he snarled.

Lisa, a teenager who studies ballet with the intention of dancing one day on a stage far from Cuba, thinks the economy is too far gone to revive. “It’s a corpse, too late for any resuscitation.”

Then there are people like Juan – a Communist Party faithful, also in his 70s, who doesn't want much to change. “Raul is playing with fire,” he says.

He remembers the social inequities that plagued Cuban society before the 1959 Revolution and fears a return to what he calls “institutionalized inequality” if private enterprise is given the space to take root.

"Some people just think about what we don't have here without appreciating what we've built."

Msnbc.com is running a series of stories about how ordinary Cubans are dealing with new economic reforms in their island nation:
Cubans take baby steps to reform — and hope they don't trip up
Young Cubans deal with the unimaginable: pink slips
Cuban restaurateur learns capitalism the hard way

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: The new Cuba

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  1. People walk on a street adorned with a national flag in Havana on July 29, 2010, three days after the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Children in Havana listen to their school director in September on the first day of the 2010-11 school year. Free education for all is one of the pillars of the socialist society bulit since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A private coffee shop in Havana in January. In 2010, Cuba's private sector for the first time spent more on electricity consumption than state enterprises. This has been attributed to the increase in sales of electric appliances. (Alejandro Ernesto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chef Jose Salgado works at the Partenon, a private restaurant owned by Javier Acosta in Havana, in January. After Cuban authorities announced in September 2010 that they were opening the island's closed Marxist economy to a limited amount of private enterprise, tens of thousands like Acosta are chasing their entrepreneurial dreams. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Honor guards march in front of the hearse with the ashes of the late revolutionary guerrilla Pastorita Nunez during a homage ceremony in Havana in January. Nunez, who died in December, fought with Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A city employee sweeps a street in Old Havana in February. The government has said it will lay off 500,000 workers, yet more than five months after the announcement, layoffs have been delayed, leaving workers in an anxious limbo. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Children prepare to perform an Afro-Cuban dance during an AIDS awareness event in Havana in November. The event was aimed at promoting AIDS awareness and tolerance of same sex relationships. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cuban dissident Guillermo Farnias, center, is arrested in January with a group of 20 others in Santa Clara, Cuba, as they walked toward a monument to Jose Marti, a national hero who died in 1895. (Alejandro Ernesto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Cuban dissident Hector Maseda hugs his wife, Laura Pollan, as he arrives home in Havana in February after nearly eight years in prison. Pollan is the leader of the Ladies in White, a group of family members of imprisoned dissidents. (Enrique De La Osa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Supporters of the Cuban government shout slogans against the Ladies in White, a group made up of family members of imprisoned dissidents, in Havana in March. Supporters of Cuba's communist government protested as the dissidents tried to mark the anniversary of a 2003 crackdown that sent 75 government opponents to prison. (Enrique De La Osa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A worker at the Cuba Cafe factory in Havana in April. Cuba's state-run coffee company says the country has spent $9.5 million in the last five years to modernize production, but meager harvests mean it must import to cover domestic consumption. (Franklin Reyes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Workers stand next to a water tank used to supply residents in Havana in April. The city is suffering its worst drought in more than 50 years, with more than a million residents affected, according to the government. Waterworks that waste more than 50 percent of the water pumped and a near record dry spell are being blamed for the crisis. (Enrique De La Osa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cattle walk along a road leading to the Soviet-era Juragua nuclear plant, 200 miles southeast of Havana, in January. . Cuba's nuclear power project started in 1983 and stalled in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then-leader Fidel Castro announced that Cuba would explore alternative energy options, dropping the nuclear solution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A tobacco worker sorts Cuban cigars at the Partagas cigar factory in Old Havana during the 13th Habanos Festival in February. Cuban cigars are considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the United States due to embargo restrictions. Money raised from the annual festival will be donated to the Cuban public health system. (Sven Creutzmann/mambo Photo / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A man works cultivated land in Havana on April 5. Cuba hopes to improve its deficit in food production with urban and suburban farms that produce vegetables and fruits. In January, state banks began issuing microcredits to would-be farmers who have leased land. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A man carries a lamb home aboard a motorcycle in the municipality of San Antonio de Los Banos in Havana in January. (Franklin Reyes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Residents from the town Santiago de las Vegas, in the outskirts of Havana, participate on Feb. 5 in an odd tradition: the fake burial of Pachencho. The burial has been celebrated in this town for the past 27 years with rum and Caribbean music. A resident plays the part of Pachencho, while two others play the part of the widow and the priest who drinks rum. (Alejandro Ernesto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Martial arts instructor Maria Regla Saldivar watches her students warm up in the ruins of a destroyed industrial laundromat in Havana on Jan. 19. After Cuban authorities announced in September that they were opening the island's closed Marxist economy to a limited amount of private enterprise, tens of thousands like Saldivar are chasing their entrepreneurial ambitions. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Alicia Alonso, left, Cuba's prima ballerina assoluta and director of the Cuban National Ballet, watches a rehearsal with dancers Anette Delgado and Dani Hernandez in Havana in March. The Cuban National Ballet, led by the 90-year-old Alonso, is taking part in a festival of Cuban arts in locations around New York this spring. The festival, called “Si Cuba!,” is an indication that cultural relations between the United States and Cuba are thawing after nearly a decade in a deep freeze. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A teenager exercises in an improvised gym in Havana in January. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Jose Salazar works out at a training session in Havana on Jan. 24. Boxers from Argentina, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Peru and Cuba were attending a month-long training camp in Havana. Boxing is one of the most popular sports in Cuba, with thousands of people participating. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A man passes the former St. Francis of Assisi convent, currently a museum, in Old Havana in July. Despite the government's restrictions on religious practice, the Roman Catholic Church estimates that 70 percent of the population is Catholic. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (22) The new Cuba
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