The Cuban government has ordered the closure and liquidation of a fast-growing financial services co-operative, Scenius.
The minister of finance and pricing made the order on August 4, adding to speculation that the Havana government is slowing plans to reform its centrally planned economy.
The communist government legalised non-agricultural co-ops five years ago under a liberalisation strategy, and it was seen to prefer the co-op model to conventional business because workers had a stake.
Scenius, founded in 2014, became one of the island’s fastest-growing co-ops, expanding from three founders to 328 associates offering accounting and business consultancy services to state and private companies.
But now it has been given 30 days to inform its clients that it will no longer be providing them financial counselling services.
Fellow co-founder and president Luis Dueñas said: “The Ministry of Finance informed us of the decision based on an analysis of our corporate purpose, and of the activities we have authorised.”
“We are being forced to destroy the results of our work with our own hand to destroy the livelihoods of 300 Cuban families. We are forced to become the executioners of our dreams.”
Mr Dueñas said the Havana government had accused Scenius of performing unauthorised services that were not actually authorised. This was a “mistake” by senior officials, he added, and the co-op will appeal against the decision.
Many of Scenius’ workers came from the state sector, where the average monthly wage is $30, compared to the $200 a month they can make at the co-op.
“We are still in a state of shock,” said Scenius associate Yaisy Laplace. “We did not expect this but we still have hope.”
The move – which comes soon after the government suspended the issue of new licences for some private sector activities citing concern over tax evasion – has added to concerns that Havana is slowing its economic reforms.
The apex body and international development agency for US co-ops, NCBA CLUSA, signed an agreement to work with Scenius on advancing the Cuban co-op sector in 2015.
It said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the closure, which it said would undo recent decentralisation measures and “strain international partnerships”.
NCBA CLUSA has been working to support Cuba’s co-op sector, and earlier this year called on the Trump administration to assist in this process.
It also formed the US-Cuba Cooperative Working Group (USCCWG) to allow Cuban and American co-operators could learn from each other and seek partnerships for future business and technical exchanges.
The USCCWG had partnered with Scenius on past trips “to elevate and encourage Cuba’s growing co-operative movement”, said the statement.
It added: “The announcement of the closure of Scenius comes on the heels of a larger government order that would suspend the issuance of permits for certain occupations and ventures, effectively shunting the potential growth of the Cuban economy.
“Co-operatives and small businesses have been a growing part of the Cuban economy, with approximately 5,000 agricultural co-operatives, and approximately 400 non-agricultural co-operatives in the areas of food service, tourism, graphic design, construction, textile manufacturing, and other services, like accounting and finance.
“The co-operatives, whether formed of their own initiative, or converted from state-owned enterprises, are managed and operated by the employee-owners, who pay taxes, rent equipment and property from the state, pay employee wages and benefits, and make decisions about how to invest their earnings.
“Many of the co-operatives have become successful businesses despite many challenges.”