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Screenshot from the Scenius website

Screenshot from the Scenius website

CUBA STANDARD — In a move that will likely have a negative impact on Cuba’s ambitious plans for the cooperative sector, the finance ministry ordered the shutdown of Scenius, one of the fastest-growing new cooperatives in Cuba.

Scenius, started two-and-half years ago by a group of accountants and other professionals, provides accounting services almost exclusively to state enterprises, many of which are struggling to keep track of their finances in a confusing environment of two currencies. The member-owned cooperative’s more than 60 members — for a total of 326 associates — now work with 50 clients; Scenius has expanded beyond Havana, opening offices in Matanzas and Camagüey. In 2015, the coop’s founders projected more than $1 million in revenues by 2016 — an astronomical sum for a non-state player in Cuba.

The shutdown news, first reported by El Toque, a Cuban magazine and news site run by young journalists, comes on the heels of the government’s indefinite stop to granting some of the most sought-after business licenses to cuentapropistas, announced by way of a decree in the Gaceta Oficial on Aug. 1.

As part of its economic reforms, in 2014 the Council of Ministers approved 228 non-agricultural cooperatives, bringing the total to 452. Cuba is granting space to private enterprises in “non-strategic” sectors of the economy, with the overwhelming majority of the new co-ops operating in retail and gastronomy. Twelve coops are active in construction, six in accounting services, five offer energy services, three are in transportation, 15 are manufacturers, and one produces food.

The finance ministry ordered Scenius — one of six coops offering accounting services — to shut down all business within 30 days, coop President Alfonso Larrea confirmed to El Toque, adding that he hadn’t yet been able to see the actual text of the notification. He assumes the ministry is accusing Scenius of going beyond its “social object”, by providing what officials apparently consider non-accounting services.

Ministry of Finance and Prices officials did not respond to email messages from Cuba Standard before deadline.

Although they say the finance ministry had not been supportive since the coop was formed, Scenius members were “shocked” by the drastic step. Larrea reiterates that coop has remained within its social object, and announced Scenius will appeal.

However, it will be the same ministry that ordered the shutdown, which will decide the appeal. In the absence of a cooperative law regulating the sector, non-agricultural startup cooperatives like Scenius are still considered “experimental”.

Cuba has yet to publish the new rules that will govern cooperatives in the island.

“It would be good to see in those impending rules a stronger sign that cooperatives in all segments of Cuba’s productive system will be truly independent and autonomous when they decide what to produce, what and who they sell to or buy from,” says José Manuel Pallí, a Miami-based lawyer. “That’s even if they remain loosely integrated into a collective productive system that, at times, calls for state intervention in order to coordinate their activities with other socially desirable goals.”

Larrea, 53 — a lawyer by training who built his career in international cooperation projects — started Scenius in 2014 together with Luis Alberto Dueñas, 46 — a naval engineer with years of experience working abroad.

In an interview with Cuba Standard in 2015, Larrea described worker coops as a key plank in Cuba’s transition from a state-controlled economy.

Larrea

Larrea

“Coops are a very strong movement, stronger than cuentapropismo,” Larrea said, referring to self-employment in Cuba. “That’s partly because the Cuban government feels more politically comfortable with worker co-ops “as an intermediary step in a process toward new types of private business.”

For professionals who are members, Scenius works like this: Sign up and agree to pay 30% of any contracts obtained through the co-op back to the group, to cover administration and other expenses. The co-op posts all contracts available, and members decide which work they want. Customers pay either in Cuban pesos or in Cuba’s convertible currency, CUC.

Scenius aims for a member working full-time to earn no less than 2,500 Cuban pesos monthly, after taxes and fees. In comparison, economists earn about 600 Cuban pesos per month at full-time jobs with the state.

By far most of the coop’s clients are state enterprises; even state agencies as the Cuba’s Institute of Sports (INDER) hired Scenius.

“We expected our services to be aimed mainly at the private sector,” Larrea said in the 2015 interview. “Now, our biggest client is the state.”

Scenius also aimed to serve more coops, as Cuba’s government accelerates plans to convert state enterprises to worker-owned ventures. Some 12,000 state restaurants, cafeterias and eateries are set to become worker-owned coops.

Scenius offers new coops to develop business plans and set up their operations. It then works for them on a recurring basis to keep their financial records. Business cards for the group and its “economic management services” offer a tag-line focused on customer success: “Every Champion needs a Coach.”

The two partners were among the first to apply for authorization to form a worker co-op in Cuba in December 2012.

“We thought it would be a fast process,” recalled Larrea in the 2015 interview. Instead, it took until mid-2013 for the government to spell out which sectors would get new worker co-ops. And it was not until October 2014 that Scenius received approvals to start offering its professional services as a co-op, said Larrea.

—Doreen Hemlock contributed to this article




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