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*-- Obama encourages free enterprise, praises Cuba's 'cuentapropistas' --*

HAVANA - President Barack Obama praised self-employed Cubans -- known as cuentapropistas -- operating outside of state-sponsored businesses during historic visit to the Communist island nation.

He spoke before a group of Cuban entrepreneurs Monday.

"Today about half a million Cubans, including some of you, are proud cuentapropistas, running your own restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, barber shops, or working as artists, seamstresses and taxi drivers," Obama said, adding that cuentapropistas account for about a third of employed Cubans.

Obama, who formally announced his administration was working to normalize relations with Cuba in December 2014, also mentioned Cuba's casas particulares, or private bed and breakfasts, and palandars, or restaurants, where more Americans are being serviced.

To encourage the principle of free enterprise, Obama invited several American business operators with him to Havana, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and Paypal CEO Dan Schulman.

"With help from services like Airbnb, more Americans are staying at your casas particulares and eating at your palandars, like my family did last night," Obama said. "The food was really good, even if my Spanish is not that great."

Obama said the United States was "built on entrepreneurship and market-based principles, and it's produced wealth that's unmatched in the history of the world," also adding that those same principles could empower Cubans to make them less reliant on government.

Before leaving Cuba in the afternoon Tuesday, Obama is expected to address the Cuban people at the El Gran Teatro de Havana. He will meet with members of the Civil Society at Havana's U.S. Embassy before viewing a baseball exhibition game between the MLB's Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team.

The president and his family will then travel to Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires.


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