In Cuba, a challenge for people running their own businesses
In Cuba, a challenge for people running their own businesses
Niuris Higueras jokes that her spouse calls Atelier — the Havana
restaurant she started with her brother — her real husband.
In an effort to see her family more, she’s decided to move them into the
rooms in the back of her popular Vedado restaurant. It already has a
homey atmosphere with crocheted tablecloths, louvered shutters and an
eclectic decor featuring old radios, typewriters and other antiques.
One sure sign that the restaurant may be eating up a bit too much family
time: “My son is only 7 years old and he knows how to make chocolate
fondue and cheesecake,” Higueras said.
As Cuban entrepreneurs negotiate the twists and turns of private
business on the island, they’ve found a few new challenges: stress and
trying to achieve work/life balance.
They also find themselves grappling with pressing questions such as
these: How do I keep this ancient Russian washing machine running so I
can wash the towels at my bed and breakfast? Where am I going to buy
hair dryers for my guest rooms? Where can I source duck for my
restaurant menu? How do I get my products to market?
And then there are the big question marks: Why hasn’t Cuba developed a
meaningful wholesale market where I can find the products I need to run
my business? What will the new relationship with the United States mean
for Cuba’s private sector?
“There are so many problems you have to confront daily,” Higueras said.
Because her menu includes dishes, such as conejo en vino (rabbit in wine
sauce) and duck confit in a country where such fare is not readily
available, she’s been working for the past 15 years with a private
farmer in Pinar del Rio who keeps the restaurant in fowl and rabbit.
She’s also vexed by a government regulation that limits paladares,
private restaurants, to just 50 seats. “Without that restriction, we
could have grown more rapidly,” she said.
The rules for cuentapropistas, Cuba’s self-employed, are gradually
evolving. The government recently allowed operators of paladares, for
example, to do home food delivery without taking out a new license. But
Higueras said that doesn’t help her much. Her restaurant caters to
foreign visitors and Cubans on special occasions. Her food is too
expensive for most Cubans to have delivered on a regular basis, she said.
In this new world of cuentapropistas, almost any location can become a
place of business — the front step of a home, the courtyard of an
apartment building or even a stairwell. On Havana’s Acosta Street, one
enterprising individual has moved a computer and a small table into a
nook by the stairs of a building and is using it to resell the weekly
package — a weekly installment of televised sports events, news,
websites, and entertainment programs from abroad that are copied on to a
customer’s portable hard drive or USB.
While some cuentapropistas are engaged in little more than subsistence
activities, others over time have built thriving businesses that provide
jobs for other Cubans.
Some were almost accidental entrepreneurs. Julia de la Rosa and her
husband Silvio Ortega run a bed and breakfast in the south Havana
neighborhood of La Vibora that now has 10 guest rooms. “We were pushed
to begin this activity. Twenty years ago, this country was in the middle
of an economic crisis [after the collapse of the Soviet Union],” said de
la Rosa. “As Cubans, the only resource that many of us had were our homes.”
The house, a 1938 mansion the couple inherited from Silvio’s aunt who
left Cuba, appears to be quite a substantial resource. Guests splash in
a large turquoise pool, have breakfast in a covered pavilion and sleep
in stylish rooms with exposed brick walls, patterned tile floors, white
linens, handcrafted furniture and flat-screen televisions.
But when the couple got the mansion, it was a wreck. Little of the
furniture was functional, and the pool had been closed.
At the time, Ortega was a taxi driver who squired tourists around the
city in a 1929 Ford. Drawing from his earnings, the couple slowly began
to fix up the house and turn it into La Rosa de Ortega bed and breakfast.
It’s taken two decades of refinishing furniture — including some pieces
tossed at the side of the road — commissioning Cuban craftsmen to make
the iron beds and other furniture for the guest rooms, scouring Havana
and historic Trinidad for tiles and antiques and finding parts for the
swimming pool filtration system.
Having adequate wholesale markets where the couple could have purchased
everything from construction materials to bedding would have made the
whole process a lot easier, said de la Rosa. When she couldn’t find the
hair dryers she needed for the guest rooms, she made a trip to Miami and
brought them back in her suitcase.
Many entrepreneurs say they hope the opening with the United States will
eventually make it easier to import the products they need for their
businesses and that such luggage commerce won’t be their only alternative.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta
Jacobson met with some cuentapropistas during normalization talks with
Cuba earlier this year. She called them “some of the most remarkable
people I’ve ever met.
“I hope Americans will aggressively take advantage of the new policy to
support them so that they no longer resort to, as one said to me, ‘el
mercado Samsonite,’” she said.
Jacobson said the growth of Cuba’s private sector can be “game changing”
for the island.
“They have already made the psychological shift from reliance on the
state to reliance on themselves — and that is revolutionary,” she said
earlier this year.
In the meantime, the cuentapropistas try to overcome bumps in the road.
One of the big ones is lack of good Internet connections to communicate
with suppliers and take reservations.
“We need real, normal access to email,” Ortega said. Now, Cubans with
nauta.cu accounts can send emails within Cuba. “We’re so hungry for more
— that’s not enough,” he said. “Internet is absolutely essential for our
business. We need more freedom in many things — from Internet to normal
exchanges with American citizens.”
To manage, he said his wife goes to hotels or hot spots outside hotels —
anywhere she can find to log on and connect for a short time.
“We have a friend who says what is happening in Cuba is the rebirth of
lost hope,” he said. Cuba’s entrepreneurs, he said, are scratching out
every opportunity they can find without losing what’s positive about
Cuban society. “I”m 100 percent convinced that the way forward lies in
change,” he said.
Running a casa particular is a family affair for Fanny Acosta, 36.
Everyone pitches in at Casa Randy, a Centro Habana bed and breakfast
named after Acosta’s three-year-old son. With two small children, Acosta
has her hands full.
Her mother comes every morning to give her a hand and her husband Raddy
goes out each morning at 7 a.m. to purchase mangoes, papayas or other
fruit in season, fresh bread and whatever else is needed for guests’
breakfasts. She likes to give each guest a breakfast made to their
Her father has contributed a refrigerator to the effort, and her mother
purchased a microwave for the apartment.
“You can find microwaves and some of the things you need to run a casa
in Cuba, but they are very expensive,” she said. Sometimes she’ll ask
regular guests to pick up towels and sheets abroad for her.
To help with the business, her husband left his job as a Customs worker.
Charging 25 Cuban convertible pesos per night (around $25), the couple
can take in more per guest than the average state worker earns in a
month — although they have to pay monthly installments to the investor
who helped Acosta purchase the apartment and need to cover taxes and
“We don’t have an employee like many casas to help with washing,
cleaning and cooking,” she said. “In spite of business increasing, we
look for ways to do everything in the family.”
That means cleaning up three times a day: after breakfast, after the
children play and in the evening after dinner is served to guests who
order it in the morning. She said she loves fresh air so she keeps the
windows of the fourth floor apartment open. But that allows dust to come
in, so she’s constantly sweeping up.
Because she wants the white sheets and towels she uses to be spotless,
first she boils them, then bleaches and washes them in a “very old
Russian washing machine,” and finally hangs them in the sun to dry.
So that all three guest rooms in the apartment can be rented, the couple
and their two kids crowd into the fourth bedroom of the apartment near
El Prado as their private living quarters.
Despite all the work, Acosta said, “I like what I do very much. We make
really good friends. One of the advantages of this is the friendships
Since the United States and Cuba began the process of normalizing
relations in December, she said she’s seen “many, many, many” Americans
on the island. Acosta admits at first she was a little scared of them
because, “for many Cubans, Americans are arrogant.” And she also had the
impression that Americans viewed Cubans as “ignorant, dangerous, and
mired in extreme poverty.”
Now based on her own experience with American guests, she said she views
them as people who want to get to know Cuba without offending anyone.
“The Americans also are very clean and easy-going,” she said. “We
haven’t had any problems with Americans.”
Looking to the future, Acosta said, when her 18-month-old daughter is
old enough for kindergarten and she has a bit more time, she is thinking
about adding salsa lessons to the casa’s offerings.
Milagros del Caridad Contreras, a dance teacher and choreographer, has
learned the virtue of a two-for when it comes to business. She operates
a dance academy, Mily Dance, where she gives salsa, African and
contemporary dance classes and also rents out three rooms in her Centro
Habana home to paying guests.
Her initial students came from the neighborhood but when some of her
guests heard the rhythms spilling out of the adjoining dance academy,
they too signed up for dance lessons. “Imagine you’re in a Cuban home
and you’re hearing salsa music. Of course, you’re going to say teach me,
too,” she said. She charges the foreign students a premium to keep
prices lower for neighborhood children.
So far, this has been a good year for Contreras. Business used to start
to decline in March as the winter season wound down, she said. But not
this year. “Now, most nights I am sleeping in the office because the
bedrooms are all rented,” she said. “This is a first for us.”
She’s also receiving more American visitors than ever. Through the
beginning of July, international visitors to Cuba were up 16 percent.
In hopes of picking up even more business, de la Rosa, Contreras and
Acosta all have registered their rooms with San Francisco-based Airbnb,
which began offering American travelers the opportunity to book stays at
private Cuban homes in April. It now has more than 2,000 Cuban listings.
Contreras is thinking big. Some day, she said, she hopes to have various
houses to rent out and she wants her dance academy, which has already
been featured in several films about Afro-Cuban culture, to grow, too.
De la Rosa’s dream is more limited. She just wants to finish up
renovation of the house and attend to all the details that remain. “I
hope in five years to have this place completely done, running in an
efficient way so I can have a more relaxed life,” she said.
“Everything is so fast now. I feel so pressed by all there is to do for
the future,” de la Rosa said. “I think with these changes in Cuba, there
is no turning back.”
There’s also another byproduct of the flirtation with the market economy
that Cuba really hasn’t had to deal with in the past five decades, said
Julio Alvarez Torres, who runs a garage that restores vintage cars and
is part of a collective of classic car owners who drive visitors around
“Today we want to do so much with so little that it is affecting our
health,” said Alvarez. When he went to the doctor recently, he said he
was told that his blood pressure was high. “The doctor said, ‘That’s
what we’re seeing now — cuentapropistas with higher stress levels.’ This
is something we need to learn to manage as well.”
Source: In Cuba, a challenge for people running their own businesses |
Miami Herald –