Cuba's new entrepreneurs ponder their future

Cuba's new entrepreneurs ponder their future
Pigs at a privately run farm in Pinar del Rio. View our slide show here.

It's a typical day in Buenavista, a heavily populated neighborhood in the coastal municipality of Playa, in Havana, Cuba. Along Calle 70, where a shaded promenade runs down the street, children play baseball with makeshift bats while couples canoodle on benches and older men slam dominoes on tables set up on the sidewalk.

The neighborhood's state-run agricultural market, once sparsely stocked during the difficult days of the Special Period after the loss of Soviet Union subsidies, is now comparatively brimming with vegetables, flowers, and cuts of meat. And on either side of the promenade, the streets resemble a bustling marketplace.

On one corner, all five seats in a barbershop are occupied. A few doors down, a small line has formed in front of a pizza counter. And on the next block, three 20-somethings dressed head-to-toe in white are perusing hand-carved Santería statues of Yemaya and Ochun in a dimly lit shop, while reggaeton blasts from a nearby house displaying stacks of CDs for sale.

A little more than a year ago, this scene would have been impossible to imagine. The only businesses in the residential neighborhood — a few state-owned bodegas and markets, a couple of cafeterias, a bookstore — were spaced out among rows of houses. Occasionally you would stumble upon a casa particular, a home licensed to rent rooms to foreigners, or a paladar, a privately run restaurant, both of which have been legal since 1993 but weren't very common in a neighborhood fairly off the tourist track. Now nearly every other house is operating a mom-and-pop venture of some sort, ranging from cell-phone repair shops to nail salons.

This sudden infusion of small-scale free enterprise is the result of major policy changes announced at the end of 2010 by Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who was appointed sitting president in 2006 after elder brother Fidel fell ill. The plan, formally ratified by the Sixth Communist Party Congress in April this year, brings some of the most significant reforms to Cuba's economic model in more than 50 years.

The reforms, such as a decree that Cubans will be able to buy and sell their homes for the first time since 1959, are many — 313 points to be exact, outlined in the publication "Revised Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy." But perhaps the most obvious immediate change, which has sprouted a new landscape in neighborhoods across the country, is the legalizing of 178 categories of trabajo por cuenta propia, regulated self-employment, that the government hopes will absorb half a million state jobs slated to be phased out.

In speeches, Raúl Castro has stressed that the many reforms are sought as a way of pushing Cuba's current system forward and making it viable, not undoing it.

"Most people I speak to [in the neighborhood] say similar things," says Jorge, a 56-year-old lifelong resident of Buenavista who runs a fast-food stand. (He asked that his last name not be used.) "We don't want to undo the revolution. We don't want to undo health care and education for all and fill Cuba with foreign corporations."

"I am a proud socialist," he continues, pointing to a Che Guevara portrait hanging above a portable electric stovetop where he toasts bread for burgers. "But we had to adjust, modernize, based on what we've learned throughout the years."

Jorge, a burly man who sports large-rimmed glasses and a booming voice, never imagined himself a restaurateur. For 17 years, he was a state worker handling inventory at a port. Analytical and good with numbers, he liked his job and thought he would work there until he turned 65 and would qualify for a pension. He and his wife, a state employee at a bank, had been saving up bits of money to throw a quinceañera party for their only daughter, now 15.

But shortly after the announcement in October 2010 that the state would cut 500,000 jobs by the end of 2011 (that deadline has now been delayed indefinitely), Jorge's supervisors began to circulate news that some positions at the port would likely be deemed nonessential. If Jorge were laid off, he would have two choices: transfer to a job where workers are needed or work for himself. In either case, he would retain his pension under the new provisions.

"I made the decision right at that moment," Jorge says. "Not so much for me, but for my daughter. I imagined that if I had this opportunity to start a small restaurant, it could grow into something bigger, and I could retire and pass it on to her." Jorge left his state job in October. By November, he was applying for a self-employment license.

Jorge quickly filled out paperwork, was granted a permit to sell food, and passed a home inspection that checked for sanitary conditions and proper safety measures. That part was easy, he says. The tough part was raising capital.

He started small: a few bags of fruit purchased at the state-run agro market, a bag of sugar from the supermarket, and a blender he already owned. Admittedly, he had to dip into his daughter's quinceañera fund, a fact that kept him anxious about turning a profit. A cardboard sign was drawn up to announce fresh, cold juices for sale: guava, mango, and pineapple. He set prices.

1
 
2
 
3
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
11 comments
JJ9988
JJ9988

Can they all go back to Cuba now, so we can make Miami part of America again?

JJ9988
JJ9988

What a POS country filled with POS people.

Ernie Sandoval
Ernie Sandoval

It is the perfect opportunity for ALL CUBANS IN MIAMI to RETURN HOME TO CUBA. Adios pollos Cubanos y Cubanas.

Lucy
Lucy

It is very sad when one reads a prejudiced, discriminatory, and ignorant comment,which tends to separate people who live in and love this country. It shows only ignorance. But, I guess this kind of comment applies to you, as well, as your family's ancestors came to America from another country. Read your history my friend. The only one that has a right to say this is the American Indian. Thank God that you are in the minority with your comments, as the majority welcomes people of all races, religions, culture, etc. That is what has made America Great....for all. Otherwise, you yourself would not be here to make such a comment. You'd be back in whatever country you came from. We don't need haters in America. We need peacemakers.

loveit
loveit

I hope all of you making the juvenile and ignorant comments soon cease to reproduce or go back to whatever country your ancestors are from.  Leave the US in a better place rid of racism and hate.  I don't care what ethnicity you are, if you're going to hate just leave...the majority don't want you around nor do you represent the majority sentiment. 

Erivisam79
Erivisam79

The Castros, are the reason why you see million of cubans living in United States, dreaming about one day, go back to that sweet island, that they took for them, and nobody can say sh..t. If you did not born in Cuba, you better shit up.

Hernan
Hernan

You have no idea what are you talking about, people in Cuba still have no money to buy milk for their kids, my uncle just arrived from Cuba two weeks ago, this is just a distraction and you worthless reporters post whatever you find without researching. There will not be entrepreneurship, and there will not be a future until communism is eradicated.

Hans Schuman
Hans Schuman

That's EXACTLY why the fat. pork-like Cubans who have been milking America for decades should GO HOME TO CUBA and help their "countyrmen". LOL - the only thing Cubans seem to think about is eating fried pork rinds and gaming the system.

Gamalr
Gamalr

But at least tere is some taste for private work tat could help start someting bigger

Ariel
Ariel

Amen brother!!

 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...