In Cuba, there are two forms of currency. State employees are paid in moneda nacional, which is used for subsidized rations, bus fare, additional food items at agro markets, and many forms of entertainment. Foreign currency, such as dollars and euros, are most often exchanged for convertible pesos, which can be used at larger supermarkets, for individual (as opposed to collective) taxis, and at most clothing and appliance stores.

Each convertible peso is worth 24 in moneda nacional, because everything priced in the latter is more accessible to average Cubans. Eliminating the dual currency system has been one of the main talking points in reform debates. Jorge, like nearly every cuenta propista on the block, set prices in moneda nacional.

It wasn't difficult to attract customers, Jorge says. Almost every day, the sidewalks of this neighborhood are filled with people, on the way to run errands or visit neighbors, or crossing the street to hang out on the promenade. Jorge kept the juices chilled in his refrigerator. The cardboard sign rested against railings that surround his porch, and he sat in a chair, making conversation with passersby, many of whom were starting their own ventures.

One early customer was Yunior, a skinny 20-year-old with a fade haircut and a seemingly never-ending array of polo shirts in bright colors. Several of his relatives live five houses down from Jorge, and on weekends, he would stop by the stand and chat up the cuenta propista.

"He was the first person I knew who got a license," Yunior says with the cadence of someone whose mind is constantly racing, whose words rush to catch up. "I wanted to learn the process... He was like the go-to guy in the neighborhood for people who wanted to go into trabajo por cuenta propia."

Once a promising baseball player until an injury permanently benched him, Yunior finished high school but decided early on that university "wasn't for him." But with no money of his own and no family abroad sending remittances, as is the case with some of the self-employed, Yunior remained unable to start his own business.

Jorge, on the other hand, continued to attract clientele and saved his money meticulously that first month. "I didn't go out, buy a beer, anything. My goal was to reach a point where I could buy ingredients for pizzas and burgers, so I was up as early as I could and closed shop as late as I could, and I held on to every bit of money." Within two months, Jorge had surpassed the monthly salary he earned as a state worker, from $480 ($20 U.S.) to about $800 ($34). Prices in moneda nacional are controlled, so a loaf of bread, for example, costs $5 to $10 in that currency.

And Jorge had saved enough to expand: He exchanged some of the money for convertible pesos in order to buy cheese at a supermarket, the most expensive item on his list. The rest he bought at an agro with moneda nacional: bread, hamburger meat, pizza dough, tomatoes for his homemade sauce. And he set aside money for taxes, about 25 to 35 percent of his earnings, before deductions. He kept careful track of all purchases and saved receipts: In an effort to curb the black market, the Cuban government requires detailed accounting reports and proof of all business materials purchased every few months.

Jorge's customer base continued to grow, despite other similar fast-food counters operating in the area, a fact he attributes to cooking skills and "not skimping on ingredients." He says product costs, not taxes, have formed the greatest financial hurdle for him and other cuenta propistas he knows. Many Cubans simply cannot afford materials, most of which are imported, or are unable to purchase enough of them. In response, the government recently announced it will eventually open wholesale markets to provide greater access to goods.

Jorge's secret to success: Keep the stand small and the menu limited. "A lot of people sunk thousands into fancy paladares, and now they struggle for customers from the neighborhood who only go out to eat like that for fancy occasions. Me, I offer a quick bite to eat that won't cost someone a month's salary."

In four months, as profits continued to grow, the budding entrepreneur transformed the space that was once his front porch. He purchased a laminated sign with colorful graphics, paid an independent contractor to pave cracks in the sidewalk outside his house, and had a slot cut into the railing so that hot plates of food could be passed to customers without having to open a gate. He invested in equipment, increased production, and began offering pizza with toppings. And in five months, he hired his first employee — Yunior.

In May 2011, the Cuban government announced another set of measures to ease taxes and encourage hiring in the private sector. A tax holiday on payroll taxes will be offered through the rest of the year to all cuenta propistas who hire one to five workers. Paladar restaurants can now seat as many as 50 diners at a time, up from the previous limit of 20. And a three-to-six-month tax holiday will be offered to taxi drivers and people who rent rooms for tourism if their cars or houses are being repaired. The number of requests for licenses continues to grow.

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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.

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.

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.

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!!

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. 

 
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