There are many mixed feelings about the political and social climate of Cuba, however regardless of which side of the aisle you or la gente de Cuba stand, one thing is apparent: the Cuban commitment to economic empowerment is everywhere. During a recent trip to Havana, I explored this unique country, traveling across the city and interviewing locals in an attempt to see the country through the lens of entrepreneurship.
In a socialist society, most jobs are executed for the good of the country (as is defined by the government) and are paid a predetermined, set salary. That being the case, though education is free (up to and through college), there is not much of an income hierarchy based on profession. For example, access to high-quality health care is no less of a need in Cuba than it is in the states. Health care is free to every Cuban citizen and their doctors are extremely highly trained and revered. However, the Cuban medical system does not include around some of the money-making measures that the American healthcare system has. To that end, a recent study reported that the highest paid doctors in Cuba make the equivalent to $67 a month. For additional funds, many resort to entrepreneurship to either supplement or completely replace and increase their income potential
"La gente trabaja, trabaja, trabaja pero nada." 30-year-old Roilano expressed. "For what I could earn in one year in America, I'd have to work 5 years in Cuba. We need self-employment to get ahead. I am a carpenter so my father and I decided to use my skills to refurbish a casa con 3 habitacions to rent to tourists. Mi papa is working to create a casa particular"
In Cuba many tourists, myself included, opt to reside in “casa particulars” versus the expensive hotels in some of the more touristy areas. Casa Particulars are suites in Cuban homes rented out to visitors and tourists. Think AirBnb with a twist. Many houses in Havana are built similar to row houses. Steep marble staircases lead up to 3 or 4 floors of various staggered rooms. This set-up allows for semi-private spaces that are separate from the regular living quarters. Additionally, unlike AirBnBs, Casa Particulars have to meet certain standards and are quality assured. Similar to regulated industries in the states, it is illegal to operate a casa particular without the appropriate permits. However, a busy room multiplies an owner’s earning potential substantially.
Cuban entrepreneurs face access to capital difficulties in ways that are similar but much more complex than American entrepreneurs. “This house was $20,000." Roilano continued, "my father's American girlfriend bought it for us so we can start our own business. If we rent each room for $30/nt, we could make the money to pay her back in less than 3 years". However, don't think you can bring $20k to Cuba, fix up a house and start a business. Only Cuban citizens are allowed to own real estate.
Paladars are another great example of the unique and creative ways Cuban people use their homes to expand their income. A paladar is a home that has been converted either in part or in whole into a locally owned restaurant. Casa Arcangel is one of central Havana's more popular paladars with a cafe in the front, a casa particular upstairs and the owner's living quarters in the back. The cafe proudly displays it's TripAdvisor sign celebrating the success of the business (which also drives in more European, Canadian and American customers).
As is probably apparent, catering to tourists is by far the most lucrative business industry in Havana. Tours, salsa classes, art, souvenirs, and food vendors all line the street of Havana Vieja hoping to grasp the attention and dinero of international tourists. Taxi drivers, however, make the most money of them all... especially if you are lucky enough to own an old classic American car. "Americans and Europeans pay $40 for one hour to be ridden around in circles in a classic car. They find it charming." a local explained to me. "Many Americans don't even make $40/hr! If you own a nice classic car, you are wealthy"
Although many are owned by the government, there are also businesses that cater to locals. Mercados, butchers, clothing stores, barbers, nail shops.. many of the same things you'd find in America. However most negocians rely on a sense of collective economics to make their business thrive. Access to supplies is limited and due to the U.S. embargo, many business owners rely heavily on their American based family members to bring back necessary goods during their visits. The theme of "we over me" exists even in these personal endeavors. People with land outside of the city center send fruits and vegetables to family members in Havana to sell. Family members in countries outside of Cuba send clothes, shoes or other goods for profit. Tour guides make deals with restaurant owners, cafes and souvenir shops to bring in tourists and receive a commission. The people work together to ensure businesses thrive.
"The people of Cuba are resilient. After the failed attempt at the Bay of Pigs, America made us into an example of what happens when you rebel against them. Though they did the same to Russia during the Cold War, Trump lifted sanctions against Russia while restricting them against Cuba. It seems personal. Why? I don't know. But what I do know is in the hardest of conditions, with our backs against the wall, we continually live, persist, resist and even thrive. The Cuban people will never be defeated. Our spirit is too strong."
Disclaimer: I attempted to write this article with as neutral of an eye as possible. The quotes have been edited for grammar however have been otherwise reiterated exactly as they were delivered. Though I included opinions directly from the people I interviewed, the purpose of this article is merely to highlight entrepreneurship in Cuba and not an attempt to address Cuban/American relations.
Written by Michelle Williams, Executive Director of the DEC's Southern Dallas Expansions.