By Kerry Mack
On a recent Sunday night at an outdoor Havana nightclub, hundreds of Cubans were salsa dancing, hip grinding and doing the electric slide, their faces lit up by pulsating blue and purple stage lights. Merengue and the Village People’s “YMCA” echoed into the distance. Even the shyest tourists couldn’t help but tap their feet and sway their hips.
Cubans like to party, and as tourism on the island booms, party planning is becoming a way to make a living.
Yamina Vicente, 31, a party planner and decorator, started her business, Decorazon (a play on the Spanish words for “decorating” and “heart” or “from the heart”) three years ago.
A former economics professor at the University of Havana, Vincente thinks that economic change will allow many Cubans disposable income to spend on parties. In a country with little Internet, she is marketing Decorazon through old-fashioned word-of-mouth, fliers, business cards and mobile apps. She also uses Facebook, although access to it is limited to those in the Cuban elite.
Because the average Cuban has little disposable income, many cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) target the tourism industry. Private taxi services for tourists are one of the most lucrative businesses in Cuba. Jorge Mario Sanchez , an economist at the University of Havana, calls tourism “the engine” of the Cuban economy.
Since Vicente is primarily targeting Cubans rather than visitors, her challenges differ from those of many entrepreneurs. For example, since her clients’ budgets vary a great deal, she has designed party services from as low as 10 CUCs (about $10) per event to as high as 100 CUCs per an event.
“We have prices for everyone,” she said. “Sometimes we have a father that has been saving money his entire life for his daughter’s 15th birthday celebration or wedding.” She also works for fellow cuentapropistas with deeper pockets.
Many of Decorazon’s most expensive events, and a likely source of future business, have been for Cuban-Americans visiting family in the country, and even for destination weddings.
Like many cuentapropistas, Vincente left her job in the state sector in the hopes of earning more money. Cuban professionals working in the state sector earn an average of 20 CUCs per month. The number of cuentapropistas increased after 2011, when Raul Castro reformed some of his brother Fidel’s economic laws. One reform included “liberalizing private markets for restaurants, bed-and-breakfast establishments, small retail shops and other micro-businesses,” wrote Richard E. Feinberg in The New Cuban Economy.
As with many Cuban entrepreneurs, Decorazon’s major challenge is scarce resources; both startup capital and supplies for her business. While Decorazon didn’t require much initial funding, Vicente emptied her linen closet of sheets and tablecloths to decorate events she was planning.
Obtaining supplies is still difficult because of the lack of local wholesale markets in Cuba, as well as restrictions on imports. Cuban-made balloons tend to explode when inflated, so Vicente relies on imported balloons, either brought by friends or during her own periodic trips to Miami. “The Cuban market is very unstable, so when you find something you really have to buy it right away,” said Vicente.
During slow months, like January, when she may have as few as two events. Vicente focuses on marketing and searching for supplies. During busier months, like December, she may organize as many as 11 events.
The ability to obtain necessary resources from abroad is practically a prerequisite for Cubans who want to become cuentapropistas. John McIntire, a founder of Cuba Emprende, an organization that trains Cuban entrepreneurs, said 70 to 80 percent of businesses were funded by family members who live abroad, usually in the U.S. or Spain. For the other 20 to 30 percent, the owners use their savings or seek a bank loan.
But bank loans are extremely rare as there is no culture of borrowing in Cuba. About 50 percent of new businesses in Cuba fail, said Margaret Crahan, an expert on Cuban culture and Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University.
Conoce Habana, the app Vicente uses to market Decorazon, promotes small businesses, private restaurants and beauty salons. Vicente spends five CUCs a month for her business to appear with photos. The app is free to download and doesn’t require Internet access. An app with Internet access would not be as effective since only an estimated 5 percent of Cubans have Internet access.
Like many service businesses in Cuba, Decorazon operates as part of an informal cooperative and cultivates ties with other business people. For example, when Niuris Higueras, a fellow cuentapropista who owns Atelier, a paladar in Havana, found herself without a magician just before a New Year’s celebration last December, she called Vicente late at night and said, “Yamina, I need a magician for tomorrow. Figure it out!”
Vicente works with many other professionals to plan and decorate, which means working closely with a photographer, videographer and caterer and, sometimes an entertainer, including magicians. So far, few private businesses have been allowed to form cooperatives. Cuentapropistas solve this problem by obtaining licenses in different fields and working together in unofficial partnerships.
If the embargo between the U.S. and Cuba is lifted and relations open up, cuentapropistas like Vicente could potentially gain access to more supplies and a whole new market of clients: Americans – more specifically, Americans with money to spend and a yen to experience Cuba’s party culture.