Cuban Entrepreneurs With a Conscience

Article and photo by Raquel Blanco

Pavel Garcia walks down the streets of Old Havana, a young man with tousled shoulder-length hair and a beard, dreaming of opening his own nongovernmental organization, or NGO – which in today’s Cuba is still a near-impossibility. He is trying to ensure that tourist dollars trickle down to local communities that have not yet benefited from the cuentapropista boom – the private entrepreneurs who are capitalizing on both changes in government economic policy and the gentrification of Old Havana.

Garcia works in Old Havana, which is undergoing serious renovation. The government, with support from UNESCO, has restored several colonial-style neighborhoods and plazas, creating an atmosphere that could rival the historic districts of Madrid or Barcelona. As more private businesses emerge, tourists are finding an array of paladares – private, often family-run, restaurants – and high-end shops.

Pavel Garcia, an entrepreneur, is trying to find ways to provide economic stimulus and benefits at the community level.
Pavel Garcia, an entrepreneur, is trying to find ways to provide economic stimulus and benefits at the community level.

Dollars and CUCs, the local currency that is pegged to the dollar and formally called Cuban Convertible Pesos, flow through Old Havana and represent a significant increase in earnings for many Cubans. The average state-paid salary of, say, a doctor, is the equivalent of about 20-24 CUC a month. People who work independent of the state, in tourism for example, or the restaurants, can make 15 CUC a day.

This disparity in incomes can be traced in great part to Cuba’s dual-currency system. The CUC, which has buying power equivalent to the U.S. dollar, was initially used mostly for tourists. The peso (CUP), which is exclusively for locals, is valued at about 5 cents. (On the streets of Havana, markets today might sell in pesos and convert to CUCs, or exclusively in CUCs.) This great devaluation of the Cuban currency has led many people to leave state jobs or to take additional jobs in the private sector to earn CUCs. The government is expected to merge the two currencies this year.

Although the concept of working for $20 a month may seem unfathomable to many people, Cubans do receive an array of social services, including free health care and education, as well as subsidized utilities and housing.

For about 20 years after the revolution ended in 1959, income inequality was not a major issue. The Gini coefficient, an indicator of a country’s spread of wealth, ranges from 0, which is basically a communist utopia with no inequality, to 1, which indicates high income inequality. In 1963 Cuba had a Gini coefficient of .28, according to a study by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-America Studies at the University of Miami.

A low level of income inequality in Cuba reflected the fact that almost everyone worked for the state. In 1989, only 0.7% of the population was considered self-employed, according to Prof. Ted Henken of Baruch College/CUNY. Then came the “Special Period,” in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew its economic support of Cuba. Shortages of food, medicine and much else caused the government to recognize the need to change its economic plan. Foreign investment and small businesses were needed to help revive the economy.

Since then, Cuba has gradually sanctioned small businesses and cooperatives, which are businesses that are run by their employees. One result is that income inequality has continued to widen. This has led many Cubans to wonder how their country can preserve its socialist values even as its moves to liberalize its economy.

“It is not easy, but it is not difficult,” Garcia asserted. Cubans seem to unite around the idea of solidarity. Regardless of their business, they seem to believe that they can help each other out and that they stand a better chance of progressing economically if they pull together.

Even many cuentapropistas — a word derived from the Spanish term “working for your own account” – say they want to spread their wealth. Garcia said he believed that sometimes all people need is a mediator to help them convert that desire into something tangible.

This problem animates Garcia and many of the cuentapropistas he works with. In the beautifully refurbished Plaza Vieja, in Old Havana, they created programs that aim to use the plaza for the community.

<center>Photo by Trudy Knockless</center>
Photo by Trudy Knockless 
Aleida Gonzales Vera joined with neighbors to merge small neighboring houses into a small hotel that can host up to 50 students.

While the “government invests money in the Plaza,” Garcia said, the locals “feel like ‘it’s not for me,’ it’s for the tourists.

For example, at the private restaurants in the plaza, menu prices are beyond the means of a state-paid Cuban. At one coffee shop, La Bohemia, an employee said an average Cuban could come only “once in a while,” and that no more than 30 percent of its customers are local Cubans.

Garcia wants businesses “to go to the community with the new money and say what do you want?” He has successfully run a chess tournament in La Bohemia for groups of elderly people and young children. He has also organized sporting events for young people

Garcia hopes to have more businesses participate in arranging festivals or public assemblies in the Plaza. So he is helping the people who have lived in Old Havana for years to see that “this beautiful place is for you, too.”

Many other cuentapropistas are seeking ways to give back to the community.

La Moneda Cubana, a successful restaurant in Old Havana, prides itself on developing employment opportunities for young people in the community. The owner Miguel Angel Morales, known as Mickey, started a school to help train troubled youth as waiters. After an intensive course in English, history and etiquette, the trainees have the possibility of working in his restaurant and earning 20-30 CUCs a day.

Take Alain Miguel Cardenas Suarez, a handsome 24-year-old who freely acknowledges that he worked as a prostitute before coming to work at La Moneda. He had been studying mechanical engineering in Havana for three years when he realized that he could no longer continue in school and cover his basic living costs. He dropped out and found himself on the street. “I had to sell myself” to survive, he said.

Youths who are not in college or working sometimes become involved in black market activities and can go to jail for up to two years. So when Cardenas heard about Morales’s school, he jumped at the opportunity. Now he works in the restaurant. Morales said he had helped more than 50 youths and has employed about 15 of them in his restaurant.

About a 15-minute walk from La Moneda, the owner of a barbershop has developed a similar model. He established a barbering school to train teens to become stylists and helped build BarbeParque, a playground for local children, which he hopes will help Cubans see that cuentapropistas can benefit the community. All the parts of the playgrounds take the shape of barbers’ tools like scissors, a comb and a razor. The plan was designed by college students studying architecture and paid for by the government.

The park is more than just an attraction for children. While cuentapropistas have often been vilified by government officials as greedy capitalists, BarbeParque offers another perspective on what cuentapropistas can contribute to this solidarity-minded society.

This sense of community has flourished beyond the newly renovated streets of Old Havana to neighborhoods like El Vedado, where Casa Vera, a casa particular, or bed-and-breakfast, functions as an informal cooperative.

The casa particular hosts college students from abroad and offering meals, laundry service and cultural activities, such as salsa classes.

The owner, Aleida Gonzales Vera, has joined with neighbors to create one large operation by merging several small neighboring houses. Gonzalez’s house can accommodate about a dozen students; in the common areas meals are served and students can hold meetings – or get salsa-dancing lessons.

The informal arrangement with her neighbors allows Gonzalez to host groups as large as 50 students. But when she uses rooms owned by her neighbors so that she can host larger groups, she said her profits come only from serving meals to the students. She does not collect fees for managing the enterprise.

But, in today’s Cuba, despite new regulations meant to open economic opportunity, many social and business arrangements are still highly tenuous. Take the case of what was once a popular restuarant-cum-dinner theater known as El Cabildo, which was run by Ulises Aquino. The opera impresario also created La Opera de la Calle, which repackaged classical opera to make it more accessible to ordinary Cubans, according to Entrepreneurial Cuba by Archibald A. M. Ritter and Ted E. Henken. Aquino ran a successful paladar and theater for tourists, to whom he charged the equivalent of $25 cover, which helped pay for the theater’s high overhead and “generous salaries” for 130 employees. At the same time, Aquino sponsored free cultural and educational activities for children, and staged La Opera de la Calle performances for locals, at a much lower cover charge. The operation, wrote Ritter and Henken,  was “born out of a felicitous combination of Aquino’s individual entrepreneurial initiative and his clear commitment to community uplift.”

But the authorities carried out a surprise raid of El Cabildo in 2012, and shut it down. Since many of Cuba’s leading government officials, including the vice minister of culture had praised the theater, Henken and Ritter speculate that the raid signaled that a “hidden fifth column” within the government bureaucracy was seeking to put the brakes on Raul Castro’s reforms.

Indeed, like both Aquino and Garcia, many cuentapropistas say they embrace socialist values. But without a formal, state-sanctioned NGO or philanthropic sector, their efforts are unlikely to go far.