Open for Business, at Home, in Havana

By Rebecca Ungarino, Mark Garzon and Jessica Nieberg

HAVANA – Raul Rodriguez lined up six black soles on a small wooden stool on his long cement and tile porch. He propped up a sign and wrote, in bold black letters, “Zapatero” – shoemaker. This is the shoemaker’s home, and his business.

From Rodriguez’s porch, strewn with toys, he can see his two small children and nephew scampering in and out of the home. The first floor is a small box room attached to a compact kitchen, with a refrigerator, three decorative silk roses taped to its door, standing prominently against a rickety spiral staircase. Few passersby walked by his modest house, set back about 10 feet from the narrow street.

To read our full coverage of Cuba in 2016, click here.

Rodriguez, who lives and works in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, is a cuentapropista – a self-employed worker, licensed by Cuba’s government to operate as a private businessperson in an economy dominated by state-owned stores and services since the revolution of 1959.

Raul Rodriguez, a shoemaker and repairman, is a licensed cuentapropista. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.
Raul Rodriguez, who makes and repairs shoes, is among a half-million licensed self-employed workers in Cuba. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.

About a half-million private, licensed people now work in Cuba’s private sector, up from an estimated 150,000 in 2010, while an additional 600,000 cuentapropistas are estimated to work unlicensed or part-time, according to the World Policy Institute.

The process is becoming easier for Cubans who want to run small businesses and work on their own. Under President Raul Castro, the government is inching away from tightly regulated commerce, creating 201 categories of self-employment under which Cubans can legally operate. Among them are manicurist, sign painter, bookbinder and disposable lighter repair and refill worker. Only 27 percent of the categories are for “skilled” or “professional” services. Rodriguez may fall under three categories: shoemaker, shoe salesman and shoe shiner.

“Please, take a picture so they know I’m licensed,” said Rodriguez, holding up his state-issued license for a photograph after quickly finding it in his small table.

As 90 percent of Cubans are estimated to own their homes, working from there may prove a practical way for many people to do business.

"Please, take a picture so they know I'm licensed," said Rodriguez. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.
“Please, take a picture so they know I’m licensed,” said Raul Rodriguez. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.

“It’s fairly accurate to say that out of your garage, or on your porch… that is in many ways one of the defining characteristics of Cuban entrepreneurs, so it’s not the exception. It’s the rule,” said Ted Henken, an associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College, who has written extensively about the modern Cuban economy.

“This kind of economic activity was repressed for decades under the revolution, and even though that repression was cyclical – sometimes it was harsh, sometimes it wasn’t – it has been repressed.”

With the high rate of home ownership, one of the few entities not owned by the government, working at home is “kind of default, the only place they could set up businesses,” he added.

Independently owned and operated small businesses are scattered throughout Havana. In Vedado, many decaying houses and buildings seem a world away from the sheen of Habana Vieja, Old Havana, with its tourists and swept walkways.

Yanko Sanchez, a cell phone repairman, sets up his business on his porch. Photo by Rebecca Ungarino.
Yanko Sanchez, a cell phone repairman, sets up shop on his porch. Photo by Rebecca Ungarino.

On a residential street several blocks from Rodriguez, Yanko Sanchez sat on his porch, with a laptop on a table. A landline phone stood on one windowsill behind him, a power strip on the other in a tangle of wires. A small sign, hanging from a decorative grate in front of him, said, “Abierto/Open.”

Sanchez repairs and unlocks cell phones; he does not sell them, but the Cuban government does allow “electronic equipment repair” as one category of self-employment. His customers often get their phones from their families as gifts. Computers – which he doesn’t repair – are also often received as gifts, and less commonly through Amazon, he said.
While the Internet is definitely not widespread, and people depend on Internet “hotspots,” Sanchez said there are more computers “than people think.”

Jaqueline Salmeron opened her beauty salon eight years ago, when operating privately was more difficult to do. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.
Jacqueline Salmeron opened her beauty salon eight years ago when operating privately was more difficult. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.

While Sánchez was sitting on his porch, Jacqueline Salmeron was cutting and coloring a customer’s hair on the corner of Calle 15 and Avenue E. “It used to be much different,” said Salmeron, who employs five hairdressers and a manicurist at her beauty salon in a home’s converted garage.

“Eight years ago,” when she opened her beauty salon, “there was nothing to open,” Salmeron said.

The 28-year-old colored a woman’s hair, sometimes brushing with one hand while holding her landline phone between her ear and her shoulder. Black, brunette and blonde hair extensions hung from small hooks in the wall. Salmeron said she used to have to import everything from abroad, but now “everything comes from Cuba.”

The black-and-white paper sign hanging from the wide open door says, in cutout bubble letters, “Manicure and Pedicure.” She said she rents the space from the home’s owner.

In what was once a garage in a house in Vedado now sits Salmeron's beauty salon. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.
The salon operates in what was once the garage attached to a local home. Photo by Jessica Nieberg

Gesturing toward the extensions, which vary in price based upon length, she said, “Those come from farmers who grow and sell hair for this.” The salon offers haircuts and highlights, and she said it has 15 to 20 customers a week, including some regulars.

As she talks, an employee styles a man’s hair behind her, while the smell of hair dye flows out of the open door and window.

One recent afternoon, Rodriguez, his son, also named Raul, and his nephew, Kevin, shared a stiff armchair built for one in the center of the room, watching bootlegged cartoons on a scratchy television set. Rodriguez’s wife chased after their daughter, Chanel, who was crawling across the linoleum floor.

By charging customers 20 to 30 pesos, roughly equivalent to $1.10 to $1.70, Rodriguez can purchase supplies to make and repair shoes and provide for his family, he explained speaking through a translator. To purchase materials like soles and glue, he charges visitors double what he charges those from his neighborhood.

“I don’t care what’s going on out there,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t care about the politics. I just want to provide for my family.”