This week, five small business owners visiting Washington changed the conversation about Cuba to something deeper and far more interesting than what normally takes place when policymakers debate the future of Cuba and U.S. policy by themselves.
Take, for example, Yamina Vicente, who taught economics to college students in Havana and left her post to open Decorazón, a business that provides decorations and hosts parties for Cuban families. Her clients spend as little as $20 and as much as $500 for birthdays, baby showers, weddings, and even the celebration of Halloween.
When she was asked, “What does the ability to run a small business mean to you?”, her answer might have sounded familiar to anyone who has attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting in the United States.
“There are five advantages,” she said.
The first is increased income and financial opportunity. Her personal situation “has improved a great deal” since she opened Decorazón. The second is the ability to provide employment to others. Third, she is able to offer services never before seen in Cuba. Fourth, she said, “there is no longer a ceiling on what you can achieve. Your efforts can take you anywhere now.” Fifth, finally, she said she had regained lost hope, because running a business “combines my passions with what is objectively needed to survive.”
Yamina was joined by Nidialys Acosta and Julio Álvarez, whose fleet of rental cars allow tourists to see Cuba from seats inside restored Chevrolets from the 1950s; Niuris Higueras Martínez, owner of the fashionable Atelier paladar; and by Emilia Fernández, a human resources specialist in the state-run health system.
Julio and Nidialys are earning more running their business than they did as employees of the state. They are learning more, as well, from foreign tourists who have advised them on everything from the amenities consumers expect (they now supply water and moist towelettes) to the design of their logo and website. Their business is taking off; with more reservations than they could handle, they expanded payroll and hired more staff, and they are now formalizing a contract approved by Cuba’s Tourism Ministry to provide their rental cars for use by foreign tourists in packages run by Cubanacan, a state enterprise.
To Julio, who once stood outside the Hotel Nacional with his one taxi asking foreign tourists, “Do you need a taxi? Need a taxi? Taxi? Taxi?”, this is welcomed relief.
Emilia Fernandez, whose hospital provides surgery for patients with retinitis pigmentosa and other eye diseases, sees opportunity with the reforms. Her institution can now access faster, more efficient maintenance and repair of its physical plant and stock its food service with fresher commodities because the state allows it to contract out to businesses run by self-employed workers. Moreover, she plans to research the health effects of the entrepreneurial economy – for example, stress – and to offer advice to the self-employed on how to maintain their health as they build their businesses.
None of the Cubans declared their country’s private sector reforms had converted Cuba into an “entrepreneur’s paradise.” As in the U.S., the majority of small businesses in Cuba fail. They struggle due to lack of consumer demand, an inefficient system of allocating and obtaining credit, limits on their ability to buy wholesale goods, and limits on access to the Internet. These are problems native to Cuba’s system and cannot be fixed from the outside.
By the same token, the changes they are reporting, such as their growth in personal satisfaction, are also rippling through the society at-large in ways with implications for U.S. policy.
Earlier this year, Senator Marco Rubio ripped into visitors to Cuba, reminding them that the country (he has never visited) is not a zoo. Our Cuban visitors, however, said that tourism was driving the expansion of their businesses and was the source of innovation. They said Cubans are not only getting better pay, more jobs, and diverse services, but the private sector reforms are forcing the state enterprises to be more efficient and competitive.
After listening to the cuentapropistas tell their stories, Carlos Saladrigas of The Cuba Study Group called the U.S. embargo, put into effect to change Cuba, an obstacle to the changes happening in Cuba. Lifting restrictions – encouraging more travel, opening the U.S. as an export market for goods created by the new Cuban businesses, allowing more support to flow from the U.S. into Cuba – is the right way to go if we want to support the transformation taking place.
Niuris came to Washington with a promotional video for Atelier. Its theme - antes y después, before and after – records the reconstruction of her restaurant, but it could also be a metaphor for what is happening in Cuba, and a guide for where U.S. policy should go – from the embargo to something different and better for both countries.
As President Obama said in Miami late last week, “Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”
After more than a half-century of trying to get Cuba to fail, we should try listening to Cubans who want a chance for themselves and their country to succeed.
For more this week in Cuba News, CLICK HERE.