Cuba says 'si' to entrepreneurs
Published On Sat Aug 13 2011
Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times
HAVANA—They began with a hose and a few rags when Amilcar Santa Cruz and
his 30 siblings and cousins set up a car wash in Havana's Miramar
district, a little family business to help make ends meet.
And that's all it was for several years.
But in the last few months, the business has exploded. The car wash
today is a bustling piece of new Cuban enterprise, complete with metal
roofing, fluorescent lighting, a café and a full line of air fresheners
to hang from the rearview mirror.
"Everyone here is real hard-working," Santa Cruz said. "It's all about
Cuba has embarked on a far-reaching experiment to salvage its depleted
and, until now, tightly regulated Marxist economy. By significantly
expanding permits for Cubans to open their own businesses and hire other
Cubans, the communist government has launched the island on its most
remarkable change in years, an expansion of free enterprise that was
unthinkable when Fidel Castro was in full control.
But his more pragmatic younger brother, Raul, who formally took over in
2008, has ordered a long list of reforms that include slashing the state
workforce by up to one million people, eliminating many of the subsidies
that dominated life and, most recently, promising to ease travel off the
island by Cubans.
Change, of course, comes in fits and starts. Most Cubans probably have
yet to feel much in the way of new prosperity, and many among the
emerging crop of fledgling entrepreneurs continue to complain of
burdensome red tape and the taxes they are required to pay. With credit
virtually non-existent, most must scramble for other sources of capital,
such as remittances from relatives in the United States or Europe.
Still, a walk along the seafront or through graceful Old Havana, or in
any residential neighbourhood, down a street of crumbling facades or
past freshly painted colonial homes reveals a buzz of activity.
Hand-lettered signs have popped up, seemingly every few yards,
announcing a new restaurant, hair salon or cellphone repair shop.
At Santa Cruz's carwash, business the other day was brisk. Customers
pulled in one after another, from a boxy old white Lada to a fancy
Juan Formell, the conductor of the iconic Cuban band Los Van Van, was
there having his car washed, the interiors swept, the tires fortified
with a silicone mixture. It all costs up to five pesos, or roughly $5
(U.S.), a fortune for most Cubans but worth every cent, Formell said.
(Waxing costs extra.)
"We need a lot more places like this," Formell said. "The private
business pays a lot more attention to detail and is a lot more careful
than the state. This is good for society and, in a few years, the
economy will really take off."
Santa Cruz said his family has gradually been able to move out of the
tiny house shared by so many. And last month they added the café, with
its fresh coat of sea-green paint and Italian-style tile, where cousin
Yelena Ponce was dishing out thick pork chops into little cardboard
boxes for hungry customers.
Cuba's economic experiment has the potential to transform its society.
The new policy creates jobs, circulates money and stirs a new mentality
that values quality and competition. It will not completely remake the
economy, however, because for the most part the new work involves
services and not production. But it's an important beginning.
As of July 19, according to Deputy Labour Minister Carlos Mateu, more
than 325,900 Cubans had taken out licences to open, run or work at
private businesses involving nearly 200 designated activities, including
hairstyling, carpentry, shoemaking and dance instruction.
Another important change is that proprietors no longer have to hire only
relatives — with the proper license, they can employ any Cuban.
Nowhere is the boom bigger than in restaurants. The Cuban government
first permitted privately-run eateries, known as paladares, from the
Spanish word for "palate," in the difficult 1990s, when the nation was
reeling from the collapse of the Soviet empire and the loss of its major
sponsor. But the paladares operated with crippling restrictions, and
only the hardiest survived.
Today you can easily find anything from the simplest pizza to true
gourmet dining. By a rough estimate, more than 100 restaurants have
opened in recent months.
Roberto Robaina, dumped as foreign minister in 1999, has just opened the
doors on his Chaplain Cafe, where customers sit on white wrought-iron
furniture and nibble salmon-stuffed cucumber rolls on black china.
"I wanted to do something different," Robaina said the other day.
Dedicated to painting after leaving government (and being expelled from
the Communist party), Robaina has decorated the former mansion with some
of his artworks.
One of the waiters, a young Brad Pitt lookalike named Carlos, said he
had been laid off from a job at a state-run cafeteria as part of the
government's effort to trim its payroll, but he quickly found new
employment. "There's a lot of competition now," said Carlos, 21, with
gelled blond-tipped curls.
Bom Apetite is a restaurant that has been around since the '90s but is
now expanding by leaps and bounds to accommodate a growing clientele,
said manager Adrian Riera. The menu includes items once prohibited, such
as shrimp and lobster, he said, and they are adding on a bar with
capacity for 40 people that will serve wine and tapas until 3 a.m.
"We are now something really professional," Riera said, pausing from a
meeting with the president of the Cuban Sommeliers Association. "Private
businesses are no longer just a family matter. We are moving into