Trades and Businesses of Old Make a Comeback in Cuba
September 12, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — Private detectives, pet-care centers, pawnbrokers,
tourist buses, opticians, travel agents, psychologists on call – these
are some of the businesses, started by Cuba’s self-employed, which were
practically unknown on the island until recently and have now become as
profitable as the more familiar private restaurants or lodgings.
Thanks to private initiative, which has been gaining ground in the
country with the reforms the government has been implementing since
2008, today Cubans can take out a loan to start a business, go on
vacation on a private bus, leave their dogs in expert hands, have their
partners followed and pay for a shrink if the results of this
investigation proves traumatic for them.
Some have secured official authorization, others operate using the
licenses of others and many eke out a living at the margins of a
legislation which has authorized self-employment in a mere 200 basic
trades. No one can say for certain whether this legislation is a prelude
of what is to come or if it traces the limits of the reform process.
When Raul Castro took office, he announced that Cubans would continue to
have equal opportunities, but not equal earnings, de-vilifying wealth
and allowing those who had money to spend it openly. This gave rise to
new needs among the population.
Today, when Cubans are allowed to stay at hotels and travel abroad, the
island’s new entrepreneurs must look for a place where they can leave
their dogs, which are almost invariably well-bred. For US $6 a day, a
pet-care center offers to treat their dogs like kings: a package which
includes good food, sea-side walks and even veterinary attention.
Security and Consulting
A number of agencies have begun offering private investigation and
security services, guaranteeing “many years of experience” in the field.
Their employees are reportedly trained to offer security services for
parties, investigate cases of theft within a company and monitor an
allegedly unfaithful spouse.
This development is rather ironic, as the arrest of British private
detectives some years ago, caught spying on a foreign businessman based
in Cuba, is still fresh in people’s minds. The detectives had been hired
by a jealous wife who was apprehensive about the charms of Cuban women.
Moneylenders – which hadn’t been seen in Cuba for decades – have also
resurfaced, offering the capital one needs to start that “small
business” that will make one rich. In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they were
known as “brakemen”, in reference to the methods they often employed to
convince those behind on their debts to pay up.
“Today, Cubans can take out a loan to start a business, go on vacation
on a private bus, leave their dogs in expert hands, have their partners
followed and pay for a shrink if the results of this investigation
proves traumatic for them.”
An accountant whom we’ll refer to as “Juan” (he does not want his real
name to be made public) offers to keep the books of self-employed
entrepreneurs making good money for a mere US $ 60.00 a month. He has “a
program that can prepare 20 different accounting reports, one for taxes,
one for partners and an accurate one for you [the employer],” he told
New investors can now resort to consultants who will advise them on how
to tread the winding roads of Cuba’s bureaucracy in order to open a
business, and to others who will explain to them how to purchase
properties, skirting the restrictions of the Housing Law.
Self-employed health professionals
Fledgling dental clinics, opticians and even psychologists who do house
calls are some of the self-employed health-care professionals that are
beginning to surface where Cuba’s free public health system shows a
clear deficit in personnel or resources.
A psychologist who specializes in “sessions with autistic children
between the ages of 2 and 12” charges US $5 a day. A professional from
the field told BBC Mundo that he uses “card therapy, based on what the
psychologist knows on the basis of the child’s situation, assessed
through a preliminary test.”
Optometrists in Cuba
For as moderate a price, some of their colleagues are willing to do a
bit of psychoanalysis on call. All the while, a countrywide shortage in
dentures has given rise to a lucrative business fed by products sent
“We’ve got everything you can pay for here”, “Homero”, an optometrist
who also preferred to remain anonymous, told us while offering us
glasses with “the best of frames.” He attentively explained to us that
“glasses for near or far-sightedness cost 25 CUC (Cuban Convertible
Pesos, roughly on a par with the US dollar, minus 10% in fees), bifocals
cost 30 CUC, natural progressive glasses cost 50 CUC and photosensitive
progressives 150 CUC.”
Trips and tourism
Cuba’s migratory reforms have also given rise to new opportunities, and
Oscar and Julia have not let these pass. They call themselves
“processing agents”. “For 15 CUC, we get applicants the DF 160 (a form
needed to request a US travel visa). For 5 CUC, we book an appointment
to request a passport at the Spanish Embassy,” they tell us.
Since travelers need to speak foreign languages, private language
academies are multiplying across the island. In Havana’s neighborhood of
Vedado, one such institution has rented out several houses and fitted
them with classrooms. In today’s Cuba, you can learn English,
Portuguese, French, Russian, Chinese, German, CA atalonian and Dutch
through private lessons.
Josvani and his wife also have a sweet little business going: they
organize tours within the island. Though they use the bus belonging to
the company Josvani works for, they are officially self-employed, buying
the diesel they need on the black market at US $0.30 the liter and
charging US $40 per person for a trip to Trinidad, a colonial city in
For parties, you can now rent costumes and inflatable playgrounds for
birthdays. You can also hire a band of mariachis to serenade your
girlfriend with style and, if you’re looking for something more
thrilling, you can go scuba-diving or get a paintball war started, a
mere 10 meters away from Havana’s ocean drive.
(*) A HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo in Spanish.
Source: “Trades and Businesses of Old Make a Comeback in Cuba” –