Cuba’s Budding Entrepreneurs Travel A Rocky Road Toward Success
by DAVID GREENE and JASMINE GARSD
June 24, 2014 3:39 AM ET
When Americans think of business in Cuba, they think of government-owned
enterprise. And the vast majority of Cubans do work for the state.
But in recent years, private business owners known as cuentapropistas
have flourished on the island.
Cuentapropismo literally means “on your own account.” As far back as the
1970s, Fidel Castro was talking about how socialism and small business
ownership could coexist. Today, they do so more than ever: Between 2010
and 2013, the Cuban government expanded the list of privately owned
business ventures that are legal on the island, such as construction
work, restaurants and tailoring.
About 1 million people — or 20 percent of the Cuban workforce — can now
be classified as wholly in the private sector, according to a report by
Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution.
Barbara Fernandez Franco remembers being excited when that list of
government-permitted businesses first came out. She combed through the
200-odd jobs, and thought carefully about which she could do. She
decided on the “tailor and seamstress” category.
We met 28-year-old Barbara in one of the aging but gorgeous buildings
that line the narrow colonial streets of central Havana, Cuba’s capital.
Sitting in the stairway, she tells us it’s been a difficult road full of
She started off reselling clothing a friend made, but the profit margins
were very small. Then, she began buying clothing from abroad, from
countries like Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico, which she
At first the project was as rocky as any start-up business. But a few
months down the line, she says, the profits where outstanding. Barbara
was able to save a good amount of money — which today is helping her
purchase a new home with her boyfriend, Michel Perez Casanova.
But that boom in business soon came to an end when the government
announced that importing clothing for resale on the island would be
illegal as of Dec. 31, 2013.
After Franco learned to sew, she started producing baby clothes and
mosquito nets for cribs.
Barbara was devastated by the news, she says, but while other businesses
shut down, she chose to carry on as best she could: She learned how to
sew and created her own line of baby clothing and mosquito netting for
At a small restaurant in the port city of Mariel, owner Onil Lemus told
us everyone he knows is absolutely thrilled about the widening scope of
legal business ventures. In fact he jokes that he liked it better when
there where fewer cuentapropistas — because he had less competition.
Even though business is good for Onil, he echoed what several other
small enterprise owners said to us: One of the biggest challenges has
been the lack of raw materials. In Mariel for example, Onil said,
there’s no access to wholesale food markets, which are so important to
the restaurant industry.
Pointing to the delicious lamb stew he’d prepared for us, he explained
that he’d had to go to a farm to buy the meat, but foods like rice and
beans — staples in Cuban cuisine — are hard to buy in large quantities
at good prices.
Similarly, Barbara said certain fabrics and ornaments are so expensive,
it would be impossible for her to make a profit if she were to use them.
The widespread sentiment here is that the U.S. embargo — which has been
in place for more than 50 years and is known as el bloqueo, or “the
blockade,” on the island — is largely responsible for these kinds of
Since taking over for his brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro has been
pushing to modernize the economy. Onil said he’s confident that as the
number of private business owners grows, the government will address
Barbara’s boyfriend Michel, on the other hand, seemed more disheartened.
“Some tourists say that this country’s growing up now and it’s going to
get better and better,” he said. “But you know the system here is so
slow. Step by step. Very, very, very slow.”
Source: Cuba’s Budding Entrepreneurs Travel A Rocky Road Toward Success
: Parallels : NPR –