The Cuba Debate: Can Capitalist Rookies Thrive In A Communist Revolution?
By TIM PADGETT
When you’ve spent your entire life on a communist island where staples
like eggs and chicken are rationed, lunch in Miami can be overwhelming.
Ask Sandra Aldama, a Cuban mother and former special education teacher
who made her first visit to the United States this month. Settling into
a downtown Italian restaurant as waiters whizzed by with plates of
fettuccine alfredo and veal parmesan, Aldama was almost certainly
reminded of what the average Cuban can’t get at home.
But these days Aldama is bothered by another Cuban shortage: sodium
hydroxide, a basic chemical for making soap.
Last year she started a business in Havana called D’Brujas that produces
scented natural soap. Her hypoallergenic product is a popular novelty
for most Cubans – but in the country’s threadbare economy she has scant
access to necessary ingredients.
“It’s hard to find the simplest supplies you need to run a business
there,” she says. “And even if you do, you can’t be sure they’ll be
So while she was in South Florida, Sandra sought advice from
entrepreneurs like Ricardo Lastre.
Lastre, himself a Cuban-American, has his own Miami Beach soap-making
business called Lastre Botanicals. As he mixed some cocoa butter soap
bars recently, he talked about Aldama’s visit and the chance to counsel
a novice Cuban entrepreneur like Aldama.
“She gave me one of her soaps,” he said. “It was called café menta,
which is coffee mint. Beautiful, smells great, elegant, simple.”
Sandra almost cried when she saw the shelves in Lastre’s workshop: Row
after row of oils, herbs and emulsifiers that she can only dream of
using in Cuba. And lots of sodium hydroxide.
Lastre gave her tips on how to do more with what she does have, and how
to market it better.
“That knowledge exchange is invaluable,” Aldama said. “Learning business
tools and techniques I didn’t know I had.”
The Miami-born Lastre, a son of Cuban exiles, condemns Cuba’s communist
dictatorship. But Cuban leader Raúl Castro needs to rescue his country’s
desperate finances – and he’s decreed reforms that, while limited at
best, do allow a broader range of private enterprise. Cuba’s Roman
Catholic Church even offers business classes.
So Lastre is considering efforts to get supplies to Aldama in Cuba. And
Cuban-Americans like him think the Obama Administration should relax the
U.S. trade embargo so investors can funnel more help to the island’s
fledgling private sector.
“I think that we should be able to help people that are starting from
the beginning,” says Lastre. “If people realize in Cuba that they can do
it on their own, I think things would change [there].”
That’s a central issue, if not the central issue, in the Cuba policy
Sandra and four other Cuban entrepreneurs were invited to Miami by the
Cuba Study Group. The Washington-based think tank, headed by more
moderate Cuban-American businessmen like Miami millionaire Carlos
Saladrigas, supports empowering Cuban capitalists. One aim is to help
them become as important as dissidents when it comes to undermining
“It’s important for us to not just read theories and hypotheses [about]
what’s happening in Cuba,” says executive director Tomas Bilbao, “but to
actually meet the people who are on the ground working independently of
the government, gaining greater control of their lives and employing
But more hardline Cuban-Americans who want to keep the embargo intact
say any investment sent to Cuba – even to independent entrepreneurs – is
all too likely to aid the Castro regime.
“What’s going to end up happening is the regime will have its ability to
decide who gets that money,” says Miami attorney Marcell Felipe, a
director of the Cuban Liberty Council.
Felipe insists that capital has to be channeled through bona fide
dissident organizations, because only they can vet which enterprises are
genuinely private and which are state-controlled ventures in disguise or
at to be co-opted by the government.
“If [Cuban entrepreneurs] have no commitment to that…tremendously
difficult fight of defying the government,” Felipe argues, “they will
eventually be brought in as servants for the government, willingly or
Even pro-reform Cuban-Americans like Lastre say they’re nervous about
how insidiously Castro and company can manipulate the country’s new
burst of free enterprise.
Cuban cuentapropistas, or entrepreneurs, are understandably reluctant to
shake their fists at the regime. When I asked Aldama and the other
visiting cuentapropistas about Cuba’s notoriously heavy small-business
taxes, they declined – surprisingly – to criticize them.
Still, Cuban-Americans are sending billions of dollars and tons of
capital goods directly to relatives in Cuba – about half a million of
whom are cuentapropistas or their employees.
Says Yasmine Vicente, who owns a Havana event-planning business, “This
has altered the potential of the individual and our perception of work.”
And maybe Miami’s perception of Cuban capitalism.
Tim Padgett is WLRN’s Americas editor.
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