In Search Of Bandwidth, Cuban Entrepreneurs Head To Miami
MAY 26, 2015 1:56 PM ET
When Cuban bikini maker Victor Rodríguez visited Miami this month, he
was on a pilgrimage — not just for bathing suits but for bandwidth.
The most important stop on Rodríguez’s schedule was lunch in Wynwood,
Miami’s high-tech district, with Mel Valenzuela, who owns the online
swimwear store Pretty Beachy.
As Valenzuela showed Rodríguez how to do business online, his awestruck
expression seemed to evoke José Arcadio Buendía in One Hundred Years of
Solitude, who when he first touches ice declares it “the great invention
of our time.”
“My eyes light up,” said Rodríguez, “when I see how greatly the Internet
could expand my horizons as a business owner.”
The U.S. and Cuba are closer than ever to restoring diplomatic ties. But
if you ask Cubans what they want most from normalized relations, they’ll
likely tell you they just want to get on the Web.
Only 5 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people have unrestricted access to
the Internet, and only a quarter of them have any access at all. That’s
among the lowest levels in the world.
It’s also a human rights issue. Cuba’s communist government says it
wants half the population wired by the end of this decade. Yet it’s
reluctant to give Cubans such a powerful information tool.
But here’s the bottom line: Cuba can’t rebuild its ragged economy if it
doesn’t build the Internet. And that’s one big reason a growing number
of fledgling private entrepreneurs like Rodríguez have been coming to
They’re looking in part for things like small-business advice, wholesale
material, product trends and maybe even some investment and yanqui
partnership. But perhaps most of all they want to touch the great
invention of our time — “el servicio,” as Rodríguez calls the Internet.
“Being so limited is crazy,” said Valenzuela. “Victor wants to do so
much, and there’s so much ambition, there’s so much drive. And then at
the same time there’s so many things holding him back. So, like, what
could take us a second to figure out, he’s had to learn with whatever he
Rodríguez met Valenzuela through the Cuba Study Group, a Washington
think tank that promotes U.S.-Cuba engagement. Valenzuela herself is a
U.S.-born Cuban American who wants to connect with the birthplace of her
parents — and in the process help Cuban business owners like Rodríguez
learn how to operate online.
With her laptop planted between plates of seafood salad, she offered a
quick tutorial on basics like line sheets — pages that display your
product line — and pricing information. Rodríguez is a former
mathematics professor, and as he listened to Valenzuela you could see
him calculating how to run with all of this.
“Caramba, it would be worth every cent to find a photographer back in
Havana who can take the high-resolution product photos I’d need,” he
said, thinking aloud.
Valenzuela, meanwhile, checked out samples of the popular crocheted
bikinis Victor brought from his shop in Cuba. And she began thinking
aloud how well they might sell on Pretty Beachy’s site.
“They have what we’re looking for, which is product,” she said. “With
the right Web designer and all of that, yeah, he could do partnerships
But the big question is how soon — and to what extent — Cuba’s red
regime will give the green light.
In recent months, the government has offered Cubans a few hours of free
Internet in places like public plazas.
And the most popular guy on the island right now might just be the Cuban
artist named Kcho. With government approval, Kcho this year began
offering Cubans free Wi-Fi — and unrestricted Internet access — at his
Havana cultural center. They’ve been flocking to it like moths to a lantern.
But for small-business folks like Caridad Limonta, another Cuban
entrepreneur who joined Rodríguez and Valenzuela, the online
frustrations — the inability to employ the Internet for everything from
sales to supply chain to market research — are big and boiling.
“Look,” said Limonta, who owns a garment business called Procle, “to go
online I usually have to travel to a hotel and pay $5 an hour,” which is
a quarter of the average Cuban’s monthly salary. “I should be spending
that time and money making my product.”
As their working lunch drew to a close, Valenzuela walked Rodríguez and
Limonta through an online business transaction using their companies as
examples. When she finished, Rodríguez stood up and enthusiastically
shook her hand.
“I just made my first online deal!” he shouted for all of Wynwood to hear.
And as the man said, his eyes lit up.
Source: In Search Of Bandwidth, Cuban Entrepreneurs Head To Miami :
Parallels : NPR –