Stay or Go? Cuban Entrepreneurs Divided on Where to Stake Futures
By FRANCES ROBLESMARCH 21, 2016
HAVANA — As an inside joke about all the cookies they scorched on the
road to establishing a successful bakery, Antonio and Sandra Camacho
Rodríguez named their Havana sweets shop the Burner Brothers.
To them, it was a metaphor for the relentless trial and error it took
for two inexperienced and untrained chefs — she is a doctor, and her
brother was a salesman — to start a business in a communist country that
was taking its first steps in private enterprise.
As tens of thousands of Cuban millennials give up on Cuba and head
north, the Camachos are part of an expanding class of entrepreneurs who
are opting to remain, betting on Cuba’s future despite serious challenges.
“There’s an extremely powerful emerging market right now in Cuba,” said
Mr. Camacho, 26, standing in their tiny shop, where cookies are 10 cents
each, in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. “To me, it’s easier to become
part of an emerging market than to try to make it in some other country,
where the market was created years ago.”
As President Obama met with President Raúl Castro of Cuba on Monday, a
surprising statistic loomed over the two leaders: More than twice as
many Cubans went to live in the United States last year than in 1959,
when Mr. Castro’s brother Fidel came to power and unleashed a wave of
migration that altered South Florida forever.
While Mr. Obama attended a conference Monday afternoon with American
business leaders and new entrepreneurs who are breathing life into a
dying economy here, Cuba is bleeding doctors, small-business owners,
construction workers and waitresses. Even with the country’s new
restaurateurs and innkeepers, more beauticians have put down their
clippers and more farmers have left their crops behind.
“I think some people suffer from a lack of vision,” Mr. Camacho said.
“Many people also live in a precarious situation, in humble surroundings
or even extreme poverty.”
Recent migration patterns cast doubt on how much faith Cubans have in
private-sector reforms. Last week, after Costa Rica cleared out dozens
of shelters filled with Cuban migrants, sending them on the United
States, 1,000 more showed up at its border with Panama.
“If you take a census of Cuba now, I’m not sure what would be left,”
said Jenny Heredia Ocaña, 33, a former hospital administrator who
recently closed her beauty salon in Havana and left for the United States.
On her way she was marooned for months in Costa Rica, shuffling between
migrant shelters where she encountered thousands of fellow Cubans.
Federal figures show that at least 63,000 Cubans moved to the United
States last year, the bulk of them crossing the southwestern border on
foot. More than 250,000 Cubans have been granted residency during the
Obama administration alone — enough to populate a city almost the size
of Orlando, Fla.
In 2014, 122,000 Cubans were on the waiting list to join their families,
one of the longest lists for American visas in the world.
“If the Cuban economy continues to falter, many Cubans will vote with
their feet,” said Richard E. Feinberg, the author of “Open for
Business,” a book about Cuba’s new economy.
Yet even as tens of thousands of Cubans have given up on their homeland,
millions have opted to stay.
“Maybe 50,000 or 75,000 people left — that still means 11.2 million are
still there,” said Mr. Feinberg, whose book includes a chapter on
millennials who have chosen to remain in Cuba.
Under new rules that allow private enterprise, the Cuban government had
issued about 496,000 small business licenses by the end of last year.
Nearly one-third of those business owners are young people.
“When people started to travel and could do so without being forced to
stay abroad, it changed life here — the way people lived, the way they
dressed,” said Emisleidy Maza Ramos, 27, who holds a number of jobs,
including at her boyfriend’s food delivery business. “There’s a
difference in the air.”
Alvin Pino Estrada, the owner of D’ Abuela (“Grandma’s”), opened his
business a month ago and employs 12 people. He said he struggled to find
supplies like napkins and plastic forks, raw materials like potatoes,
and industrial equipment.
“It has to work,” said Mr. Pino Estrada, a former musician who returned
to Cuba after living in Spain for three years. “I’m not motivated to leave.”
Charles Shapiro, a former American ambassador to Venezuela who heads the
World Affairs Council of Atlanta and travels frequently to Cuba, said
people who stayed were increasingly able to live comfortably,
particularly in contrast to neighbors who earn $25 a month in state jobs.
“I met a tour guide who was recently offered a scholarship to get a
master’s in Washington, who makes $1,000 a week in tips,” Mr. Shapiro
said. “He’s staying.”
The biggest problem in growing entrepreneurship, he added, is the
stranglehold on the supply chain.
“The supply of spare parts, for food, for toilet paper, it’s in the
hands of the government,” he said.
Igor Thondike, who worked as a glassmaker in Cuba and recently moved to
Tampa, Fla., said many new business owners back home could not get
materials. Shoemakers, he said, could not find leather and “lost their
Ihosvany Oscar Artiles Ferrer, 44, a veterinarian who worked in Camagüey
but recently moved to Queens, said the lack of wholesalers to buy
supplies from made it difficult to eke out a profit.
“The private business is like a handkerchief the government puts over
everything to be able to say to the United Nations that in Cuba people
own small businesses,” Mr. Artiles said.
“In the beginning, almost all of us were revolutionaries,” he added.
“But now, we quit all that because we don’t believe in Fidel, in the
revolution, in socialism or anything.”
The Obama administration clearly hopes that as the Castro government
moves toward economic reform and Washington permits more commerce and
travel, more Cubans will stay put, slowing the steady stream of exits
that has contributed to a broader migration crisis.
But Cuba also benefits from those who leave. Many businesses on the
island begin with the remittances émigrés send back from the United
States. The Camachos said that it took about $25,000 to start a business
like their cookie company, and that they were fortunate to count on
American citizens in their immediate family.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, the White House’s point man on Cuba, said last week
that “greater economic activity in the island is going to be good for
the Cuban people.”
“It’s going to be a source of empowerment for them,” said Mr. Rhodes,
the president’s deputy national security adviser. “It’s going to improve
But Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, scoffed at the empowerment
reference and blamed Washington for the exodus. Many Cubans have said
they have rushed to leave because they fear that after normalizing
relations, Mr. Obama will do away with migratory policies that give
Cubans special status in the United States.
Such American laws are “selective, politically motivated and encourage
illegal, unsafe and disorderly migration,” Mr. Rodríguez said at a news
conference on Thursday.
Holly Ackerman, who studies Cuban migration at Duke University, said
this recent wave of migration was still smaller than other episodes,
like the rafter exodus in 1994 and the Mariel boatlift in 1980, which
were directly prompted by the Cuban government.
“This is a self-initiated surge,” Ms. Ackerman said. “If it were
government-initiated surge, it would be a stampede at this point.”
Correction: March 21, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred
to Alvin Pino Estrada, the owner of D’ Abuela (“Grandma’s”), with an
David Boddiger contributed reporting from La Cruz, Costa Rica.
Source: Stay or Go? Cuban Entrepreneurs Divided on Where to Stake
Futures – The New York Times –