Cuban Entrepreneurs Embracing Changes to Economy

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

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SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The Caribbean island of Cuba has gone its own way economically and socially since its revolution in 1959. The country has seen significant gains in its human development in the decades since, and can boast impressive education levels and good public health care.

Cuba enjoys a good ranking on the Human Development Index (HDI) – 59 out of 187 countries – and it has been rising since 1980. For Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba is above the regional average (http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/CUB.html).

But the country has also had a turbulent economy with periods of severe economic contraction. This has increased poverty levels and hunger, in particular during the Special Period beginning in 1990 (http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/havana/lperez2.htm) when the significant subsidies enjoyed by the country from the Soviet Union were pulled and the country saw a steep drop in its ability to import fuel and other goods. Cuba is still trying to repair the economic damage.

In the book Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, Louis A. Perez, Jr. explains: “The old socialist bloc Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) had accounted for almost 85 percent of Cuban trade, transactions conducted almost entirely in nonconvertible currency. Commercial relations with the former Soviet Union declined by more than 90 percent, from $8.7 billion in 1989 to $4.5 billion in 1991 and $750 million in 1993. Trade with eastern European countries ended almost completely.

“Soviet oil imports decreased by almost 90 percent, from 13 million tons in 1989 to 1.8 million tons in 1992. Shipments of capital grade consumer goods, grains, and foodstuff declined and imports of raw materials and spare parts essential for Cuban industry ceased altogether.”

Conducting private business in Cuba was discouraged after the revolution as the state became the dominant arbiter of all economic transactions. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has experimented at various times with moving to a mixed economy, only to pull back and return to the old ways. But now things are changing significantly after economic reforms that have accelerated since Cuban President Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2008.The reforms began in 2008 with the liberalizing of access to mobile phones, and accelerated between 2010 and 2013, when the number of people working in small businesses tripled.

Cuentapropistas – the Cuban term for entrepreneurs, named after “cuenta propria,” the ability to do business for oneself – have flocked to be officially registered as small businesses, with the number shooting up from 143,000 in 2010, to 429,000 by June 2013 (Report on Business).

Gustavo Kouri told the Report on Business magazine, “Although I enjoyed the work I was doing before – at an information centre in specialized health sciences – it wasn’t possible to earn enough to support my family.

“And then the state opened more opportunities to develop private businesses, for cuenta propia.”

He now owns the Rio Mar restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/restauranteriomar).

Artists and athletes have also been attracted to the opportunities that have opened up.

One is former volleyball Olympic gold medalist Mireya Luis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mireya_Luis), who now owns Las Tres Medallas (http://www.alamesacuba.com/en/la-habana/restaurant/las-tres-medallas/), a pizza-and-pasta restaurant.

For Luis, becoming an entrepreneur means the chance to “realize a dream.”

“Being able to open a place – a restaurant, a bar, a cafeteria, whatever – is a good opportunity for self-development, for people to demonstrate a capacity for business, and for them to grow personally,” she said. “It’s something incredible.”

Gilberto Valladares owns a hair salon in Old Havana, Arte Corte Studio, and has been able to employ others.

“Initially, it was a dream of dignifying and recovering a certain degree of respect for the trade of hairdresser and barber,” he told the Report on Business. “As my business grew, so did the dream.” He now employs a half dozen people from the neighborhood.

Cuba is attempting to reform and modernize its economy while holding on to the things people hold dear and see as the good achievements of the revolution: free healthcare, education and other public services.

Gregory Biniowsky is a Canadian-trained lawyer and political scientist who has spent more than 15 years living and working in Cuba and works for Havanada Consulting, a firm that focuses on sustainable development projects and social enterprise initiatives. “The irony is those that will save the Revolution are the emerging small- and medium-sized private businesses,” he said. “And those that could destroy it are those elements in the bureaucracy that resist those changes.”

The entrepreneurial spirt gripping the island is infectious. At one time, much of the only reading material available in bookshops were works with a communist or socialist theme.
But Cubans now have an alternative: an English-language bookshop called Cuba Libro (https://www.facebook.com/cubalibroHAV). It is filing an urgent gap in the marketplace for English-language books and foreign works in general.

Set up by an American writer and journalist Conner Gorry (connergorry.com), who has been living in Havana, Cuba since 2002, the bookshop has become a hub for free thinking and new ideas.

“I know how hard it is to get English-language sources here,” she told The Associated Press. “So I started cooking this idea.”

Libro is the Spanish word for book and the play on words is meant to evoke a Cuba Libre, a rum-and-cola drink named for the country’s liberation from colonial Spain. The store bills itself as a “cafe, bookstore, oasis,” and  its logo features a woman reclining with a cup of coffee and a good book for reading.

The idea came about when a friend of Gorry could not find a place to unload 35 books she had. In time, Gorry amassed a collection of 300 English-language books, and this embryonic library became the book shop. The store also carries magazines, including U.S. titles The New Yorker and Rolling Stone.

So far, the store faces little competition. Government book shops feature the occasional Cuban novel translated into English or the English-language versions of state-run newspapers such as Granma (http://www.granma.cu/ingles/).

Cubans are enjoying the slow thaw and what it could bring. “It is increasing in Cuba, the possibility to have different alternatives,” said Carlos Menendez, a 77-year-old retired economist Menendez.

Cuba Libro has two licenses to operate – one for selling food and one for selling used books – and is run as a type of cooperative, a group-owned private enterprise with five Cubans.

Doing business in Cuba is not without challenges. The bookshop needs to steer a steady path and avoid selling anything that would be considered “counterrevolutionary.” Gorry also needs to avoid problems with the U.S. government, which bans Americans from any financial transactions with the Cuban government.

“I’ve had to tread extremely carefully, everything above-board and legal, because I’m an American, I’m a North American, I am beholden to U.S. laws,” she said. “And so I’m not in agreement with those laws, but I abide by them.”

The bookshop has the benefit of a well-educated pool of potential customers; the annual Havana book festival is a popular draw in the country (http://feriadellibro.cubaliteraria.cu/).
There is a strong thirst for self-improvement in Cuba, and to gain knowledge is to get a better paying job. To widen access to the shop, there will be a lending library for those who can’t afford to buy the books on offer, and there will also be English classes.

And how will the bookshop get restocked in a country that still exercises a lot of control over information?

“Getting donations is going to be another interesting piece of it, because importing books here is very difficult,” Gorry said.

Resources

1) Cuba Research Center: The Cuba Research Center is a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Virginia.  Founded in 2013, its purpose is to provide information about Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations, to participate in public debate about those subjects, and to build bridges between Americans and Cubans interested in those topics. Website: http://www.us-crc.org/

2) Havanada Consulting: Havanada Consulting is a consulting firm which focuses on sustainable development projects and social enterprise initiatives in Cuba. Website: havanada.com

3) Havana Cuba Business: If you are engaged in or would like to learn more about Cuba-related business or travel activities, Havana Cuba Business offer a customized consulting service that will address your questions and concerns. Website: cuentapropistas.com

4) A business-friendly Cuba gets a hand from Canada (Report on Business). Website: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-magazine/a-business-friendly-cuba-gets-a-hand-from-canada/article14006239/?page=all

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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