Being Successful in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

San-Cristóbal-Paladar-cuba-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 13 October 2015 — When he graduated in telecommunications engineering, Enrique Nuñez — owner of La Guarida, Havana’s most famous privately owned restaurant — could never have imagined the money and success he would earn by working in a kitchen.

His dining establishment in the poor and largely Afro-Cuban neighborhood known as San Lorenzo in the heart of Havana is surrounded by potholed streets and guys who are always selling something.

In the entryway of La Guarida a group of men plays a boisterous game of dominoes while white sheets hang from the building’s balconies. Queen Sofia of Spain and US senators have dined here.

A meal will cost you at least a hundred dollars and you have to make reservations six months in advance. Nuñez, whose neighbors have out of scorn or envy pegged him as an informer for the special services, knows how to run a family business challenged by government obstacles, draconian taxes and absurd regulations.

The government of Raul Castro has relaxed some restrictions but a private businessman in Cuba must hand over more money to the state than his counterparts in northern European countries. And without a wholesale supply chain, he has to be very creative when it comes to buying foodstuffs and seasonings.

By dint of talent and fourteen-hour workdays, Nuñez has been able to make enough money to live comfortably. But Cuban laws and monitoring by a jealous police force mean private businesspeople are treated like criminal suspects.

Being rich in Cuba as not the same as being rich elsewhere in the world. Wealthy Cubans cannot buy expensive jewelry or luxurious yachts. They have to settle for living in an air-conditioned house and driving a 2013 Audi. For a variety of reasons, the military dictatorship periodically carries out sting operations against people who have acquired hundreds of thousands of dollars by legal means.

Although the prolonged economic crisis has led the military junta headed by General Raul Castro to give individuals more freedom to operate, the third paragraph of the Economic Guidelines — a kind of holy bible adopted by the last Communist Party Congress — does not recognize the right of self-employed individuals to accumulate capital.

Working under a microscope, owners of rental properties, restaurants and bars must strike a balance between legality and illegality. Yet they still manage to amass a considerable sum of money for an impoverished society like Cuba’s.

La Fontana is a gourmet restaurant popular with well-to-do Americans visiting Havana. The runaway success of the business has allowed its owner to think about opening a second location in Miami.

Bitterness and a toxic mindset have led some Cubans to see those who succeed in business as collaborators with the regime.

There are relatives of powerful government ministers who are illegally making money hand over fist. At 29th Street and B in Vedado, one of the sons of Abelardo Colome Ibarra, interior minister and a close associate of Raul Castro, has opened a high-end restaurant and registered as a corporation in Madrid.

None of them have to trek through Havana’s markets in search of food supplies, turn to the black market for beef and shrimp or evade corrupt government inspectors.

But while some entrepreneurs manage to make money in the ideological madhouse that is Castro’s Cuba, others opt for more clandestine operations.

Rodolfo, a backer of the popular numbers racket known as la bolita, is extremely skeptical. In the 1980s he pocketed a lot of money by selling handicrafts. “I was imprisoned for seven years even though the business was legitimate,” he says. “After I got out of the ’tank,’ I swore I would never again try to make money legally. Those guys are a bunch of crooks. It’s a game of cat and mouse with them. As soon as they can, they swoop down on you, take your money and property and throw you behind bars.”

For twenty years Rodolfo has been bankrolling a successful betting operation. Between bookmakers and number runners he employs a dozen people. When asked how much money he has, he smiles.

Bolita is a complicated business,” he says. You have to stash hundreds of thousands of pesos to cover any losses. The first time I took in two-hundred thousand pesos, I went on a bender that lasted a week. Now I am more responsible. This operation is illegal. I run a lot of risk. The police could launch a sting operation at any time and I’d be finished.”

Other successful businessmen like Bernardo must navigate through rough waters. Outwardly, he does not seem to be violating any laws. He owns five old cars and two jeeps with American bodies from the 1950s and modern diesel engines.

“I rent them out for two twelve-hour shifts at six-hundred pesos for each car and a thousand for the two jeeps. I report ten thousand pesos (three-hundred eighty dollars) a day. After gas and maintenance, I can earn nine thousand dollars a month. But I’m in a legal limbo because the government considers my business illegal,” he says.

According to Bernardo, there are rumors that new restrictions will require every taxi driver to carry proof of vehicle ownership. “Making money in Cuba is a high-risk operation. The best option is to move to the US. In Miami you can go to work and no one is going to hassle you if you have a profitable business.”

But on the island it is just one step from success to jail.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: San Cristobal, according to TripAdvisor one of the best restaurants in the Caribbean. Located at 469 San Rafael between Lealtad and Campanario streets in central Havana, it offers typical Cuban fare and is known for its excellent service and reasonable prices. Its decor is a mixture of vintage furniture, decorative objects and signage.

From Cuba en Miami