Havana, Where Businesspeople Make Money So They Can Emigrate / Iván García

Cafe in the Sevillano neighborhood in the Tenth of October district. From Blog de Cuba
Cafe in the Sevillano neighborhood in the Tenth of October district. From Blog de Cuba

Ivan Garcia, 2 June 2016 — While it is still dark outside, Nelson gets up, turns on the light and quickly gets dressed. He then goes to the kitchen, makes a cup of coffee and with his calculator starts balancing his books.

Yesterday he had a bad day at work. Two months ago he opened a cafe that sells Italian food and yesterday sales were flat. “I make on average two thousand pesos (about ninety dollars) a day. My goal is to raise all the money I can to get my family out of Cuba,” says the fifty-two-year-old entrepreneur.

Last fall he spent two months in Tampa, where he worked as a construction assistant and a waiter at a restaurant on the outskirts of the city.

“With the money I saved, I opened this business. For over twenty years I made pizza, pasta and lasagna at state restaurants. Now my dream is to be able to permanently emigrate with my wife and four kids. There’s nothing for us here. In the United States my family and I will have better opportunities,” says Nelson as he and two assistants prepare pizza dough.

Believe me, there is no shortage of private business owners whose goal is to make enough money to fly away. Two years ago, Yosvani opened a cafeteria with a small adjoining bar on the front porch of his house in the San Miguel del Padron in southeast Havana.

Things were going well for him. On average he was taking in the equivalent of two hundred dollars a day. Once he had saved enough money, he bought an airline ticket to Panama and, after a overland marathon through several Central American countries, one night slipped through the porous southern border of the United States. He settled in Miami and is now waiting for his mother and two brothers to begin the odyssey that will reunite them in Florida.

According to Osniel, the owner of a cafe that sells light meals, juice and sandwiches, “many people hold onto the option of leaving Cuba, even if their businesses are doing well. Running a business here is complicated. We face financial pitfalls. And since there is no wholesale market, we have to buy food on the black market and must constantly bribe state inspectors. Some people prefer to use their business as a springboard for getting to America or Europe.”

Perhaps the military government’s recognition of the situation — it approved a new law last Tuesday authorizing small and medium size family businesses — can change the dynamic.

But Niurka, who runs a guest house, has her doubts. “It’s a good first step,” she says. “It was high time the government gave us legal recognition, though it is not yet clear when they will set up a wholesale market, or whether they will allow us to import from or partner with foreign firms. The state is like the character Ruperto Marcha Atrás (Rupert Backstep) in the TV program Vivir del Cuento (Living by Your Wits): one step forward and two steps back.

Niurka has, on a couple of occasions, travelled to Mexico and Ecuador, two countries where she often buys merchandise to resell. “But large-scale transfers are not allowed,” she notes. “And the government still bans the type of microcredit loans President Obama proposed and prohibits private businesses from importing goods from the United States.”

Surelis, who with two other people runs a business selling high-end furniture, knows firsthand the limitations Cuban entrepreneurs face.

“Upholstery fabric, wood and other materials have to virtually be smuggled into the country,” she says. “And you need lots of money to buy off customs officials, which increases retail prices. You always hope that things will improve but, if nothing changes, the only choice will be to leave. It’s very difficult to get ahead in Cuba.”

The state puts too many obstacles in the way of new businesses. Daniel and several colleagues want to set up a taxi cooperative similar to Uber, controversies and protests in other countries notwithstanding.

“We did the paperwork not long ago. To get the business running, we need a telephone exchange and other communication equipment, but the state institutions have not given us the approval, “says Daniel.

For the past year Liuba and Yander have wanted to open a cybercafe where people can connect online in comfort while having a soft drink or beer. But as Liuba notes, “ETECSA has not granted us permission. They’ve recently said they will allow private businesses to have internet connections but, so far, it is only talk.”

Dagoberto, an economist, believes that “if the government does not give private businesses more room to operate or to accumulate sufficient capital, the number of business ’swallows’ will increase. And when people get enough money together, they will emigrate.”

This is Nelson’s dream. “The state still views us with suspicion. As long as these guys are in still power, Cuba won’t change.” And every night he counts his money, balances his books and figures out how much he still needs to get on a plane.