Micro-enterprise in Cuba

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Cuba movers with TV by Roland Poland

Having a moving business might seem like common sense, but many such professions of self-employ have been outlawed by the Cuban government. [Roland Poland/Flickr]

America’s coverage of Cuba usually focuses on one of three things: whether or not the US should lift its decades long embargo, something involving the Buena Vista Social Club, or when the heck Castro is gonna die. We want to tell a different kind of story about Cuba, and investigate a different kind of reality. We want to talk about the way individual people are earn a living in a country cut off from most of the world by Communism on one hand and sanctions on the other. Like the microbiologist who was forced to open a black market video rental store, or the male hustlers who line the boulevards of Havana.

Are you a micro-entrepreneur trying to make your way in present day Cuba? Are you a Cuban ex-pat watching your family struggle back home? Or one of the thousands of Americans who have passed through Cuba for one reason or another? Tell us what you’re doing, what you’ve seen, and what you think about it.

Jorge Dominguez

Jorge Dominguez is a political science professor at Harvard and the director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He has a new book out, The Cuban Economy at the Start of the Twenty-First Century, which he edited with Omar Everleny PĂ©rez Villanueva and Lorena Barberia. He will be joining us in the WGBH studio and helping to frame Cuba in terms of the domestic and international politics of Latin American countries.

Ted Henken

Ted Henken is a professor in the Departments of Sociology and Black and Hispanic Studies at the City University of New York. He’ll be speaking with us about the ramifications of informal economics on Cuban society.

He told us that things that weaken socialism aren’t necessarily good for capitalism–such as stealing to sell on the black-market. Ted quoted Dylan, “To live outside the law, you’ve got to be honest.” Ted will be joining us from a studio in New York City.

From Vanessa’s pre-interview notes

“There’s a vagrancy law, so most people have some sort of on-the-books job, but only as a cover. The government looks the other way because it’s fully aware that the country would disintegrate without the grey market. The ideology sets up a structure that is kept up for sake of saving face.”

Maria Finn-Dominguez

Maria Finn-Dominguez wrote a memoir about falling in love with her Cuban taxi driver and their subsequent wedding in Havana. It will be published by Algonquin in 2007. She’ll be sharing her insights about the underground bridal industry and the traditional coming out parties for 15-year-old girls–Quince Anos. Maria will join us via phone in Brooklyn.

From Vanessa’s pre-interview notes

“I found myself in the middle of a wedding industry that I didn’t even know existed. We rented a convertible with a horn that played the wedding march tune, for God’s sake. I saw a nascent middle class that has these ‘luxury’ desires. If you go to Cuba as a tourist, you stay at a big hotel or a casa particular, so you have very little contact with the actual way of life.”

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  • I was in Cuba four years ago this week, visiting a community technology center in downtown Havana for work and helping my wife on a documentary shoot. Frankly, I didn’t see as much micro-enterprise as I have in many other countries. Just last week in Ghana, I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of people making a living by selling things on the street. For example, here’s a picture of some guy selling packets of super glue, a Suzanne Somers tummy exercise machine and a ray-gun TV antenna:

    It really was quite extraordinary how many people were making a living there selling goods, renting out cell phones by the minute (a phenomenon called Space to Space there). As one cybercafe manager told me, there’s practically no unemployment in Ghana because so many people will do whatever they have to in order to make ends meet, even if that means selling dog chains car door to car door on a busy highway.

    In Cuba, though, I didn’t see much of that. In alleyways you’d find Cuban homes that had quietly opened themselves as restaurants, with a limited menu and a few tables by the door. Lots of men try selling untaxed cigars, but there are so many places to buy cigars legally (and of better quality) that I wonder how they stay in business. And unfortunately, you would also have people come up to the street offering “girls, young girls.” I shudder to think the age of the girls they were pimping.

    Anyway, that was four years ago. Would be very interested in hearing what things are like now.

  • I see the website didn’t display my photo of the Ghanaian street vendor. Here’s the link instead.

  • This isn’t my lucky day; jet lag must be worse than I realized again. Let’s try that link again.

  • mjking

    I would like to suggest two guests to the show: Bill McKibben and Jose Buscaglia-Salgado.

    Jose Buscaglia-Salgado is a professor of Modern Languages at the University at Buffalo. Cuba is one of the foci of his writing and study. He is Director of Cuban and Caribbean Programs and organized one of the first collegiate affiliations between the University of Havana and a Usonian school, in this case UB. His last book was Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean.

    Aside from the credentials, the man knows much of Cuba. He is attuned to life there as it is lived, not as it is advertized. He has a sense of the rhythms, the commerce, the wit, the desires, the pain and the fantasies there.

    Bill McKibben recently published an essay in Harper’s on Cuba’s sustainable agriculture, which is, at least in part, privately managed or even “owned” farms in Havana.

    I was in Cuba about 7 years ago and visited an extraordinary farm in the city. It was perhaps an acre-and-a-half and the farmers there grew crops for two reasons: to feed themselves and their families and to sell at market.

    As for micro-enterprise, I would suggest looking into the guys on the street who put up a card table, lay out their butane cans and will refill your lighter for 50 cents or a buck. Consider the artists, musicians and tour-guides who will sell their services for hard cash, on the side — not to mention the jinateras. There are the cab drivers in their 50’s Usonian jalopies held together by wire and craftiness, the restauranteers, the sellers of popcorn and nuts outside of moviehouses and the drag-queen entertainers.

    I look forward to the show. Cheers.

  • Robin

    Spotted today on the BBC: foreign husbands for sale


  • Vanessa

    Thanks for the suggestions! We’re getting ready to book the show. What we’d really like to get are some Cuban or Cuban-American voices–on the air or as pre-recorded interviews for the site here. Please spread the word and let us know if you get more ideas.

  • mnye

    Microbusinesses have to operate outside the official economy, or at least with minimal oversight and no red tape. Are larger or medium-sized businesses allowed in Cuba? Are permits and licenses required, for example? What about taxes?

  • One of the complications is that Cuba is a big importer of food — but not from the US since the Bush Administration tightened up trade rules that had been relaxed during the Clinton Administration. Here in Watertown, David Radlo of Radlo Foods, an egg wholesaler, was sending 15 million eggs per year to Cuba until the regs zeroed out the business earlier this year. Link to more info. Maybe Mr. Radlo knows people who could comment further on the issue of microbusinesses.

  • edit

    Thanks lisa, do you know how to get in touch with him?

  • Why hasn’t Cuba grown economically compared to other post-communist states? Here’s one answer: There is no political freedom without economic freedom and no political rights without property rights. Cuba needs to forget about socialism and follow in the very least the Chinese model, flawed as it may be.

  • Lynette

    I’ve been to Cuba twice with Witness for Peace and also have traveled throughout Central America meeting with human rights organizations, workers, farmers and union organizers. There are many more people fleeing to the US from other Central American countries than from Cuba. The reason for this is that the economic situation is far worse in the other Central American countries. In Nicaragua for example there is no free health care and no free education. People working in maquilas earn less than $2 a day which doesn’t pay for enough food to feed a family of 4 let alone all the other expenses. In Mexico farmers can no longer afford to grow corn because of competition from US government subsidized agribusiness so poverty is rampant and the assault on the indigenous culture which depended on corn is shameful. What struck me in Cuba is that there were many many fewer people asking for money and no beggars. Because people are all paid roughly the same everyone feels equally valued by the society. The work of the street cleaner is as important as the work of the doctor. There is dignity to every kind of work. this is a concept which is hard for us in the US to grasp because we know nothing other than a class society laden with inequality. We would never consider a street cleaner as valuable to society as a doctor but we are all human and for a society to function well everyone needs to feeled valued by it. I think that the Cuban experiment is worth studying and learning from. I hope that history will judge them more fairly than the US has. They have certainly made a very positive contribution, educationally and in service to other struggling countries, something we don’t often hear about.

  • karen

    The show went by way too fast…please do another so some of the topics that came up can be further discussed. I’ve been to Cuba three times, once in 2002 with a group of 22 women sponsored by the Federation of Cuban Women, and twice in 2004. I spent ten weeks there in the winter studying the healthcare system, specifically mental health and social work, and returned for two more weeks just as hurricane Ivan was revving up. I think it’s really important to keep in mind the global context when talking about Cuba. Discussions usually focus on the limitations on speech, the hardship, etc. without acknowledging the absence of sweatshops, the highly valued autonomy, the rare violence (as a woman travelling alone I was well aware of how safe I felt), the infrequent drug use, the safety net…snagged but not shredded. I could go on about the strengths of the society and all that they’re doing right; it would be interesting to hear from others about the positive things that are happening. What is phenomenal to me are the life expectancy and infant mortality rates, comparable to the U.S. This in a very poor country as opposed to a very rich and powerful one. What’s up with that?!

  • obmit1

    RE fconte August 22nd.

    There is only one reason for Cuba’s lack of economic growth and that is the US embargo.

    The system is flawed but can you name one that is not ?

  • Holly

    Hello! I just wanted to thank you for a great program on Cuba last night. It was one of the most honest portraits of Cuba that I have heard in the past few years. Anyone interested in this topic should read “Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana” by Isadora Tattlin.

    In response to the previous comment, the US embargo is NOT the only reason why Cuba has economic problems. The Castro government won’t allow legal free enterprise on the island, nor has it allowed for development of infrastructure or production techniques. The regime puts limits on agricultural production and huge taxes on paladares and other “enterprises”. There is also a huge amount of foreign investment and trade with other countries. Most people don’t know about or want to admit this. Why do people always blame the US embargo for all of Cuba’s woes when there are many other countries that Cuba does business with? Does Cuba’s economic survival depend solely on the US?

    Moreover, the Castro revolution was in part a reaction to the huge economic control that the US had over Cuba in the 50s. When he took control of the island, he nationalized most foreign property and kicked foreign companies out; why would he want the US there now? The US is his biggest enemy; he smears the US for most of his propoganda; I highly doubt he would want the US in Cuba now either.

    In response to Lynette’s comments: there are probably more people leaving other Central American countries because they CAN leave. People can also leave Cuba, but it is very difficult. They have to ask for permits that can take years to receive (if they even receive them). If people leave legally and then stay (quedarse) in the country where they go to, their families who stay behind in Cuba can be punished (they can have their property and business permits taken away).

    The idea of a “free education” is also a funny one. Do you know what people are taught in Cuba? Do you know what principles and theories are taught and not taught in their schools? Are there enough materials for all the students? I also find the idea of it being “free”, meaning “no charge” funny; Cubans are paid pennies by the state (as we heard various times on the program) for the work they do. The money they would receive for the work they do in any other country is given to the state which is then put into the education and healthcare systems. So, no, it’s not exactly free. They pay into the system with the work they do; just like we do here in the US with our tax system.

    In response to Karen’s comment; I also have friends who have been to Cuba on work related trips and would disagree with you on many of your points. Although there may be a few positive things about the regime’s policies, the negative ones outweigh any positives. Whenever there is a lack of freedom to the extent that one has to be careful of being ratted on by his own neighbors (the CDR), how many postives can there be? In a country where the same person has ruled with an iron fist for 46 years and where an opposition party is not allowed, how many positives can there be? No matter what one’s politics are, there are just some things that can never be justified.

    Anyway, I wanted to commend you for your program and instead rambled on! Thanks again. As I say, it was the most honesty portrait I’ve heard lately!