Cuba’s open for business — sort of
Posted: March 8, 2014 – 10:31pm | Updated: March 9, 2014 – 1:28am
By BARRY OSTROW
EDITOR’S NOTE: Barry Ostrow is the retired director of university
relations at Armstrong Atlantic State University. He is now a freelance
writer and sometime-world traveler. His latest travels took him to Cuba
with a people-to-people program in February.
We were sitting in the living room of one of Cuba’s many casas
particulars (bed and breakfasts) listening to the owner explain how he
had worked to obtain an expensive license to open his privately-owned
establishment in Trinidad. As he finished, he went to the front door,
opened it and led a horse from the cobblestone street into the room.
It seems he was something of a horse whisperer in addition to being on
the front lines of private ownership. And business was good. Next door
an addition to his three-bedroom B&B was under construction. Asked when
it would be completed, he said with a shrug, “Who knows? This is Cuba.”
In Communist Cuba, almost everything is owned by the government.
However, the country is experimenting with private ownership. A list of
about 165 business categories has been established for which Cubans may
apply — and pay high fees for — to operate as private businesses.
Progress is painfully slow and not always successful, but the doorway to
capitalism has cracked just a bit.
One of the biggest expansion categories is the paladars, restaurants set
up in private homes and mansions.
It’s hard to tell the state-run restaurants from the paladars. While
both can be good dining experiences, the paladars in which we ate were
uniformly excellent while the state-owned restaurants included some
We experienced shortages from almost every menu — such as beef, fish,
chicken and flan — in both types of eateries.
I was in a large, attractive souvenir shop on Plaza Mayor in Trinidad
when I spied a carved seahorse I had not seen before in all the
cookie-cutter shops run by the state. I mentioned to the owner that the
carving was unique, and he explained, “I own my own shop, and I can buy
merchandise from a wider range of suppliers than the state stores can.”
Along the plazas and narrow, winding side streets of Havana and
Trinidad, hundreds of souvenir stands are set up on the cobblestones. A
great many of these are also privately owned.
Sadly, the economic revolution only goes so far. A member of our group —
we were on a U.S.-sanctioned “people to people” tour — relayed the story
of a Cuban couple she had spent the previous evening with.
The couple had paid the large licensing fee to open a movie theater in
their Havana neighborhood. When the theater became successful, the state
took it away from them.
So, how does the average Cuban go about buying things?
This is a nation where nurses and doctors make only $35-$45 a month
respectively. Many of them moonlight as hotel maids and taxi drivers
where they can earn much more with tips than they can in their
professions. Bartenders, tour guides, and tour bus drivers also make a
lot through tips.
The average Cuban may get along on as little as $20 a month.
Some of this poverty is mitigated in the form of money being sent by
relatives living in the United States. These remittances are the largest
form of foreign capital flowing into the country and help drive the economy.
In other cases, their standard of living is boosted by gifts brought in
from the states.
Awaiting our charter flight out of Miami, we could see lines of
Cuban-Americans wheeling huge, blue plastic-wrapped packages to the
check-in counter. The weight limit for us was 44 pounds, but these
people found it convenient to pay the overweight charge to bring
permitted household goods into Cuba.
One man waiting in the departure lounge was comical with three soccer
balls strung around his neck and three cowboy hats nested on top of his
Walk along the side streets branching out like wheel spokes from any
plaza and you find people selling goods — baked goods, beverages,
clothing, prepared meals — from a window in the front of their home.
Look beyond the window, and you see family life going on in the
background: People watching TV, preparing meals or getting the kids
ready for school.
Each neighborhood has its own bodega where locals can buy staples such
as eggs, flour, rice, and beans when they are available. Residents are
issued a government card certifying them to buy from a specific local
Here and there is a farmacia with very few products on its shelves. A
pharmacist in our group was appalled by the dearth of available medicines.
Art galleries — both state-run and private — can be found here and
there. The quality of the art is good, but the subject matter often
tends to be quite abstract and not typical of Cuba. Artists’ studios
proliferate offering a wide variety of art including themes of Santeria
— the African spirit worship that is infused into Cuban Catholicism —
history and the ever-present Revolution.
Che Guevara’s image is everywhere — but not so the Castro brothers. At
one graphics studio in Trinidad, the manager explained that while
salaries were set by the state, the purchase of art supplies had to come
from paying customers.
On a visit to an art market the size of a convention center in Havana, I
had a conversation with one of the painters. He said most of the
hundreds of small souvenir shops in the market were owned by the state
but painters at the corners of the building were mostly private business
Some Cuban artists are wealthy. Jose Fuster — Cuba’s Picasso — and
Salvador Gonzales Escalona draw tens of thousands of dollars for their
unique and frankly weird paintings. A small colony of artists live in
the self-sustaining mountain eco village of La Terrazas, outside Havana,
where we were welcomed by naturalist painter Lester Campa who can be
found on the Internet.
Cienfuegos, on the southern coast, is the antithesis of the cities and
streets found elsewhere in Cuba. A former French enclave, it is today a
city of comparative wealth thanks to its oil refineries.
Our group was amazed by the broad, gleaming clean, pedestrian shopping
street that stretched for several blocks to a beautiful plaza in the
center of town. Along each side of the street stood large stores, their
big plate glass windows brimming with well-stocked displays of clothing,
furniture, appliances, and other consumer goods not commonly seen elsewhere.
It would not be a stretch to imagine this to be an upscale suburb of Miami.
One of the main sources of revenue is tourism — all of it state
controlled. Some three million tourists come to Cuba every year,
primarily to sun on its pristine Caribbean beaches and sip tangy mojitos.
Although exact figures are pretty sketchy, about 15,000-20,000 are
Americans defying the Department of State’s ban on travel to Cuba by
entering via third countries. A much larger cohort of American tourists
— perhaps as many as 100,000 — arrive each year under the
U.S.-sanctioned people-to-people program.
These visitors don’t get to see the beaches — much less snorkel — but
they do buy a lot of rum drinks, go salsa dancing and spend money on
hotels, restaurants, taxis, meals, souvenirs, historic and cultural
venues and tips for low-paid state tourism-connected workers.
Our twenty-something guide summed up what a lot of Cubans told us when
he said: “My generation likes all the things the government does for us,
but we would like to also have economic freedom. We want both.”
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