For a good story one needs an extraordinary situation – something unexpected, weird, special or a strange coincidence at least. Well – how about this: the day after we returned from our trip to Cuba, Fidel Castro died! My phone went red hot with messages from friends – “Ho ho ho – this is suspicious”, said one. “You are in trouble!”, said another.
Jokes aside, we were really lucky. Had ‘El Comandante’ died a few days earlier, we would have missed the best that Cuba has to offer. The country in a 9 day mourning would not have had any fabulous Cuban music played nor would it have tolerated any exuberance and fun – all those Mojitos and Daiquiris would have gone straight to waste.
As it happens, by pure luck we avoided all that and had some unforgettable times in Cuba.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Cuba is a fascinating country, perhaps not always for reasons you would expect. 50 years of embargo, isolation, suppressed freedom of expression, draconian censorship, absence of internet and content blocking created a generation of amateur engineers, mechanics, welders, inventors, hackers and entrepreneurs.
Necessity is indeed a mother of creativity. Having spent decades under embargoes and restrictions, and being short on almost everything, except for rum, cigars and salsa, Cubans have become incredibly resourceful and adaptable. Cuban entrepreneurs have taken creativity yet to another level, becoming masters of jerry-rigging, innovation and invention. When something breaks, they fix it. If they can’t, they re-invent it. They are great at reworking the original purpose of things and stretching the life cycle of any product to the unimaginable.
“Lateral thinking is a way of life in Cuba, says Martin Proenza, a software dev and the founder of YoTeLlevo. “I don’t stress about all the obstacles and problems. I know the problems are not going to go away. So I just focus on working out the solution. We Cubans are all like that, we always look for the ways how to make something out of nothing”.
Cuban cuentapropistas or self-employed.
Martin’s is a cuentapropista, one of hundreds of thousands of Cuban self-starters working to build a business. Until recently it was basically impossible for cuentapropistas like Martin to get businesses off the ground — the obstacles have been pretty onerous. Like all other Cuban cuentapropistas, Martin battles scarce connectivity, limited internet, absence of banking & credit card infrastructure. Things that we all take for granted – domain registration, website hosting, business name, app downloads, collaboration online – none of those exist or are available in Cuba.
For some 50 years the eternal wisdom of Cuban Revolutionary command knew that giving capitalist even an inch would result in an immediate destruction of Cuban socialism and all the boons they enjoyed.
Nevertheless, since Raul Castro took over from the ailing older brother, small openings occurred, allowing 201 private occupations for self-employed. It is beyond comprehension that the germ of entrepreneurship survived in that 50 years’ long vacuum, and small enterprises, such as barber shops, cafes, restaurants, repair shops, bed-and-breakfasts, taxi and trucking services, started popping up like mushrooms.
Today, over 500,000 Cubans are registered as cuentapropistas, or self-employed. Each cuentapropista has an imposed cap on the number of employees and the profit they are allowed to have.
Cuba’s private business is all about DIY solutions
Cuban entrepreneurs have to overcome obstacles unheard of in most other countries. Supplies and materials sold only at state-owned stores and warehouses are limited. Items unavailable in Cuba must be couriered in, providing the import is allowed in the first place. There’s no wholesale market or private distribution network.
All Cubans face the same problems, regardless of the nature of their business:
- No supplies in state-owned stores: restaurant owners need to find the way to get all the necessary stock from overseas.
- No scrap metal, auto body paint, parts, or gas for welding: car mechanics expect car owners to bring their own parts.
- No bank loans or credit system: if you need money to finance your new venture, ask family and friends.
- No credit cards: can’t set up online payments, can’t buy anything online.
- Limited water supply: water supply varies between 2 times per week to once every 15 days. You have to make sure you fill your tanks at the right time.
Especially challenging is the fact that being cuentapropista does not provide you with the privilege of having an access to internet!
Hope you enjoyed reading our first blog on Cuban entrepreneurs. Coming up next week: Cuba in business: how to make something out of nothing (Part 2).