Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cuba's New Entrepreneurs

                                                 Fortunes for sale, $5 

We've been experimenting with dipping our toes into the local economy by patronizing some of Cuba's newly "self-employed'' entrepreneurs. We've also been changing a few dollars into Moneda Nationale - pesos cubanos (CUPs) - to get a feel for what locals can and can't buy with the local currency, and how much whatever can be bought with Moneda Nationale costs vs. what tourists pay for most things in pesos convertibles (the hard currency called CUCs). 

The woman above is a fortune teller stationed outside the church of the Virgen de Regla in Havana, a historic church where members practice a Christian Afro-Cuban religion called Santeria. Her fee for curious tourists is $5 peso convertibles, pesos, the equivalent of one week's salary in a state job, or the same amount a tourist would pay for two Mojitos in a hotel lobby bar or a taxi ride across town.

She could use that $5 to buy toothpaste or soap at a "hard currency'' store such as La Distinguida on Calle Obispo, Old Havana's main shopping street, where a bottle of dishwashing soap costs $3.15 and an extension cord goes for $12. OR, she could change that $5 into pesos cubanos, at a conversion rate of 25 to $1. With those 125 CUPs, she could buy five full-sized pizzas at one of the storefront "peso pizza'' parlors locals operate out of their kitchens, or five full meals at La Luz, one of the few restaurants in Havana Vieja that caters to locals and still accepts CUPs. Most likely, she'll use it to buy food to supplement government-subdized rations, always in short supply.

Confused?  That seems to be the idea. Most tourists come to Cuba with little or no understanding of its dual economy. I get the impression that the tourism industry likes it that way. From the Cuban point of view, the whole point of boosting tourism is to increase the supply of hard currency, so having tourists out there spending Moneda Nationale is not really in their best interests. Changing a few dollars and spending it, however, is a good way to learn about local life.

The ice cream parlor, La Coppelia, is a good place to start, not just because the ice cream is good, but because it's one of the few places that accepts ONLY Moneda Nationale...except at a special "fast lane'' reserved for foreigners. 

Here's how it works: Cubans form lines around the block to get inside La Coppelia. Once they do, they order four or five "ensaladas,'' plastic dishes of five-scoop servings, that cost 5 pesos cubanos, or about 20 cents. Standing in line is half the fun. People chat, or even ask someone to save their place while they go shopping. Guards motion customers in by calling out "Dos (two) mas, or Cuatro (four) mas!. Once inside, you get in another line according to the flavor you prefer-  one line for banana, another for chocolate and vanilla etc. Families come here to celebrate. Everyone seems happy, and it's one of the few places where it's easy for foreigners to mix with Cubans who don't have something to sell or aren't working in the tourist industry. Many tourists miss this real La Coppelia experience, however, because the guards steer foreigners to a separate "hard currency'' area where two scoops served in a glass dish cost around $2.75. 

As for private enterprise, it's growing, with entrepreneurs targeting their services to both locals and tourists.  Estimates are the number of self-employed in Cuba grew from 150,000 to more than 300,000 in the past year, not a lot in a country of 11 million, but it's a start, even though the "businesses'' are often nothing more than a front-porch flea market with used clothes or plumbing parts for sale.

This young man recently opened a hard currency business with his father and brother. They sell wood carvings to tourists in an artisans market. We bought several for around $1 each, not much for us, but a lot of money by Cuban standards. Others sell what they can - rolls of toilet paper out of plastic bags, paper cones of peanuts or homemade cookies from living room storefronts. It's not unusual to walk by a home or an apartment and see a "menu'' posted on doorway listing what snacks or drinks are for sale.

I met these two ladies selling hand-embroidered table coverings in their front yard near Trinidad. The woman on the right is Maria Antonia Pucha (We laughed because we share a similar last name). Her husband was running his own business a few feet away, cutting and juicing sugar cane which he spiked with fresh lime and sold for $1 per glass. The women asked me if I had any soap, a common request.  I apologized that I didn't have any with me, but I bought a couple of the table coverings. They asked to write to them, but I can't because the U.S. doesn't deliver mail to Cuba.

One of the best ways to support Cuba's new entrepreneurs is to have dinner in a palador, a privately-owned restaurant in someone's home. The owners must get (and pay for) a license, and charge in hard currency. They were previously restricted to 12 seats. Now they can have up to 50. Some are quite fancy with prices to match the food and decor. The best are the smaller ones that truly do leave you feeling as if you've been invited into a someone's living room.


One of our most memorable meals was at a little palador in the seaside town of Cienfuegos, founded as a French settlement in the 1800s. A few off us decided to skip the hotel buffet, and grab bicycle taxis to Las Mamparas, a restaurant I spotted while walking. The driver wore khaki shorts and flip flops, and moved to the beat of salsa music coming from outdoor dance clubs as we pedaled to town.

We sat at one of six wooden tables covered with lace tablecloths. The waitress took her time making our Mojitos, slowly mixing sugar, sparkling water, Havana Club rum and fresh mint. Our meal of shrimp, pork, rice with black beans, wine and flan for desert was one of the best, and $14 for two including tip, one of the least expensive. Our waitress turned out to be the owner, Mei-Ling, 37, a nurse. She and her husband and chef, Cesar, opened the restaurant two months ago in what was his family home. All the customers, except us, were Cubans, and there was a line out door when we left. Things are going well, not well enough for them to quit their $20 per month government day jobs, but well.

Getting all the necessary licenses "was complicated, but worth it,'' she told me. "Things are changing. I like it," she smiled. "To change the mind is important.''

Next: Art and music 

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