Voices: In Cuba, entrepreneurial spirits sparkle
Cuba is a land that remains a mystery to most Americans.
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
Are the economic changes instituted in recent years by President Raul Castro working? Can the dissident movement ever gain enough traction to overthrow the Communist government? Just how good is its acclaimed but flawed health care system?
How many superstar baseball players are left down there?
But when looking to the future of the island a post-Castro period that is often contemplated by American government officials, business owners eager to explore that market and Cuban-Americans curious about their role in the island's future ‚?? one question intrigues me most: What kind of human capital is left in Cuba?
Much of the country's educated class left in the years immediately after Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship in 1959. In the five decades plus since, millions more have departed, and those who stayed behind have been raised in a twisted environment where access to the Internet is severely restricted, underpaid doctors choose to become taxi drivers, and people are forced to survive via the black market.
In the minds of some of my Cuban-American friends, that has left Cuba's population of 11 million people far behind those of other Latin American countries. As Cubans spend their lives figuring out how to secretly install an illegal Internet connection in their ramshackle homes, people in other Latin American countries have become more tech savvy, understand international markets better and have a firmer grasp on best business practices.
But there's something missing in that cold analysis. It's the same, hard-to-describe quality that helped my parents, and thousands of others, immigrate to the U.S. from Cuba with nothing and quickly rise to the middle class and beyond. I got a great reminder of that recently after meeting with five Cuban entrepreneurs.
I met the five women while they were visiting Miami on a trip planned by the Cuba Study Group, which advocates for closer relations between Washington and Havana. They were here to learn some of the basic business tools that are largely missing in Cuba, and each one of them showed me how resilient Cubans can be when given just the slightest opportunity.
There was Sandra Aldama Suarez, a 38-year-old former teacher who wanted to start a company selling artisanal soaps. With little access to the Internet, she learned the process by reading a book from the 1920s that her grandmother had given her. She had a friend from Spain ship her another book. She started making the scented bars in her kitchen and now has three employees, selling the soaps out of a storefront.
There was Decire Verdacia Barbat, a 26-year-old civil engineering student who was making money on the side by painting nails for neighbors in her dining room. Little by little, she's expanded her operation and now has four employees. When she wanted to start offering massages, her father built a massage table out of metal pipes, plywood, foam and vinyl.
And there was Yamina Vicente Prado, 31, an economics professor at the University of Havana who quit her teaching job to start a party-planning business with her sister. Vicente faces the same limitations that other would-be entrepreneurs encounter in Cuba ‚?? she can't find basic things like tablecloths, fake flowers, ornate serving platters. "Balloons don't exist in Cuba," she said with a laugh.
None of the women are planning the kinds of businesses that my friends would describe as cutting edge. But that's because the closely monitored, state-run economy of Cuba makes that impossible, dictating what kinds of businesses Cubans can run on their own.
But what people like those five women are showing is that the will and the capacity exist in Cuba. They just need a chance.
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