Focusing on women entrepreneurs in Cuba

In November 2016 we held our Fabulous Fempreneurship mastermind at the beautiful, French owned Pullman Resort in Cayo Coco, Cuba. This hotel is in its second year of operation.

Every year we are anxious to talk to women entrepreneurs in Cuba to see if anything has changed .

US President Barrack Obama made history in 2015 by opening talks with Cuba with the idea of lifting the trade embargo.

As we know, change doesn’t happen overnight.  On Nov. 29th, 2016 American Airlines Flight 17 was the first commercial flight from Miami to Havana in over 50 years.  However, commercial trade with U.S. is not currently an option. What will happen when Donald Trump becomes President of the U.S.?  Will be his policies for Cuba move the country forward or will trade go backwards?

Fidel Castro passed on November 25, 2016, just two days after we left the island. The world’s attention focused on this island for a few days, but the spotlight will fade away quickly as more important news around the world takes its place.  Will Cubans be marking time for years to come, with no progress for women entrepreneurs or entrepreneurship in general?

What does socialism mean for entrepreneurism?

The Cuban Government provides free housing, education and medical care, as well as employment.  Professional salaries for government doctors and dentists average $50.00 with a pension of $25.00/month on retirement.  Non-professional government workers are paid $25.00/month.  In other words, the government takes care of providing the necessities of life for all of its citizens.  It has only been fairly recently that the door has opened a crack to enable people to operate their own businesses.

What are the opportunities for entrepreneurism?

The Cuban government has 201 government approved business categories for  Cubans to open their own businesses.    Some of these categories are roofer, plumber, and café owner.  The government regulations stipulate one license per person.  This means franchising, or multiple ventures are not allowed.  Take the case of Sandra and Tony who own a bakery in Havana.   Sandra holds the license, so Tony could apply for a license to open a second store and unless there are other family members who are able to also obtain a license.

Sandra owns a bakery cafe

Sandra is a dentist and her brother Tony is an engineer.    In their bakery they employ other engineers, lawyers and other professionals.  Everyone who works in the bakery makes more money baking than holding government positions in their professions.

What’s happening in the tourist town of Cayo Coco?

cuba-2016Cayo Coco is 8 hours away from Havana.     Cubans are not allowed to live in the town, it is strictly a town for hotels and tourists.    Employees we spoke to at the Pullman resort travel 2 or 2-1/2 hours from central Cuba each way, often leaving for their shifts at 4:00am!   The resort provides transportation for their workers as very few Cubans own cars.

There aren’t any stores in the tourist strip, just craftsman who sell at the local craft market and on the resort, itself.

Flavia’s story

In our capitalist societies we wouldn’t think bartenders and servers were entrepreneurs, but in Cuba they are. We met a delightful server we will name Flavia (not her real name) and her lovely chef husband Mario.   Flavia was trained as a doctor, but makes far more money as a server because of the tips.  Probably 10 times the government wage per month.

During our week’s visit, Flavia and Mario made the 8 hour trip to Havana via public transportation.  They had an interview with an Italian cruise ship line for an 8 month assignment. Both Flavia and Mario are able to apply for jobs because they had passports and visas to leave the country.  Not all Cubans have the opportunity to get passports.

The interview went well and they expect to hear shortly if they are successful.  Even if only one of them is accepted and the other has to remain in Cuba, they will be moving forward with this opportunity, because they want a better life.  They want to thrive rather than survive.  Young Cubans want good jobs and to be freer to choose their destiny.

Yanette is stuck!

Yanette (not her real name) isn’t so lucky.   She would desperately like to leave Cuba, but without a visa or passport she has no opportunity to leave the country.   She is a recreation director at the Pullman and also receives tips.    Since she was pregnant, tourism is still her best option to make more money than the government wage.

Pragmatic Charo

Charo (not her real name),  our bartender told us late one night how the economy works.    Cubans help Cubans.   If you are an auto mechanic you can make a living, but how do you get parts to fix the American cars?   Ah she said, you retrofit the car with Russian parts and they work just fine.   Most of the cars are of 60’s vintage, unless they are imported from non-embargo countries such as Russia.

And what about the doctors, how do they survive on their modest government salary?     Charo says here at the resort we have a  private clinic.   The tourists pay to see the doctors.   Therefore the doctors are entrepreneurial.    One of the members of our Fabulous Fempreneurship mastermind, visited a woman doctor at the resort for an eye infection.   The fee for the single visit was $25.00, plus the prescription medication.   One lady on our returning West Jet flight broke her hip on day two of her vacation.   Cuban doctors operated and the Canadian health insurer will pay the bill.

Life For Cuban Exiles

We met a Cuban freelance bookkeeper in Oakville, Canada.   Isabel has been in Canada over 30 years.   When she was 20, she attended a seminar in Toronto and stayed.    This caused problems for her family in Cuba and she can’t return to visit her family ever again.   Cuban exiles live in community pockets in their adopted countries but fear jail if they return to Cuba.

Canadian Jazz musician  Jane Bunnett and her female Cuban jazz band


Jane has been supporting Cuban musical talent since the late 1980’s.  Her latest project is an assembly of all-star Cuban musicians, a sextet which includes herself and five extraordinary young females.

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque (pronounced Mah-keh-keh), will be touring Canada followed by a US tour (if all goes well on the visa front). Maqueque band members are Jane, on flute and soprano sax, virtuoso drummer Yissy García, dynamic percussionist Daymé Arceno, (who is also a powerhouse vocalist), Yusa on tres guitar and fretless bass, pianist Danae, and Magdelys on batás and congas.

Not only does Jane nurture the talent but she takes care of all the visa paperwork which allows them to tour Canada and hopefully the U.S.  When in Toronto they stay at Jane’s.house, jamming, composing and rehearsing.  In January 2017 the Toronto Jazz station, Jazz FM, will be holding a jazz safari in Cuba, where Jane and her band will be performing. This trip fits in with the Havana International Jazz Festival.

The young women in the Maqueque band will earn far more money as musicians on tour in North America than they would make in their homeland.

What is the future for women entrepreneurs in Cuba?

Right now under the current government, they can apply for a license for one of the 201 private enterprise categories allowed.

Some of the categories might seem very strange to us, such as:

Craftsman/Seller/Repairman of Wicker Furniture

Dance Duo “Amor” (traditional Cuban dances)

Fresh Fruit Peeler

Habaneras (women posing in colorful colonial attire)

Operator of Children’s Fun Wagon Pulled by Pony or Goat

Sports Trainer (except martial arts and diving)

Next is figuring out where to find supplies.The wholesale marketplace is almost non-existent. Items such as fabric must be obtained on the black market.  Craftsmanship is still encouraged, but importation of hard goods for resale such as kitchen appliances is still a government run operation.    Individuals, at present, cannot open a clothes boutique as the garment industry is closed to private enterprise.

What will happen next?

That is hard to say. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother is currently president.  He will hand over to his hand-picked successor in 2018. There is a debate as to who this will be. Although the government would love to remain socialistic, it is getting harder and harder to support the Cuban population.  The cost of importing goods gets higher and higher, making the economy barely sustainable.  On the one hand Cuba wants and needs investment for growth, but on the other, the Cuban Government doesn’t want terms dictated to them.

American companies like JetBlue, Starwood and Airbnb have invested millions of dollars in time and resources to enter the Cuban market, with the American government’s blessing.  How much of that will be reversed under Trump is hard to predict.   But the Cubans don’t want to be bullied.

Where does all this leave the everyday Cubans who want to become entrepreneurs?

Cubans will still have to pick through the government regulations to find businesses they can open and for now they remain restricted to the 201 categories.

Entrepreneurs like Carinnia, who has a workshop the size of a closet where she makes hand- made shirts that sell for $60.00   She is a wardrobe designer for movies and is called the “Queen of Shirts”.  Carinnia can sell out of her house but not have a storefront.

Private medical practices is another source of revenue for Cuban entrepreneurs.   Cosmetic procedures and cancer treatments are both areas where Cuban doctors are finding their niche.

Cubans are quite inventive and very talented so our bet is that more small businesses will open.  We will be checking back in 2017 to gauge the progress.