Mastermind for Women Entrepreneurs in Cuba
In 2016 our Fabulous Fempreneurship mastermind was held at the beautiful, French owned Pullman Resort in Cayo Coco, Cuba. This hotel has only been open for one year. We were anxious to see if women entrepreneurs in Cuba were making any progress.
We wanted to talk to Cuban women to see if anything had changed since our 2015 visit. At that time, US President Barrack Obama had started to normalize relations with Cuba.
As we know, change doesn’t happen overnight. On Nov. 29th, 2016 American Airlines Flight 17 marked the first commercial flight from Miami to Havana. However, the trade embargo with U.S. is still in place. It’s likely to remain until President elect, Donald Trump decides on a policy for Cuban relations. With the death of Fidel Castro on November 25, 2016, the world’s attention was on this island for a few days. But the spotlight will fade away quite quickly as more important news around the world takes its place.
What does socialism mean for the average Cuban worker?
The Cuban Government provides free housing, education and medical care, as well as employment. The average salary is $25.00/month and for professionals such as doctors and dentists, etc. it is $50.00 with a pension of $25.00/month on retirement.
What are the opportunities for entrepreneurism?
The Cuban government has 201 government approved business categories that enable 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 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 in their professions.
And what about the tourist town of Cayo Coco?
Cayo Coco is 8 hours away from Havana. The 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 had travelled 2 or 2-1/2 hours from central Cuba each way, to get to their jobs. They often leave for their shifts at 4:00am! The resort provides transportation for their workers as very few Cubans own cars.
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. She is the face of many women entrepreneurs in Cuba.
Flavia and Mario
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. They were both able to apply because they had passports and visas to leave the country. Not all Cubans have the opportunity to get passports.
Their interview went well and they are expecting to hear within a week if they had been successful. Even if only one of them was accepted and the other had to remain in Cuba, they were going to move forward with this opportunity. Like many young people, they want a better life. They want to thrive rather than survive. Young Cubans want good jobs and to be freer. They are willing to make sacrifices to have a better life than their parents.
Yanette wasn’t so lucky. She desperately like to leave Cuba, but without a visa or passport she has not opportunity to leave the country. She was the recreation director and also received tips. Since she was pregnant, tourism is still her best option to make more money than the government wage.
Charo, 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 doctors who only receive $50.00/month? Charo said, well here at the resort we have doctors in our own clinic. They work privately for the resort, so they are entrepreneurs. As for the government doctors, the everyday Cubans take care of them. If we get good treatment for ourselves or our families, we bring the doctors gifts as thanks.
Life for Cuban exiles
Then 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 making a difference
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 talented Cuban musicians 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?
First they would have to apply for a license for one of the 201 private enterprise categories allowed by the government.
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 they want and need investment for growth, but on the other, they don’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, and did so with the American government’s blessing under the Obama watch. How much of that will be reversed under Trump is hard to predict. But the Cubans don’t want to be bullied and Trump has the tendency to ‘shoot from the hip’ which creates tension.
Where does all this leave the everyday Cuban women who want to become entrepreneurs?
They 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. Cubans are quite inventive and very talented so our bet is that more small businesses will open.
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”. She can sell out of her house but not have a storefront.
We will check back next year, almost a year into Trump’s presidency to see if this island, that is stuck in a time warp, will have moved forward into the 21st century, or if the situation is much the same. The lovely Cuban women, on the one hand are so patient, but on the other have the will to change their future. If nothing else, they will continue explore the 201 official areas of entrepreneurism. And like Carinnia and Sandra, find a way to launch their own businesses,