The Businesses of Cuba’s Self-Employed

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

The Cojimar castle. Photo: Erasmo Calzadilla

HAVANA TIMES — “Buddy, you’ve seen how much effort I’ve put into running a tasteful and proper business,” says Hector, a neighbor of mine who recently became self-employed, opening a cafeteria at the intersection of I and 27 street in Cojimar, a place he still hasn’t named.

“Opening a place like this and keeping it going is a risk because of the shortage of products on the market to buy. That makes it impossible to offer a quality service for more than a month.”

“I’ve seen the work you’ve gone through,” I said to him while looking at all of the effort that is condensed in the locale. “If you need help, you can count on me….for ideas, surveys or customer research. Oh, I’m also a good taster,” I added.

“This is different,” he replied. “The problem is keeping a stable menu, which I believe is important for a business like this one. It’s hard to get one’s hands on eggs, sugar, flour, the right type of bread. Sometimes, you can’t even get it “under the table.” When you’ve got cheese you’re short on flour, when you’ve got flour there’s no cheese. That’s why many people say we small business owners don’t offer a regular service. But I’m not going to give up. I’ve already got the name, El Farito (“The Lighthouse”), because of the Cojimar lighthouse,” he sentenced.

Most people who operate cafeterias, food stands or restaurants (paladares, as they are known in Cuba) rely in part on offers at the peso (CUP) or Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) retail market, as no wholesale stores yet exist. Because of this, these locales have to hunt down rice, sugar, beans, eggs, soft drinks and other products and deal with the irregularities of these markets, at least in Havana.

Some restaurants have agreements with produce and livestock cooperatives that supply part of their products, but it isn’t enough and it isn’t suited to all businesses. In addition, fish or beef shortages at State markets limits these restaurants’ menu and makes the quality of their services fluctuate.

If the owner acquires some of these products on the “black market,” either because they’re nowhere to be found or can be bought cheaper there, they place themselves at risk and under a great deal of stress, as, if any irregularities are detected by a State inspector, they will be required to pay a steep fine which will either go to the State or the inspector’s pockets (a matter that merits another post).

I’ve realized why people find it hard to make progress in Cuba. Many people open these businesses and then close them up for some time, even though the State wants to keep them open in order to tax them.

4 thoughts on “The Businesses of Cuba’s Self-Employed

  • Thank you!
    I have the good fortune to know Cuba and its people well. In consequence I try to address the reality of Cuba.
    There are as you will realise when perusing these pages, some contributors whose purpose is to support the Castro family regime with belt and braces. To do so, they have to favour dictatorship which to me is anathema. Usually they write such drivel while safely ensconced in capitalist countries from which they derive their succour.
    Examples of the extreme are Gomezz a Canadian citizen born in Cuba, who has proudly announced in these pages that if he moved to Cuba, he would be able to afford a house, car and servant. His amigos in Cuba apparently all have Internet – in short are lackeys of the regime. Gomezz having introduced the subject, rendered an essay upon anal cleansing – as performed he said in Cuba – to me it was more representative of India.
    Another contributor is Mr. John Goodrich a 71 year old US academic Anarchist who regularly prates on about “STATE SOCIALISM” as the political system in Cuba, but actually has never visited the country. Debate with either is fruitless and in the case of Mr. Goodrich, I don’t respond to his bleatings.
    Again, thank you!

  • Carlyle, I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  • “This incompetence is not a consequence of the embargo – it is a direct consequence of adhering to socialist ideas rather than permitting the initiative that is an essential component of the free enterprise capitalist system.”
    Stop it !
    I have a cracked rib from laughing at that.
    And herein begins a contest:
    The person who can find the most factual errors in the excerpted quote above wins a night out with Bill Cosby .
    The second place winner gets two nights out with Bill Cosby.
    third place winner gets a double date with Bill Cosby and Donald Trump.
    Hint: Cuba is not socialist.

  • The food industry in the free world has over the last 15 years placed great emphasis upon the importance of the supply chain. This is for both efficiency and food safety. In the UK for example, if food poisoning occurs for example from strawberries, the traceable supply chain enables not merely the farm of origin to be identified, but the individual field within 24 hours.
    The supply chain also ensures continuity of product supply. The producer of the product knows the quantity required on any given date – from there the product goes to a distribution centre and from there to the supermarket or restaurant. Fulfilling orders is essential for survival and the inefficient go to the wall. The system ensures freshness of perishable products – eg: celery grown in the south of Spain at Almeira, is cut, boxed, cooled (essential), and trucked across Spain and France to the UK where it is delivered to the distribution centre – then shipped to the supermarket – where the “sell-by” date is just 7 days from the day of cutting. If not sold it has to be dumped.
    In Cuba the within country production is controlled by the regime – primarily the military which also controls the distribution and retailing. As about 80% of the total food consumption is imported, that too is controlled by GAESA subsidiaries. In short, the inefficiencies are entirely a consequence of the State socialist management system. Incompetence is standard and nobody within the system cares.
    It ought to be possible to provide the manager of each shop with a printed list (as there is not a computer system) of all products stocked, to enable weekly ordering of required products, and indeed such a list exists. The problem is that the distribution centres (warehouses) are not managed properly and supply to them is similarly not properly controlled and so the shop managers cannot provide proper service to customers.
    This incompetence is not a consequence of the embargo – it is a direct consequence of adhering to socialist ideas rather than permitting the initiative that is an essential component of the free enterprise capitalist system.
    Pity the poor “entrepreneurial” Cubans whose livelihoods are dependent upon the described socialist State system.
    To survive, the entrepreneurs have to depend upon the incompetence of the Castro family regime administration and that as described in the article above is a tough call!

Comments are closed.