By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES — On Monday afternoon, President Barack Obama, who visited our country from March 20 to 22, met with Cuban private sector entrepreneurs at Havana’s Fabrica de Arte Cubano. Someone that the readers of Havana Times know by now, who has also been interviewed by other Cuban and foreign media, international chef Alberto Gonzalez, was present at this gathering, attended by nearly two hundred people.
Alberto isn’t certain whether he was chosen to take part in this meeting because of the wide coverage he’s enjoyed on the Internet or because the wife of the US ambassador is one of his customers and an admirer of his homemade breads.
On Tuesday, I visited him at his bakery, Salchipizza, located at the intersection of Infanta and Zanja streets, Centro Habana. On this occasion, he was conversing with a renowned master baker from Austria who was interested in getting to know his business. When his visitor left, I was able to chat with Alberto about his impressions regarding the get-together with Barack Obama. As usual, I conversed with him informally, while he kneaded some dough (in this case, a peanut-based dough).
Alberto: There was much emotion. Obama gave everyone an opportunity to speak freely, and we’re not used to that.
HT: The immense majority of private business owners I’ve seen in Cuba are white people. This is also what a research paper by historian Fidel Guillermo Duarte, based on official statistics, reveals. Most Afro-Cubans work as street vendors, house employees and security personnel at bars and other establishments.
Alberto: The only black people who owned a business there were Carlos Cristobal, the owner of the San Cristobal restaurant, where Obama dined on Sunday, and me. We’re friends. He wasn’t directly my teacher, but he was the head of the food department at the Hotel Comodoro, when I was studying there.
In the photos and videos he took with his cell phone, I see a man of mixed race. Alberto also tells me that Yotuel, the lead singer of the Cuban band Orishas, who lives in Miami, was there as well. It’s possible that an additional three or four Afro-Cubans were there but, at first glance, it is evident the immense majority of those who attended the meeting where white people.
Alberto: The girl from Clandestinas, the one who has the Isladentro.com domain, for a farm and livestock cooperative that works with the State, spoke. Then, we were seated at different tables organized on the basis of the different sectors that the people there worked in: the food and hotel industries, people working in the computer sciences, etc. You’d sit at a table and debate with others, and you could say what you needed for your business. At the food table, there was a Spaniard who came with Obama’s delegation and had very good ideas.
I realized, however, that people need to come together. The message I walked away with is that exchange leads to development, but we didn’t exactly take this message to heart. The self-employed have to come together. You may have your interests, this other fellow could have others, you may not agree with someone, all of this contributes to thinking about what we need to meet the needs of the self-employed, which are the same needs. Where are we going to buy our materials? That’s the big problem, it has nothing to do with politics.
HT: Shortly after Barack Obama’s meeting with the Cuban small businesspeople, journalist Cristina Escobar said on the television that she considered the gathering discrimination against the State sector and that the US government sought to strengthen Cuba’s private sector to undermine the Cuban State and government. What’s your opinion about this?
Alberto: Has the State come to us and said “come, we’re going to help you”, “come, you can buy your products here”? Yesterday, the man who has to do with everything related to rum in the country was asked if the owners of private restaurants and coffee shops could purchase rum at wholesale prices [since under the current situation they have to buy by the bottle at retail prices]. You have to sell drinks at 6 CUC. That’s totally disrespectful, considering State establishments sell it at 2 CUC. He said they were trying and, since they always say that, that’s why we spoke with Obama. I think and I’ve always said to you that we have to solve Cuba’s problems ourselves. We’re grateful to Obama and I’m grateful for the opportunity of being there. You’ll see the private and State sectors will be able to work together when there’s a wholesale market. Now, everyone says the private sector is better than the State sector. Draw your own conclusions.
HT: What did you expect out of this meeting, how was it useful to you?
Alberto: I was hoping to have an opportunity to see Obama, one of the world’s most important personalities today. Through him, I was able to compare Cuba and the United States. We have to open up to the world, interact with others. Raul Castro said it. We’re way behind, outside the world’s logic. What the different sectors suggested there has nothing to do with what the government has always said. They liberalized the private sector, but they didn’t conduct a profound analysis of the situation first. The result is what everyone said yesterday: we have problems getting raw materials for our businesses. Obama said it himself: you have problems with raw materials because you’re buying them where everyone else is buying it.
While we talk, he asks me to go with him to a nearby store, to buy some gouda cheese for some of his products.
Alberto: Now you realize what it’s like? I have to buy things where everyone buys these things and at exorbitant prices. We still don’t have a wholesale market to go to.
I was very nervous yesterday, very excited, and I wasn’t able to speak and ask a question, but I would have liked to ask Obama if they wanted to help us and, if so, if someone could go to the US Embassy to make a request.
HT: How do you believe this visit by President Barack Obama could help you and all other Cubans?
Alberto: The fact he came and was willing to put the past behind him is already a positive step. He himself said things don’t change overnight. Now, we have to wait and see, and stay positive.
Alberto tells me that now, next to the pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (when I interviewed him for the first time last year, he told me he had taken down the photo of Malcolm X because it contained phrases that a gentleman considered somewhat controversial, asking him whether he was involved in bread-making or politics), he will put up a portrait of US President Barack Obama.