My Mother and I Become Entrepreneurs in Cuba

Yasmin S. Portales Machado

Our Singer sewing machine.
Our Singer sewing machine.

HAVANA TIMES — This past Tuesday, my mother and I went to get a Self-Employment License. We’re going to bring together investment and talent, quitting our professions (she’s a teacher and I’m in theater), to make a little money and contribute to the country’s GDP. There are plenty of forms, seals and stuffy offices ahead of us.

It all started back in July, when my mom decided she would not be going back to the classroom.

More than a profession, teaching is a calling for my mother. She is the kind of teacher that makes up didactic games while she does the dishes. She’s been at it since she was a kid (since the Literacy Campaign of 1961) and has seen the ups and downs of her trade. There are former students of hers in nearly all fields and (I imagine) many different countries.

Until June, this 5-foot-tall woman controlled the classroom with her powerful voice, good eyesight and scathing retorts to teenage cheek. She’s not quitting because young people are lost these days (even though she believes they are), but because of the stifling red-tape that saddles teachers.

During the summer, she realized that A (a teacher’s retirement isn’t enough to live on) + B (sitting at home looking after a grandchild is tantamount to mental suicide) is always equal to C (either one finds something else to do or goes insane). She recalled that, when she was 7, she had made a dress out of crepe paper all by herself, quickly becoming the apprentice of the neighborhood dressmaker because of it. Those lessons were the basis of a veritable trade for her. I sometimes think my mother could well have been a fashion designer instead of a teacher.

Camisa escolar en proceso.
School shirt in process.

I remember the weekends in which my mother woke up feeling “inspired.” She would sit in front of the sewing machine – an unwieldy contraption from East Germany, quite possibly designed in 1945 – and would only get up to get a glass of water or go to the bathroom. The food would be made and delivered from the floor below us (where my grandparents lived), and I knew the clatter of the machine would end only when it was time to try on the pieces she had sown.

That is how we were able to dodge the horrible industrial designs of the 80s, the empty stores of the 90s, and the return of bad designs (at impossible prices) in the dawn of the new millennium, with my mother’s elegant, homemade garments.

They say the key to success in the market is finding a niche. My mother found it by chance, while we were discussing at dinner how difficult it is for a parent to find a school uniform that will fit their kid, State uniforms being generally “too large.”

Then we started a bitter socio-economic reflection on how Cuba’s textile industry had gone to seed and the fact State stores are full of ugly designs and cheap fabrics brought from China. Then, someone remembered that a relative of ours, an architect, designed the industrial textile complex in Santa Clara, a glorious dinosaur from the time of the COMECON which, they say, is going to be transformed into a sweat shop by the Chinese.

We continue to rave about the former Soviet Union and today’s Cuban Communist Party, with intellectual refinement and numerous quotations from the classics of Marxism, but the Party doesn’t listen – it’s already had its epiphany. Since time immemorial, Cuba’s textile industry delivers its uniforms late, the sizes don’t fit anyone and the quota of one or two shirts per person do not cover the needs imposed by our climate and hygienic requirements. Thus, my mother decided she would start to make school uniforms.

Mi licencia.
My license.

She bought the fabrics, tracked down the buttons like a hound following its prey. We got the word around with our neighbors and the mothers of kids in primary school. The orders have begun coming in, and my mother is happy because it’s almost like being in school still – the uniforms, the adrenalin of the school year, childhood – only without the bureaucrats and behind the shield afforded by her sowing machine (an ancient and quiet Singer).

Having verified the profitability of this market niche and the financial feasability of the enterprise, we went on to invest in a new sewing machine, a license and an ad in Cuba’s Revolico classifieds page.

As I am technically unemployed – since I am not a member of the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists and haven’t published a book, I do not pay taxes – joining my mother in this sowing enterprise is the only easy way of paying for social security. It seems absurd to me, of course, but, until the Ministry of Culture ceases to administer the payment of taxes on the basis of “prestige” and begins to base them rather on each individual’s “productivity”, I will have to play hide-and-seek with the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT).

Next Wednesday, I will hold a license that will make me a certified capitalist of the textile industry. On top of things, I will have to hire my mother, because…well, you don’t really want to know.

Wish us luck.

14 thoughts on “My Mother and I Become Entrepreneurs in Cuba

  • Mr. MacDuff, Again, read the content, when I said China started 35 years earlier, I was talking about economic reform that just started in Cuba.

    By the way, Geely owns Volvo now and if it was not because GM’s fought against it so hard and was willing to give up all their investment in Saab, Geely would have own Saab too. So feel free to make fun of Geely now, but 10 years from now, you never know who is laughing then…

  • Yes Maureen! I take clothes for relatives including the two children of a niece one of whom is my Godchild and many of those clothes are of Chinese manufacture. Also, my wife purchases some clothes when in Canada, again some of Chinese manufacture. Only today I purchased a set of cotton bedsheets (top sheet, fitted sheet, two pillow covers) with a 400 thread count to take with me when I go home in the near future.

  • So I guess if I bring articles “made in China” to Cuba from Canada, the recipients will be quite happy with the quality.

  • The justified reason for the comment by Yasmin Portales Machado, is the quality of Chinese clothes offered in Cuba, she is not making a mistake. As I pointed out below, my wife as a Cuban was amazed by the difference in the quality of Chinese products offered in the UK and Canada compared with that offered in Cuba. The obvious reason is that the government purchasing agency in Cuba purchases the cheapest product possible, knowing that they are for a market where average income is just over $20 per month – well below the poverty line of a dollar a day used by the UN. Cubans selling clothes from their front doors frequently have obtained them from visitors from other countries who were until recently (September 1) able to bring in suitcases filled with clothes for their relatives to sell. The regime has now tightened up having realised that it was losing revenue. Having viewed the quality of Chinese products in both Cuba and Canada the difference isn’t even debatable. It’s the difference between a Geely and a Jaguar and similarly the prices are different.

  • Great initiative! Best of luck!

  • I must agree that equating “made in China” with poor quality is a huge mistake. Indeed poor quality exists but as you said you get what you pay for. We regularly buy online from China ( we live in Canada) & have few complaints.

  • Very good Charles!
    I envy your friends being able to use the Internet in Cuba to get to Facebook. I am unable to get Internet when I am at home there but some of the hotels in Havana and tourist places do offer access – at a price!
    Let me add another little bit of fun for I trust your amusement.

    “I don’t agree with communism. We are a democracy. We are against all kinds of Dictators. That is why we oppose communism.”
    Fidel Castro Ruz April 25, 1959

  • Carlyle, while it’s not common, I do have a few friends on the island connected to Facebook. And quoting one of those friends, she says “In Cuba, nothing is permitted, but anything is possible.”

  • As you are suggesting that China started 35 years prior to Cuba starting in 1959, you must be referring to 1924. What happened then?
    You are right to question Cuba being turned into a sweat shop by the Chinese who have with a GDP of $4,430 per head and with 1,354.1 billion people plenty of sweat shop labour of their own and with potential increase by abandoning the one child policy.
    The adoption of capitalism has driven the Chinese economy and Cuba would be well advised to also adopt capitalism. Your enthusiasm about your particular cell-phone is rather out of place in Cuba which for example bans GPS. In my view you should re-examine both Yasmin Portales Machado’s article and your criticism of it.
    My wife as a Cuban has shopped in Cuba, the UK and Canada and was amazed by the difference in quality and design of clothing available in the UK and Canada – most of which was produced in China even if designed in Europe. Clearly Chinese product being sold in China is of the cheapest quality available – just look in the shops. The fact that different qualities of goods are produced in China is obvious – take a look at a Geely car – I have had the misfortune to drive one on hire cfrom Cubacar and it was cheap junk. It looked at its best from 50 feet away, copying western styles but made from the cheapest of material. China obviously is capable of producing higher quality than the Geely but is trying to keep the price low and sacrificing quality in the process. Few if any Chinese company directors are going to be seen driving one!

  • “…how Cuba’s textile industry had gone to seed and the fact State stores are full of ugly designs and cheap fabrics brought from China. … which, they say, is going to be transformed into a sweat shop by the Chinese.”

    It seems that Miss Yasmin S. Portales Machado has some resentment towards the Chinese. It also seems that some people always associate “made in China” with inferior quality. But as a Chinese, who obtained 2 degrees in Economic and Finance as well Business Administration, who lived on 3 different continents of the world, let me take this opportunity to education someone who is in her early entrepreneurship

    Lesson No. 1: You get what you pay for.

    It is a well known fact that China is the biggest exporter of textile and apparel, with its No. 1 export destination being the US. most largest companies of sports wear, man and woman fashion apparels, have their products made in China. (if you don’t believe me, just look at the tags on your Nike or adidas)

    China is also expected to replace Germany, to become the No.1 textile machine maker and exporter of the world. This is why China’s economy is growing so fast, because we are not only making products, but also the tools. It is the focus on technology, investment in research and development (R&D), maybe occasional “copying” from others, that makes Chinese industrial might becoming so powerful

    Now, you might ask, why is the stuff from China is so bad here? Well, think about it this way, if it cost me 100 CUC to buy the cell phone I am using (I got a Samsung Galaxy III S, by the way, not the latest model but it is a great phone). Let say if only want to pay 20 dollars to buy a cell phone from me. Do you think I will sell you my Galaxy III S, with facial recognition, voice commend, built in GPS and a whole lots of other functions I don’t even know about, or will I open up my draw and hand over a Nokia 3210, that I used 10 years ago?

    It works a same way in other businesses too.

    By the way, I believe Cuba is a great country, you are doing the right track. Only difference between you and China is that China started 35 years earlier.

  • Glenp Rich – just a comment intended to be helpful, Yasmin will not have access to facebook because that is on the Internet. I agree with you that dogs with the odd exception have a miserable existence in Cuba and any action which alleviates it is to be encouraged. Our local vet in Cuba earns just about a dollar per day from the State and has to record every animal treated – he tries to keep his charges down to a few pesos as his clients have few resources but love their pets.

  • As this article by Yasmin Portales Machado illustrates, Cubans do not lack ability or initiative, it is the Communist system as applied by the Castro family regime which limits the economic development of Cuba. Hopefully this initiative will be successful. But there is a problem for success would in the capitalist world lead to growth and growth would lead to larger premises and ever increasing numbers of employees. That is not acceptable in Cuba for it is private enterprise. Yasmin and her mother will have to be content to be a “cottage” business. Let us hope that they circumvent the difficulty by “farming out” work to other women who manage to save sufficient money to buy a sewing machine.
    It is salutary that the mother was a good teacher who loved her profession but has to abandon it to become a seamstress. This in a country which admits a deficit of 7% in teaching staff.
    I wish you every success in your endeavors Yasmin!

  • Best of luck. It is not nice to see the dieing art of sewing disappear. I hope that it all works out for you and your mother. This will also be a good time to leave the modern jungle and go back to a healthier life style while there still is one. I would love to go there and help with a spay and neuter program for the dogs in Santa Clara and the surrounding resort areas. I would love to see a vetinarian clinic set up in Santa Clara and have information availabe at the resorts in Santa Maria so that guests could help a stray dog that they see, rather then to leave it there for the dog catchers to scoop up and kill. A responsible person there could have collection cans at the resorts as some of the tourist also care about the strays. If that happened I bet that your company could help with collars for the dogs which could have a label that shows that they have been spayed and not to be picked up by the dog catcher If you know of any veternarians in Santa Maria who would be interested. please get in contact with me – glenp rich through facebook

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