Trades and Businesses of Old Make a Comeback in Cuba

Fernando Ravsberg*

Paintball, at US $5 a player, is a new sensation in Cuba. Getting the “armament” into the country entailed an arduous procedure with Cuba’s police. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Private detectives, pet-care centers, pawnbrokers, tourist buses, opticians, travel agents, psychologists on call – these are some of the businesses, started by Cuba’s self-employed, which were practically unknown on the island until recently and have now become as profitable as the more familiar private restaurants or lodgings.

Thanks to private initiative, which has been gaining ground in the country with the reforms the government has been implementing since 2008, today Cubans can take out a loan to start a business, go on vacation on a private bus, leave their dogs in expert hands, have their partners followed and pay for a shrink if the results of this investigation proves traumatic for them.

Some have secured official authorization, others operate using the licenses of others and many eke out a living at the margins of a legislation which has authorized self-employment in a mere 200 basic trades. No one can say for certain whether this legislation is a prelude of what is to come or if it traces the limits of the reform process.

When Raul Castro took office, he announced that Cubans would continue to have equal opportunities, but not equal earnings, de-vilifying wealth and allowing those who had money to spend it openly. This gave rise to new needs among the population.

Today, when Cubans are allowed to stay at hotels and travel abroad, the island’s new entrepreneurs must look for a place where they can leave their dogs, which are almost invariably well-bred. For US $6 a day, a pet-care center offers to treat their dogs like kings: a package which includes good food, sea-side walks and even veterinary attention.

Security and Consulting

A number of agencies have begun offering private investigation and security services, guaranteeing “many years of experience” in the field. Their employees are reportedly trained to offer security services for parties, investigate cases of theft within a company and monitor an allegedly unfaithful spouse.

Private detectives are back in Cuba. Clients who do not like the news they get from these can now also hire their own, personal shrink. Photo: Raquel Perez

This development is rather ironic, as the arrest of British private detectives some years ago, caught spying on a foreign businessman based in Cuba, is still fresh in people’s minds. The detectives had been hired by a jealous wife who was apprehensive about the charms of Cuban women.

Moneylenders – which hadn’t been seen in Cuba for decades – have also resurfaced, offering the capital one needs to start that “small business” that will make one rich. In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they were known as “brakemen”, in reference to the methods they often employed to convince those behind on their debts to pay up.

“Today, Cubans can take out a loan to start a business, go on vacation on a private bus, leave their dogs in expert hands, have their partners followed and pay for a shrink if the results of this investigation proves traumatic for them.”

An accountant whom we’ll refer to as “Juan” (he does not want his real name to be made public) offers to keep the books of self-employed entrepreneurs making good money for a mere US $ 60.00 a month. He has “a program that can prepare 20 different accounting reports, one for taxes, one for partners and an accurate one for you [the employer],” he told this reporter.

New investors can now resort to consultants who will advise them on how to tread the winding roads of Cuba’s bureaucracy in order to open a business, and to others who will explain to them how to purchase properties, skirting the restrictions of the Housing Law.

Self-employed health professionals

Fledgling dental clinics, opticians and even psychologists who do house calls are some of the self-employed health-care professionals that are beginning to surface where Cuba’s free public health system shows a clear deficit in personnel or resources.

A psychologist who specializes in “sessions with autistic children between the ages of 2 and 12” charges US $5 a day. A professional from the field told BBC Mundo that he uses “card therapy, based on what the psychologist knows on the basis of the child’s situation, assessed through a preliminary test.”

Optometrists in Cuba

For as moderate a price, some of their colleagues are willing to do a bit of psychoanalysis on call. All the while, a countrywide shortage in dentures has given rise to a lucrative business fed by products sent from abroad.

Private optometrists measure your vision, in your own home, for US $20. They also sell all kinds of glasses, with prices as high as US $150. Photo: Raquel Perez

“We’ve got everything you can pay for here”, “Homero”, an optometrist who also preferred to remain anonymous, told us while offering us glasses with “the best of frames.” He attentively explained to us that “glasses for near or far-sightedness cost 25 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos, roughly on a par with the US dollar, minus 10% in fees), bifocals cost 30 CUC, natural progressive glasses cost 50 CUC and photosensitive progressives 150 CUC.”

Trips and tourism

Cuba’s migratory reforms have also given rise to new opportunities, and Oscar and Julia have not let these pass. They call themselves “processing agents”. “For 15 CUC, we get applicants the DF 160 (a form needed to request a US travel visa). For 5 CUC, we book an appointment to request a passport at the Spanish Embassy,” they tell us.

Since travelers need to speak foreign languages, private language academies are multiplying across the island. In Havana’s neighborhood of Vedado, one such institution has rented out several houses and fitted them with classrooms. In today’s Cuba, you can learn English, Portuguese, French, Russian, Chinese, German, CA atalonian and Dutch through private lessons.

Josvani and his wife also have a sweet little business going: they organize tours within the island. Though they use the bus belonging to the company Josvani works for, they are officially self-employed, buying the diesel they need on the black market at US $0.30 the liter and charging US $40 per person for a trip to Trinidad, a colonial city in Cuba’s interior.

For parties, you can now rent costumes and inflatable playgrounds for birthdays. You can also hire a band of mariachis to serenade your girlfriend with style and, if you’re looking for something more thrilling, you can go scuba-diving or get a paintball war started, a mere 10 meters away from Havana’s ocean drive.
(*) A HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo in Spanish.

One thought on “Trades and Businesses of Old Make a Comeback in Cuba

  • I was in Havana this past July. I had a “free” optometrist visit (thanks Cuba) and I bought one set of real nice Italian frames at the nice shop on Obispo for 55CUC and had my old frames that I had paid $250 Canadian “for just the frames” at home… This optometrist put regular glass in those frames and tint glass in the new ones for a total of $120CUC… What a great deal… Again thanks Cuba…

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