Cuba’s Small Businesses are Short on Skilled Employees

Deciding not to rely on a hired employee puts limitations on private businesses / 14ymedio

The mass exodus harms private entrepreneurs in Cuba

By Natalia Lopez Moya (14ymedio)

HAVANA TIMES – Regular customers of a privately owned bakery on San Lázaro Street in Central Habana were surprised this week to see the owner of the business both kneading dough and working the counter. “The cook left the country, so this is now a one-woman show,” explains the entrepreneur, one of many who have been hit by the exodus affecting Cuba’s private-sector economy.

“This is the third cook I’ve lost since I opened,” says the woman, who owns a shop specializing in breads, desserts and cookies. “He was making money here but, of course, it doesn’t compare… He had signed up for the US humanitarian parole program* last year and they just told him that it had been granted. From the time he found out until the time he left was less than a week. I didn’t have time to look for someone else.”

The employee’s departure has had a very negative impact on the bakery’s profits. “I can no longer take orders for weddings or parties because I can’t keep up. Also, I have had to limit the types of bread that I sell. I’ve lost thousands of pesos in a few days compared to the sales I had in previous months.”

To avoid unwelcome surprises after training an employee in the ins-and-outs of their operations, many small and medium-sized business owners prefer to rely on their own family members. “Here we have my wife, my two daughters and me,” says Luis Mario, owner of a shop specializing in birthday buffets in Havana’s Cerro district. “I feel more secure because nothing happens from one day to the next without me finding out about it.”

Last year, we hired a courier. If he made ten deliveries a day, it was a lot. One day, I come into work only to find out that he had left for Nicaragua en route north” he says. “I had to make the rest of the home deliveries that week, and I then decided that I wasn’t going to hire anyone else who could leave me in the lurch overnight.”

He notes, however, that his two daughters are awaiting approval of their “humanitarian parole” application from the United States, but that he will find out “well before they get on the plane.” If the two young women do manage to emigrate with their respective husbands and children, he and his wife will join them later. “When that time comes, I will liquidate everything and close up shop. But initially, when my daughters are no longer here, I will have to limit the number of orders I can accept.”

The strongest impacts of this massive flight occur when the émigré fulfills a specialized role: technicians in assembly or repair of equipment, chefs, nurses, pastry chefs, designers and other positions that require training and experience. “The pastry chef and the economy left me, so right now my business is closed,” laments Yusimi, owner of a cafeteria in Nuevo Vedado, municipality of the Plaza de la Revolución.

“The pastry chef was very good and young, the truth is that it seemed like a miracle that he was still in Cuba and now the miracle is over.” The employee who was in charge of accounting and invoices was a friend of the owner of the establishment since they were teenagers. “I can’t even be annoyed with either of them because I completely understand that they want to prosper out there and achieve their dreams, but I recognize that this has sunk me. I don’t know if I will be able to reopen.”

Among the questions that have been repeated most frequently in job interviews for months is, inevitably, the one that inquires about emigration: “Do you plan to leave the country soon?” Maria Eugenia, 57, was asked when she went to a home in El Vedado for an advertisement to care for a bedridden elderly woman. “I don’t like to lie, so I told them that my son had started the family reunification process for me to go to the United States,” she explains.

“And then the interview was over,” she concludes. “They were kind, but they told me that they couldn’t hire me because the lady was going to get used to me, she was going to get attached to me and, in the end, I was going to stay a short time.” But Maria Eugenia believes that this requirement is excessive: “Who right now in Cuba, at the age of being able to work, does not have some plan to leave here?” and she herself answers: “It could be a crazy plan, but you have one.”

“The best team is the one that is made up of only one,” says Fernando, a technician in installation and repair of air conditioning and refrigerators. “I worked for a couple of years with my son but now he is living in Las Vegas, I haven’t wanted to hire any other assistant because this is almost like a marriage, you have to adjust to the other person, synchronize yourself. If they leave you later, you’re lost.” Deciding not to have an employee brings limitations.

Fernando concludes: “There are jobs that I cannot accept, or I have to ask the client who hires me for help, but I prefer to go through that and not spend a day taking the tools on my motorcycle, a previous commitment to install air conditioning and an assistant who doesn’t arrive because he’s at the airport waiting to get on a plane.”

Translated by Anonymous and Regina Anavy for Translating Cuba.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

4 thoughts on “Cuba’s Small Businesses are Short on Skilled Employees

  • Michael you posed a very perceptive question: “My question is, why is the Cuban government allowing this?”

    I am certainly not a Cuba expert but I have some insights like many other contributors. To your question, let’s restrict the scope of the question to this article about Cuba’s emerging small businesses and the problems entrepreneurs are having maintaining employees. So, why is the Cuban government allowing this?

    First, the Cuban totalitarian government has been dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of quasi capitalism allowing small businesses to exist. There is no way the totalitarian rulers want any semblance of the free market economy to flourish unimpeded on the island. Business as operated in the capitalist world is antithetical to the communist totalitarian ideology as practiced by the Cuban state for the past 60 plus years.

    The Cuban government ideologues want their 1959 Revolutionary principles, archaic as they are, to be practiced and dutifully observed by all Cuban citizens. Full Stop.

    These ideologues seeing the ultimate economic demise of their homeland have come to realize that patronizing some free market business on Cuban streets will save their political totalitarian ambitions.

    The Cuban political elites see how successful brethren communist countries – Vietnam and China – are using capitalist business methodology to make their countries economic powerhouses. So, if they can do it Cuba will try, however, on Cuban terms.

    The major difference between Cuba and its nascent entry to free market business practices is that unlike successful Vietnam and China, Cuba will not allow its citizens freedoms to be entrepreneurial successful. Wages for employees are abysmally low. So low, as the article points out, employees cannot survive on such low salaries. The entrepreneurial owners without dedicated employees cannot expand and even if they could grow the Cuban government will prevent native Cubans from being “too successful”.

    So, one gets exactly what the article says. Employees to earn a decent livable salary must leave for foreign lands. And that is the crux of the economic entrepreneurial situation in Cuba today. Vietnam and China demonstrate, economically, it doesn’t have to be that way.

    So, why is the Cuban government allowing this ? The 1959 Revolution ideals to the current archaic ideologues are sacrosanct and never to be superseded by Western capitalist ideology. This is what a enterprising Cuban entrepreneur and employees have to cope with.

  • Stephen the problem is itakes about 30 000 pesos or about $100U S to live in Cuba plus housing costs to live for 1 monthi in a lifestyle i would want to live. Many people are leaving for U S or elsewhere to feed their children. Stephen I think unless Many changes happen only the old and disabled people will be left with no economic model to pay for needed items and care.

  • This article is very distressing. I had heard about Biden’s humanitarian parole program but had no idea it was affecting so many habaneros.
    Given the current conditions in La Habana I certainly understand the exodus.
    But it doesn’t make me happy.
    Cuba is its people. Without them it’s a bunch of crumbling buildings mixed with flashy new hotels financed by foreign money.
    Cuba is its people.
    My question is, why is the Cuban government allowing this?
    I will be in La Habana in a couple of weeks and am hoping to see old friends and make new ones.
    And I hope someone in power tells the U.S. to take its humanitarian parole program and shove it.

  • This timely article is a direct answer to the very recent article dealing with the same topic about the expanding Cuban private sector: “Can the Private Sector Help Serve the Aging of Cuba?”

    Well, if Cuba’s small businesses are seemingly so short of skilled employees, how the heck is the proliferating private sector suppose to bail out Cuba’s senior citizens when prospective Cuban employees are bailing out of the country? The answer is obvious.

    It certainly must be aggravating for those Cuban energetic entrepreneurs like the privately owned bakery on San Lázaro Street in Central Habana to hire skilled employees only to have them leave with little to no notice. An entrepreneur needs reliable, dedicated, motivated workers to make his/her enterprise flourish. Without outside reliable help the business will always remain a “Ma and Pa” establishment with no possibility for expansion and increased financial gain.

    The end result: The individual entrepreneur remains small and limited and by extension the Cuban economy also is hindered because businesses cannot grow to their full potential and contribute cash to the government which stifles economic growth.

    There is nothing wrong with a family operated business per se. But the article speaks about businesses’ frustrations in keeping employees. Employees are needed for continuation and growth. The Cuban private businesses no doubt pay their employees more than the state pays its employees; however, the remuneration is still extremely lacking through no fault of the entrepreneurs.

    Young Cubans know they can earn substantially more in American dollars and have a better life plying their specialty skills, like bakers, cooks, in another geographic locations, more often than not, the USA. As the article points out, the pastry entrepreneur lamented loudly about the third cook who walked: “He was making money here but, of course, it doesn’t compare…” Compare with what and where?

    Of course comparable to wages and benefits in the USA. The Cuban entrepreneur can never compare with that persistent challenge. So, unfortunately, the Cuban entrepreneur looking for some additional help to make their business flourish must content with this real question posed by Maria Eugenia: “Who right now in Cuba, at the age of being able to work, does not have some plan to leave here?” Scary thought for any business owner looking for help in Cuba.

    Sadly, in answer to Maria’s question probably the majority of work aged Cubans. Not a pleasant prospect for the Cuban government to contend with, nor the enterprising Cuban entrepreneurs.

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