Their Cheeky T-shirts Are Designed In Cuba — But They Found A Way To Sell Them Here

Although Clandestina's Old Havana shop turns out handbags, beach bags, wallets and various clothing items, it offers just 10 T-shirt designs on its website. But it has big plans: future collaborations with other private Cuban workshops to offer more products and to begin online sales of prints, "the best of Cuban graphic design," said del Rio.

Clandestina is trying to run its customer service operation from Havana where only a minuscule number of Cuban homes have internet and most Cubans who want to stay connected resort to Wi-Fi hotspots at hotels, parks and other public places. "The challenge is to keep the supply chain working properly," del Rio said. "Customer service is a nightmare but we are learning."

Clandestina's customer service rep tries to "stay online at least during working hours," del Rio said. To do that, he visits public Wi-Fi hotspots. "It's expensive and the internet is not always working," she said.

Del Rio said she and Fernandez gained valuable insight into how U.S. business works when they took part in the Entrepreneurship and Competitiveness in Latin America program at Columbia University last year. Now they're trying to apply some of those lessons to their fledgling e-commerce operation.

Although Clandestina's Old Havana store, studio and printing operation attracts about 20,000 visitors a year and the company provides jobs for 29 people, the Cuba-based business "doesn't really grow," del Rio said. "It just sustains itself."

The company also took a hit after the Trump administration crackdown and in the wake of mysterious acoustic incidents that injured the health of about two dozen American diplomats, which prompted the U.S. to pull back about 60 percent of its diplomatic personnel from Havana.

In the aftermath, del Rio said, "the number of American visitors decreased dramatically and we lost about 40 percent of our market." But so far this winter season, she's noticed a slight uptick in American travelers.

The Clandestina partners have decided that the way to grow is through e-commerce. Internet service in Cuba has slowly been improving. "We've got our fingers crossed it will continue to improve," said del Rio.

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