By Mimi Whitefield
Niuris Higueras jokes that her spouse calls Atelier, the Havana restaurant she started with her brother, her real husband.
In an effort to see her family more, she’s decided to move them into the rooms in the back of her popular restaurant in the city’s Vedado neighborhood. It already has a homey atmosphere with crocheted tablecloths, louvered shutters and an eclectic decor featuring old radios, typewriters and other antiques.
One sure sign that the restaurant may be eating up a bit too much family time: “My son is only 7 years old and he knows how to make chocolate fondue and cheesecake,” Higueras said.
As Cuban entrepreneurs negotiate the twists and turns of private business on the island, they’ve found a few new challenges: stress and trying to achieve work-life balance.
They also find themselves grappling with pressing questions such as these: How do I keep this ancient Russian washing machine running so I can wash the towels at my bed and breakfast? Where am I going to buy hair dryers for my guest rooms? Where can I source duck for my restaurant menu? How do I get my products to market?
And then there are the big question marks: Why hasn’t Cuba developed a meaningful wholesale market where I can find the products I need to run my business? What will the new relationship with the United States mean for Cuba’s private sector?
“There are so many problems you have to confront daily,” Higueras said. Because her menu includes dishes, such as conejo en vino (rabbit in wine sauce) and duck confit in a country where such fare is not readily available, she’s been working for the past 15 years with a private farmer in Pinar del Rio who keeps the restaurant stocked with fowl and rabbit.
She’s also vexed by a government regulation that limits paladares, private restaurants, to just 50 seats. “Without that restriction, we could have grown more rapidly,” she said.
The rules for cuentapropistas, Cuba’s self-employed, are gradually evolving. The government recently allowed operators of paladares, for example, to do home food delivery without taking out a new license. But Higueras said that doesn’t help her much. Her restaurant caters to foreign visitors and Cubans on special occasions. Her food is too expensive for most Cubans to have delivered on a regular basis, she said.
In this new world of cuentapropistas, almost any location can become a place of business, the front step of a home, the courtyard of an apartment building or even a stairwell.
On Havana’s Acosta Street, one enterprising individual has moved a computer and a small table into a nook by the stairs of a building and is using it to resell packages of televised sports events, news, websites and entertainment programs from abroad that are copied on to a customer’s portable hard drive or USB.
While some cuentapropistas are engaged in little more than subsistence activities, others over time have built thriving businesses that provide jobs for other Cubans.
Some were almost accidental entrepreneurs. Julia de la Rosa and her husband Silvio Ortega run a bed and breakfast in the south Havana neighborhood of La Vibora that now has 10 guest rooms. “We were pushed to begin this activity. Twenty years ago, this country was in the middle of an economic crisis [after the collapse of the Soviet Union],” said de la Rosa. “As Cubans, the only resource that many of us had were our homes.
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The house, a 1938 mansion the couple inherited from Silvio’s aunt who left Cuba, appears to be quite a substantial resource.
Guests splash in a large turquoise pool, have breakfast in a covered pavilion and sleep in stylish rooms with exposed brick walls, patterned tile floors, white linens, handcrafted furniture and flat-screen televisions.
But when the couple got the mansion, it was a wreck. Little of the furniture was functional, and the pool had been closed.
At the time, Ortega was a taxi driver who squired tourists around the city in a 1929 Ford. Drawing from his earnings, the couple slowly began to fix up the house and turn it into La Rosa de Ortega bed and breakfast.
It’s taken two decades of refinishing furniture, including some pieces tossed at the side of the road, commissioning Cuban craftsmen to make the iron beds and other furniture for the guest rooms, scouring Havana and historic Trinidad for tiles and antiques and finding parts for the swimming pool filtration system.
Having adequate wholesale markets where the couple could have purchased everything from construction materials to bedding would have made the whole process a lot easier, said de la Rosa. When she couldn’t find the hair dryers she needed for the guest rooms, she made a trip to Miami and brought them back in her suitcase.
Many entrepreneurs say they hope the opening with the United States will eventually make it easier to import the products they need for their businesses and that such luggage commerce won’t be their only alternative.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson met with some cuentapropistas during normalization talks with Cuba earlier this year. She called them “some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.
“I hope Americans will aggressively take advantage of the new policy to support them so that they no longer resort to, as one said to me, ‘el mercado Samsonite,'” she said.
Jacobson said the growth of Cuba’s private sector can be “game changing” for the island.
“They have already made the psychological shift from reliance on the state to reliance on themselves, and that is revolutionary,” she said earlier this year.
In the meantime, the cuentapropistas try to overcome bumps in the road. One of the big ones is lack of good Internet connections to communicate with suppliers and take reservations.
“We need real, normal access to email,” Ortega said. Now, Cubans with nauta.cu accounts can send emails within Cuba. “We’re so hungry for more, that’s not enough,” he said. “Internet is absolutely essential for our business. We need more freedom in many things, from Internet to normal exchanges with American citizens.”
To manage, he said his wife goes to hotels or hot spots outside hotels, anywhere she can find to log on and connect for a short time.
“We have a friend who says what is happening in Cuba is the rebirth of lost hope,” he said. Cuba’s entrepreneurs, he said, are scratching out every opportunity they can find without losing what’s positive about Cuban society. “I’m 100 percent convinced that the way forward lies in change,” he said.
Running a casa particular is a family affair for Fanny Acosta, 36. Everyone pitches in at Casa Randy, a Centro Habana bed and breakfast named after Acosta’s 3-year-old son. With two small children, Acosta has her hands full.
Her mother comes every morning to give her a hand and her husband Raddy goes out each morning at 7 a.m. to purchase mangoes, papayas or other fruit in season, fresh bread and whatever else is needed for guests’ breakfasts. She likes to give each guest a breakfast made to their particular taste.
Her father has contributed a refrigerator to the effort, and her mother purchased a microwave for the apartment.
“You can find microwaves and some of the things you need to run a casa in Cuba, but they are very expensive,” she said.
Sometimes she’ll ask regular guests to pick up towels and sheets abroad for her.
To help with the business, her husband left his job as a customs worker. Charging 25 Cuban convertible pesos per night (around $25), the couple can take in more per guest than the average state worker earns in a month, although they have to pay monthly installments to the investor who helped Acosta purchase the apartment and need to cover taxes and other expenses.
“We don’t have an employee like many casas to help with washing, cleaning and cooking,” she said. “In spite of business increasing, we look for ways to do everything in the family.”
That means cleaning up three times a day: after breakfast, after the children play and in the evening after dinner is served to guests who order it in the morning. She said she loves fresh air so she keeps the windows of the fourth floor apartment open. But that allows dust to come in, so she’s constantly sweeping up.
Because she wants the white sheets and towels she uses to be spotless, first she boils them, then bleaches and washes them in a “very old Russian washing machine,” and finally hangs them in the sun to dry.
So that all three guest rooms in the apartment can be rented, the couple and their two kids crowd into the fourth bedroom of the apartment near El Prado as their private living quarters.
Despite all the work, Acosta said, “I like what I do very much. We make really good friends. One of the advantages of this is the friendships that remain.”
Since the United States and Cuba began the process of normalizing relations in December, she said she’s seen “many, many, many” Americans on the island. Acosta admits at first she was a little scared of them because, “for many Cubans, Americans are arrogant.” And she also had the impression that Americans viewed Cubans as “ignorant, dangerous and mired in extreme poverty.”
Now based on her own experience with American guests, she said she views them as people who want to get to know Cuba without offending anyone. “The Americans also are very clean and easygoing,” she said. “We haven’t had any problems with Americans.”
Looking to the future, Acosta said, when her 18-month-old daughter is old enough for kindergarten and she has a bit more time, she is thinking about adding salsa lessons to the casa’s offerings.
Milagros del Caridad Contreras, a dance teacher and choreographer, has learned the virtue of a two-for when it comes to business. She operates a dance academy, Mily Dance, where she gives salsa, African and contemporary dance classes and also rents out three rooms in her Centro Habana home to paying guests.
Her initial students came from the neighborhood but when some of her guests heard the rhythms spilling out of the adjoining dance academy, they too signed up for dance lessons. “Imagine you’re in a Cuban home and you’re hearing salsa music. Of course, you’re going to say teach me, too,” she said. She charges the foreign students a premium to keep prices lower for neighborhood children.
So far, this has been a good year for Contreras. Business used to start to decline in March as the winter season wound down, she said. But not this year. “Now, most nights I am sleeping in the office because the bedrooms are all rented,” she said. “This is a first for us.”
She’s also receiving more American visitors than ever. Through the beginning of July, international visitors to Cuba were up 16 percent.
In hopes of picking up even more business, de la Rosa, Contreras and Acosta all have registered their rooms with San Francisco-based Airbnb, which began offering American travelers the opportunity to book stays at private Cuban homes in April.
It now has more than 2,000 Cuban listings.
Contreras is thinking big. Some day, she said, she hopes to have various houses to rent out and she wants her dance academy, which has already been featured in several films about Afro-Cuban culture, to grow, too.
De la Rosa’s dream is more limited. She just wants to finish up renovation of the house and attend to all the details that remain. “I hope in five years to have this place completely done, running in an efficient way so I can have a more relaxed life,” she said.
“Everything is so fast now. I feel so pressed by all there is to do for the future,” de la Rosa said. “I think with these changes in Cuba, there is no turning back.”
There’s also another byproduct of the flirtation with the market economy that Cuba really hasn’t had to deal with in the past five decades, said Julio Alvarez Torres, who runs a garage that restores vintage cars and is part of a collective of classic car owners who drive visitors around the island.
“Today we want to do so much with so little that it is affecting our health,” said Alvarez. When he went to the doctor recently, he said he was told that his blood pressure was high. “The doctor said, ‘That’s what we’re seeing now, cuentapropistas with higher stress levels.’ This is something we need to learn to manage as well.”