Step by Step

I began this blog with a post called “The Times They Are A-Changing” which I published shortly after the government released the new list of private business licenses they were offering. Since then the real estate markets in Cuba have experienced a boom and in addition to the countless small entrepreneurial operations that have sprung up (an astonishing number of which are in the gastronomical industry), the latest wave of de-centralization is with small privately-owned cooperatives.

Yesterday we were speaking with an engineer friend of ours who built our home several years ago now. He’s in the final stages of organizing his own 5-person construction cooperative which can provide services to both the private and government sectors. He’s currently working on 5 building projects in the Playa area of Havana alone, most of which are for private businesses. One project he recently completed is a private ice factory which is now supplying many of the paladar restaurants around town. Apparently business is booming and the owners make at least 2 daily trips in their truck delivering industrially-produced ice to their customers at $1 CUC per bag. He says that while he was in the process of presenting the project to the municipal authorities, he found them to be very receptive and open to the evolution of Cuba’s private business model. There are many doubting Toms out there, to be sure, but I believe many of them may be left behind in the dust if they don’t hop on the bandwagon and get a jumpstart on the market.

There are a host of new dining establishments, a handful of which are of excellent quality, combining very well-prepared and sometimes even innovative cuisine with charming surroundings. I’ve been waiting for a couple of months now to visit the newly-renovated El Divino here in Havana, which finally reopened this week. The finca boasts an astounding variety of fruit trees, recreational areas, and Cuba’s best wine cellar. The property is owned by a Cuban-Italian couple, and I’m very excited to finally visit there in the company of friends. I was also delighted to recently learn that our ground handlers and several others have begun contracting the services of select private accommodation and dining establishments among others. In the past, foreign agencies were directed to use as many state restaurants and facilities as possible, and while we often disregarded that rule when it came to dinnertime, now we can be very open with our Cuban partners about exactly where we intend to host our guests for meals. For the street food lovers, churros rellenos (fried sweet dough with filling) are another popular treat around here nowadays. I treated my neighbor to some the other day, and she declared them delicious. She’d never seen them before, as they’ve only been introduced in Cuba with the new businesses.

Rumor has it that many of the private boutiques that are working under seamstress licenses but actually reselling imported clothing brought to Cuba via mules have a limited future. Audits, controls and inspections will surely begin to come into place so that licenses are not completely distorted for purposes for which they were not intended. One of the tricks the vendors use to is to remove the original label and replace it with their own generic seamstress label. I might be a little sorry to see some of them go as their prices and offers are most often much more attractive than what the state boutiques have to sell. And for any of you bootleg audiovisual fans out there, you’ll have to look outside of the main avenues for your cd/dvd purchases as they have also been outlawed from porches except for less-transited thoroughfares. I know someone who made a considerable investment in displays in various key locations, only to find out a few months later about the evolution of that rule. Such is life here. To me it seemed obvious that parking yourself and your sales table in the very doorway of a state store and selling sparkly clothing of every color of the rainbow from practically every second front porch wasn’t going to last very long, but nevertheless there were vendors who did just that until the authorities began to lay down the law.

While the opportunities to purchase wholesale goods in Cuba are still extremely limited, there is an agricultural vendor area which offers fruits and vegetables direct from farmers to the public and resellers at reduced prices. Some products can only be purchased in bulk quantities (such as tomatoes by the crate), while others are available for smaller household purchases at prices lower than in any other venue. And for the first time since I’ve been living here, there’s actually an economic benefit to buying products such as oil or flour in bulk in the state CUC stores. Little by little, things like this that seem obvious to anyone who lives in a market economy are coming about. It’s not to say there’s not a need for diversification and growth in the wholesale sector, but it’s slowly happening.
As with everything Cuba-related, there are always people out there who are eager to pipe up and express their negative sentiments, but from what I see the overwhelming public opinion here seems to be positive about the changes and the slow but constant methodical process of modification and implementation of the new laws. Cuba is most definitely changing, but the fact that the change is coming from the inside and was prompted by the demands of the population of Cuba, not by outside forces, is precisely what makes this work. It’s still evolving and some establishments succeed while others are forced to close their doors. But in Cuba they’re slowly learning about the benefits and downfalls of competition, location and even customer service. From where I’m standing these are positive changes and I’m excited to see what this new season brings. But for the near future, I’m going to concentrate on being hyped as heck for our upcoming visit to El Divino. I’ll be sure to share some pictures after our visit so that you can also dream with me.

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