Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Cuba, entrepreneurial spirits sparkle

In Cuba, entrepreneurial spirits sparkle
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 2:28 p.m. EDT August 26, 2014

MIAMI – Cuba is a land that remains a mystery to most Americans.

Are the economic changes instituted in recent years by President Raul
Castro working? Can the dissident movement ever gain enough traction to
overthrow the Communist government? Just how good is its acclaimed but
flawed health care system?

How many superstar baseball players are left down there?

But when looking to the future of the island – a post-Castro period that
is often contemplated by American government officials, business owners
eager to explore that market and Cuban-Americans curious about their
role in the island's future – one question intrigues me most: What kind
of human capital is left in Cuba?

Much of the country's educated class left in the years immediately after
Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship in 1959. In the five
decades plus since, millions more have departed, and those who stayed
behind have been raised in a twisted environment where access to the
Internet is severely restricted, underpaid doctors choose to become taxi
divers, and people are forced to survive via the black market.

In the minds of some of my Cuban-American friends, that has left Cuba's
population of 11 million people far behind those of other Latin American
countries. As Cubans spend their lives figuring out how to secretly
install an illegal Internet connection in their ramshackle homes, people
in other Latin American countries have become more tech savvy,
understand international markets better and have a firmer grasp on best
business practices.

But there's something missing in that cold analysis. It's the same,
hard-to-describe quality that helped my parents, and thousands of
others, immigrate to the U.S. from Cuba with nothing and quickly rise to
the middle class and beyond. I got a great reminder of that recently
after meeting with five Cuban entrepreneurs.

I met the five women while they were visiting Miami on a trip planned by
the Cuba Study Group, which advocates for closer relations between
Washington and Havana. They were here to learn some of the basic
business tools that are largely missing in Cuba, and each one of them
showed me how resilient Cubans can be when given just the slightest

There was Sandra Aldama Suarez, a 38-year-old former teacher who wanted
to start a company selling artisanal soaps. With little access to the
Internet, she learned the process by reading a book from the 1920s that
her grandmother had given her. She had a friend from Spain ship her
another book. She started making the scented bars in her kitchen and now
has three employees, selling the soaps out of a storefront.

There was Decire Verdacia Barbat, a 26-year-old civil engineering
student who was making money on the side by painting nails for neighbors
in her dining room. Little by little, she's expanded her operation and
now has four employees. When she wanted to start offering massages, her
father built a massage table out of metal pipes, plywood, foam and vinyl.

And there was Yamina Vicente Prado, 31, an economics professor at the
University of Havana who quit her teaching job to start a party-planning
business with her sister. Vicente faces the same limitations that other
would-be entrepreneurs encounter in Cuba – she can't find basic things
like tablecloths, fake flowers, ornate serving platters. "Balloons don't
exist in Cuba," she said with a laugh.

None of the women are planning the kinds of businesses that my friends
would describe as cutting edge. But that's because the closely
monitored, state-run economy of Cuba makes that impossible, dictating
what kinds of businesses Cubans can run on their own.

But what people like those five women are showing is that the will and
the capacity exist in Cuba. They just need a chance.

Gomez is a Miami-based reporter for USA TODAY.

Source: Voices: In Cuba, entrepreneurial spirits sparkle -

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