Welcome to the new Cuba, where dog baths cost what some state workers
make in a whole paycheck
By Ana Campoy
If there's anything more anathema to the ideals of the Cuban Revolution
than a chihuahua-sized hoodie, I don't know what it is.
The story behind the racist Chinese ad where a black man gets his skin
color scrubbed off
Yet a Havana pet boutique I came across on a recent visit was selling
dog coats in both female and male designs for the equivalent of $18, not
far off an entire monthly salary for the average state worker. The pet
specialty shop, one of several in the Cuban capital, also had doggie
nail polish and American dog treats, likely smuggled in a suitcase on a
flight from Miami.
In today's Cuba, the Castro brothers stick to their communist spiel in
speeches, tourists continue to drool over Old Havana's crumbling
facades, but Cubans have moved on. Their sights are on branded sneakers
and all-inclusive beach vacations, the latest MacBook Air and a car to
get to work in. And thanks to legal changes in both Cuba and the US, a
growing number of them can actually afford those things.
As one local observer put it, the well-off have become the neediest
people in Cuba. And new businesses to serve those needs abound. For $60
a session, the island's nouveaux riches can get rid of tacky
communist-era tattoos. For $10 more, they can have a facial mud
mask—another superfluous vanity in a country where much of the
population is seemingly blessed with near-flawless skin.
Why does gin and tonic taste so good?
The rise of this consumer class is the new Cuban revolution. Its members
are sidestepping the island's schizophrenic, half-planned, half
market-driven economic model, and going full-blown capitalist. Give them
a few years, and they will turn Cuba around.
First, though, they need their dogs groomed.
The whims of the wealthiest Cubans are contributing to a chain reaction
that's pulling everyone up the socioeconomic ladder. How it started
dates back to the final days of the Soviet Union.
Desperate for cash after the Soviet collapse, Fidel Castro flung Cuba's
doors open to tourism, and released Cubans to strike out on their own,
albeit in a highly restricted set of economic activities.
The pace of reform quickly picked up after Raúl Castro took over from
his more dogmatic older brother in 2008. He opened up more sectors to
cuentapropistas, or private entrepreneurs. In a stunning break with
previous rules, he even allowed them to hire workers who were not
actually related to them.
Meanwhile, in the US, president Barack Obama opened up the remittance
floodgates and in not-so-many-words told Americans it was now okay to
visit Cuba as tourists. Money orders worth roughly $2 billion a year
started gushing in, along with dollar-toting rubberneckers. The
cuentapropistas catering to them and the lucky Cubans with rich
relatives abroad had cash to burn. Thanks to the paquete semanal, the
stash of foreign media delivered weekly on USB sticks—a kind of
pre-internet internet—they also got ideas on how to spend it.
Other enterprising Cubans obliged, opening up spinning gyms,
party-planning companies, and private kindergartens. All those
businesses have employees, also considered cuentapropistas, earning
several times a state salary. This has added yet another layer of
consumers to the economy.
To be sure, even the richest Cubans would be considered middle-class
elsewhere. And many in Cuba's new private sector are barely making
enough to survive. But they, too, seem to be driven by the intoxicating
promise of stuff—everything from $67 Puma sneakers to new Audis, which
stand out amid Cuba's otherwise dilapidated fleet like American tourists
on the Malecón.
The officially estimated number of cuentapropistas has now reached some
half a million.
That's 10% of the workforce, and it doesn't include another 600,000 or
more making money in the underground economy, according to Richard
Feinberg, a Cuba scholar at the University of California, San Diego.
On May 24, the government announced that it would grant legal
recognition to small and medium-sized private businesses. Though details
on what this means are scarce, it could potentially lift many of the
current barriers that have stunted private enterprise.
The speed at which Cuba has caught up to standards outside the island is
mind-boggling. When Kché, a beauty salon, started out 11 years ago, it
consisted of one office chair and an antique sewing-machine table that
had been turned into a manicure counter.
Its owner, Cassandra López Tirado, had studied business management back
when "business" meant a slightly more independent branch of the
government. But a financial statement is a financial statement, she
says, whether you're at a state firm or a private company. She's gone
from being a state-employed shoe buyer making 300 pesos ($11) a month to
earning enough for a nanny, spinning lessons, and pet-parlor visits for
Not that it's been easy. López Tirado has to buy nail polish at state
stores, at retail prices, because she has no access to the wholesale
market. Loans are hard to get and, when available, tend to be small, so
she had to rely on her savings, and the ornate apartment she inherited
from her aunt, to set up her newest salon on Havana's happening Calle 23.
The clucking chickens and the goat tied in the driveway a few buildings
down take Kché's classy ambience down a notch. Still, it's way more
sumptuous than many of the strip-mall salons that dot the US. It has
crystal chandeliers, perfectly restored, double-height ceilings, and a
gigantic vase of fragrant tiger lilies to greet customers.
It also has a much wider array of services than I'm used to back in the
US, all priced in CUCs, Cuba's secondary currency, which trades
one-to-one with the dollar. I had to Google some of the beauty
treatments on the list: Diamond-tip dermabrasion (essentially
dead-skin-cell vacuuming) and radiofrequency (or sagging-skin repair
without undergoing the knife).
There's also tattoo removal, made possible by a machine López Tirado
imported from the US in her suitcase. She reserves that service for
clients with smallish tattoos, because after all, this is still Cuba.
Who can afford the multiple $60-an-hour sessions needed to clear a large
swath of inked skin?
Actually, who can afford any of this stuff? I asked several experts that
question, and they said the answer is hard to pin down, because the
Cuban government doesn't acknowledge this social class, much less put
out statistics on it. Roughly speaking though, it's a heterogeneous
group of remittance recipients and independent entrepreneurs—people who
range from artists to babalaos, the Afro-Cuban priests commissioned to
perform other-worldly services. The academics I spoke with did not
mention prostitutes, but one business owner I interviewed whispered to
me that they, too, have small fortunes to drop on clothes and beauty salons.
Kché's clientele doesn't want the out-of-date techniques imparted at
state-run beauty schools. So the manicurists dutifully study the latest
international styles on YouTube beauty videos included every week in the
paquete. I got a pedicure adorned with a cute sparkly flower. It cost me
two CUCs and I left another two as a tip.
The ultimate middle-class indulgence
On a recent Friday morning, all the kennels at iDog, a pet salon in one
of Havana's nicer residential neighborhoods, were occupied by slightly
irritated dogs and one sleeping cat.
Since it opened three years ago, the business has exploded. Yorkies
alone take up six pages of the ruled notebook that serves as iDog's
client directory, says Anitée Vidal, one of the groomers. After studying
veterinary medicine, she's now getting an education in the kind of
marketing that spurs consumers to buy things they don't really need,
like polka-dot doggie bows. And I get why she's there, trimming dog ears
and paws. It's way better than working at a threadbare animal clinic, or
inspecting pig parts at a meat-packing plant, some of the state-job
iDog is covered in minimalist red tile and pictures of cute dogs. There
is a clear divider between the small receiving area and the grooming
stations so owners can see first-hand the devoted care doled out to
their pets. The air-conditioning is always on.
It wasn't that long ago that dogs were just another animal to Cubans,
says Vidal. But a growing number of Cuban families now treat their dogs
the way dogs are treated by the affluent in other countries—like spoiled
children. A client who dropped in while I chatted with Vidal couldn't
stop kissing her baby pit bull. It's named "Limbo," after the new
restaurant/bar her family is opening. The puppy sleeps with her, she
says, and gets a helping of her restaurant meals.
Another client, who pulled up in a modern Chinese sedan, was less
affectionate with his fluffy white dog. He takes her to iDog because he
has too much work to do to bathe her himself. Our conversation quickly
petered out after I asked him what it was that kept him so busy. He
loaded his perfumed dog into his new car and drove off.
Veterinarians can't yet get cuentapropista licenses. But if and when
they do, and if she can cobble together enough capital, Vidal hopes to
open her own clinic, going after the kinds of clients who come to iDog.
Like many of the Cubans I met during my visit, she's caught the
The American dream, Cuban style
Castro came to power partly on the back of resentment at the excesses of
a small, corrupt elite. But two generations on, many Cubans say that
when they see the new elite's ballooning prosperity, they want to
reproduce it, not expropriate it.
It's hard to see the state's staid bureaucracy holding them back, much
less competing with them. A taxi driver pools his family savings to buy
one of the dilapidated American cars pictured in nearly every Cuban
postcard. He restores it and is now getting ready to sell it at several
times its original value. With the money, he plans to buy an even better
car to repeat the process.
A mathematician repurposes himself as a photographer of quinceañeras, or
girls turning 15. He promotes his services, which cost around $300 a
session, on Facebook, and on the glitzy virtual pages of Primavera, a
paquete-distributed magazine in PDF format and devoted to the teen
market. He proudly shows me his latest photos; they show a gangly girl,
posing provocatively, half-immersed in the Caribbean. The idea for the
setting came from his art director—a necessity, he says, to stand out in
his competitive line of business.
Then there's Sandro Fernández López, a personal trainer who wants to
spread the tropical version of spinning he's developed. He's doing all
the right things. He came up with a catchy name: "Q'suin", which is how
a Cuban would say "What swing!" He has a logo, and is in the process of
registering a trademark. He assembled a crowd of more than 700 last year
to watch sweat-dripped Q'suin practitioners dance atop stationary bikes.
Red Bull was a sponsor.
And yet he's not making any money off his idea. He needs a partner to
launch Q'suin classes at hotels in Cuba, or gyms abroad, but
cuentapropistas are not allowed to strike direct deals with government
entities or foreign companies.
For now, his business plan requires way more than what Cuba's confining
private-business rules allow.
But even as Fernández López struggles within Cuba's weird breed of
socialist capitalism, the achievements of the revolution are not lost on
him. A while ago, as he was planning a trip abroad, his heart failed. He
spent 15 days in the hospital, for free. "Had I left," he says, "I would
Unlike the thousands of Cubans who are abandoning the island to try
their luck abroad, he's staying put.
"I'm hoping for my dream to come true," he says of Q'suin, "and that
it's here in Cuba."
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