Viva La Revolución!
It was during dinner on our first night in Havana that I began to realize Cuba was not what I'd expected. We'd come to the restaurant in Old Havana right after checking into our hotel. The food was barely acceptable, as we'd been warned it would be, but the restaurant was gorgeous, a tropical garden in an elegant old courtyard with lush plants, bright flowers, and a fountain in the center. Best of all was the terrific Cuban band that entertained us throughout the evening.
"How much do they make a night?" I asked a guide named Raoul.
"That depends," he said. "They work for tips from people like you."
"You mean they're in business for themselves?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Like most of us."
Entrepreneurs had not been on my radar screen when I'd decided to visit Cuba last winter. I was thinking cigars. "The second day is a tour of a cigar factory," my wife, Elaine, had said when she'd first broached the idea of joining the tour group from Manhattan's 92nd Street Y.
"Sign me up," I'd replied.
What I knew about Cuba came mainly from seeing Godfather II, listening to the news for 40 years, and reading Cigar Aficionado. Having never visited a communist country before, I wasn't sure what we'd find, but I assumed I wouldn't be meeting a lot of capitalists. On the other hand, I'd been smoking cigars since I was 18, and I like none better than a fine Havana. When I learned that each American visitor would be allowed to bring home two boxes of cigars, I was ecstatic. Between Elaine, our friend Carole, and me, I could come back with six boxes. "This is going to be fabulous," I thought.
It did indeed turn out to be a fabulous trip, but not just because of the cigars. What I found in Cuba was a surprisingly entrepreneurial society. No matter where you go, you run into people who have started small businesses in hopes of improving their lot in life. The businesses are modest by U.S. standards, but they grow from the same impulses that drive entrepreneurship everywhere -- the willingness to see opportunities where others see problems, the urge to create something from nothing.
And believe me, most Cuban entrepreneurs do start with nothing. They're bootstrappers in the purest sense of the term, with no resources other than their own ingenuity and imagination. Nevertheless, they've come up with all kinds of products and services to sell to the growing number of tourists -- especially American tourists -- who are flooding into Cuba these days.
It's all very ironic. To protect what remains of his 1959 communist revolution, Fidel Castro has thrown open the doors to tourism, which has in turn set in motion forces that could someday lead to another revolution, an entrepreneurial one. Yes, Castro insists that Cuba is still a socialist country, and that he has no intention of letting capitalism rear its head again. But, in fact, capitalism is thriving in Cuba, and it's being advanced by the Cuban people themselves.
Take the cars, for example. It seems as if half of the automobiles in Cuba date to the pre-revolutionary era, and yet they're still running. Where exactly do you get parts for a '57 Chevy or a '49 Ford? In Cuba, there are private shops that make them. A whole underground economy has sprung up to keep the cars on the road.
Want a tour of Havana? Elaine and I took one on a bicycle whose driver had converted it into a three-wheeler, with a back seat wide enough for both of us and an awning to protect us from the sun. He charges $4 (U.S.) for an hourlong ride.
If you want a decent meal, your best bet is one of the private restaurants, or paladares, that the government allows people to set up in their own homes. You pay in U.S. dollars -- about $20 per person, including tip. The food might not be three-star Michelin, but most of it is good, and some of it is very good. More to the point, even the lowliest paladar meal is far superior to the bland, monotonous fare offered in the government-owned restaurants. As a result, the paladares are packed. Legally, they are supposed to serve no more than 12 people at a time, but we always ate with 20 to 35 other people.
Nor is the entrepreneurship confined to Havana. In a dilapidated town in the middle of the island, Elaine and I attended a fashion show -- with minimal expectations. Out walked the most stunning models we'd ever seen, wearing clothes made by a young designer who put on the show at her own expense. "Do tourists actually buy these clothes?" Elaine asked.
"Only the Americans," the designer said. "The Europeans don't buy." Elaine bought a dress for $40 U.S.
In Cuba, entrepreneurship is often the only alternative if you want a decent standard of living.
NORM BRODSKY | Columnist
Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.