Havana—Six months after the United States and Cuba resumed full diplomatic relations, the expectation that the resumption of ties would encourage changes in Cuban society has not been met.
On the contrary, the Raúl Castro’s regime has increased arbitrary arrests of dissidents and brutal attacks on the Ladies in White, a pacifist group of wives and mothers of the arrested who march through the streets dressed in white and in silence, dampening hopes of the exhausted Cuban nation that change would finally arrive.
The early entrepreneurs who set up business—taking advantage of the legalization of those who would work on their own, the cuentapropistas—are faltering.
While their numbers are on the rise, there is mounting frustration that reforms have not been implemented that would allow them to flourish.
“We have no access to loans of any kind,” said Jaime Martínez, an engineer by training who is a driver for hire today. “The most I can make is just me driving my car for one day.”
The list of complaints is long: no access to small business loans, the inability to hire workers, lack of access to information (Internet), and capricious tax rules (and payoffs to officials).
The result is a Cuba in waiting.
“It’s not possible to speak what we every Cuban thinks,” the owner of one of the most popular paladar, or private restaurant, said. “We are waiting for the day it is announced that Raúl and Fidel have died. Only then, will Cuba start a new chapter.”
Among the young, there is dissatisfaction with the pace of change. A student at the University of Havana complained, “We all thought the Americans would [once diplomatic relations were renewed on July 20, 2015] bring the Internet with them, that there would be other newspapers, and reforms for legalizing private properties would follow.”
Instead, the government only allows the Internet in certain locations, primarily hotels, and the monopoly on all media continues. Hundreds of Cubans linger around hotels and other places where WiFi hot spots have been set up, often hacking online.
These frustrations against the pace of change is one of reason why record numbers of Cubans are leaving the island. More than 44,000 Cubans sought asylum in the U.S. in 2015, representing an 88% increase over 2014. These Cubans are voting with their feet, no longer willing to wait for Raúl Castro’s promise of “reforms”—they want material improvement now, and that means political asylum in the U.S.
In fact, the only entrepreneurs who have succeeded are artists, chefs, and AirBNB hosts. The reasons are simple: Communists have no idea how art is valued or commercialized; everyone loves good food and the most ardent official is loath to shut down eateries that serve up good food; and most guesthouses are reserved and paid for via PayPal on the Internet—which is totally alien to Cuban officials.
Below are a few of the Cubans who are at the forefront of “change” in Havana:
Jaime Martínez, who is a member of the classic car club of Cuba, whose members are showcased on the Discovery Channel’s “Cuban Chrome” cable show, complains of the struggle to make a living. “I have to pay the government $675 USD a month to drive my car. Then, I have to pay 10% of my earnings as a tax. And on top of that, they won’t let us solicit clients in front of the hotels, which are reserved for state taxis and car services.”
Mr. Martínez, who has a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, is undeterred. He works every day of the week, hustling for tourists who want to take a ride in his 1957 Ford, which he has maintained in impeccable state.
“They say the system is opening, but I haven’t seen it,” he said.
Frank Mujica, who has garnered international acclaim, is among the privileged—authorities have no idea how an art is priced or commercialized. Exploiting the ignorance of Cuban officials, artists who are able to have galleries in the U.S., Mexico, or Spain represent them, can earn considerable amounts of money. “I attended the Miami Biennial,” Mr. Mujica said. “As long as my art has no political content, I’m left alone,” he said.
Yunior, who sells books and knick-knacks at the Plaza de Armas, complains that although he has to pay for his stall, he has rights to it. “It takes me more than an hour to get here and about an hour and a half to get home,” he said. “And I have to do this because I have to support my family.” He, along with Gretel, who helps him with his stall, complains about the social stigma entrepreneurs face. “Our neighbors look down on us because we are moving away from the socialist model,” he said. “It hurts that we’re seen as delinquents for trying to provide for our families in an honest way.”
Chocolatiers: Lilian Acosta, Yuuimis Batista, and Yucien Santiesteban.
The three chocolatiers at El Museo del Chocolate (The Chocolate Museum) have no interest in politics, but want to be able to make great chocolate. Two have visas to travel abroad and have visited Mexico where they were awed at the chocolate culture. The shop, which is state-owned, does well given its location along a busy tourist street in Old Havana, but the women dream of the opportunity to study chocolate-making technique abroad.
Yuri at his shop located at the intersection of Ánimas and Crespo in Central Havana, is ambivalent about his future. “It’s my shop, but only as long as it’s tolerated by the authorities,” he said. “I have no legal papers that give me ownership.”
The shop is priced in Convertible Pesos, which few in the neighborhood can afford. Many shopkeepers have to pay off authorities and face the stigma associated with “deviating” from socialism.
Roberto Fonesca, on Calle O’Reilly in Old Havana, sells peanuts, vinegars, and tomato products from a shop in his living room. When authorities approach, he shuts the front door. “This business is very informal and I just get by,” he said. “There’s no hope except to sell enough to get by one day at a time.”
Without access to capital, or margins to allow for capital formation, most entrepreneurs are little more than American kids selling cookies and candies to raise money for a school outing.
Those who are in the business of running their own restaurants are doing well, compared to other entrepreneurs. The chef, identified only as Yunasy, working La Guarida, which is perhaps the best restaurant in Havana, expressed concerns. “We’re doing fine today—but there’s no guarantee that Raúl [Castro] won’t change his mind tomorrow and order all private restaurants shut down,” the restauranteur said. “We thought that things would change when the American embassy reopened, but nothing has changed. They [Fidel and Raúl Castro] don’t want things to change—they just want to get the Americans to give them money now that [Hugo] Chávez is dead and Venezuela is in the toilet.”
At the Almendras Bakery, Elizabeth and Alejandro are grateful they are located on Calle J, a busy street near the University of Havana campus and the University Hospital Calixto Garcia, which means that throes of university students, hospital staff, and people visiting family in the hospital all walk by their shop. “Business is good, but will we be allowed to continue?” she wondered. “If we become too successful, the authorities might shut us down.”
Louis Navaer is the author of the first guides to Cuba compiled since the reestablishment of relations, Cuba As Never Before, and The Best of Havana: 2016.