Caroline van Slobbe – Cuban entrepreneurs and the Cuban transition

Blog: Cuban imaginations of the future

Havana is full of (very) small businesses. The most common are ladies who sell cupcakes and cookies from their front door or a window, small cafeterias with coffee and a sandwich for some pesos, people selling the latest American movies and series on copied DVDs, and men walking with carts and shouting on a special loud and low tone that many of them use: “Tengo galletas de mantequillaaaaaaaaaa” (I have butter cookies). When there are eggs and/or potatoes – products that are scarce – that is shouted loudly at this same tone, “Hay papa, hay huevo, hay papa, hay huevo” (there are potatoes, there are eggs). It is almost like a song, or maybe a rap, that together with some rumba or rather popular reggaeton beats, people’s yelling from the street to someone on the fourth floor, and the roaring engines of the vintage American cars forms the typical cacophony of the street in the neighborhood.


Those small entrepreneurs, in Cuba called cuentapropistas, were the subject of my research. This cacophony of the street has not always been like it is now. Since the 1990s, Cuba finds itself in a transition that went from frozen contacts with the United States and a travel and trade embargo since the 1960s to tourist flows and the visit of Obama in 2016. From no internet and forbidden foreign media and (rock) music it went to open WiFi-parks and a Rolling Stones concert attended by supposedly half a million people. It went from socialist perceptions and practices of work, in which working for own account had no place (and people only sold cupcakes behind closed doors: por la izquierda), to a more open and free landscape with room for self-employment and an adapting working culture. From politicians seeing entrepreneurship as a necessary evil to save the Cuban economy from collapsing, it went to them viewing it as a building stone to even perfect socialism (1).


Cuba is a hot item in the global media after Obama and Castro shook hands. In general, media write in the line of thought that the island is becoming capitalist soon. That it will be flooded with Starbucks and McDonalds. And that tourists have to go to Cuba now before it loses its ‘authenticity’ (whatever that may mean). In this view, entrepreneurs are seen as the key agents who push Cuba towards a free market society. But how do they themselves perceive this role? How do they experience the Cuban transition? And how do they see their own and Cuba’s future?

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy came in an abrupt crisis due to high dependency on the Soviet bloc. The Cuban government was confronted with urgent needs for reform: opening up to foreign investments, increasing efficiency and productivity, and… giving space to new small entrepreneurs. In 1993 it became permitted to start a private business, but only in a limited number of certain professions. In 2010 the government announced new guidelines for entrepreneurs. Whereas self-employment was totally abolished after 1959 and the regulation from 1993 that legalized non-state enterprises was mostly a necessary anti-crisis evil, now they were supposed to save the economy and peculiarly even appointed to strengthen the revolution. But becoming a capitalist country…?


I found out that Cuban entrepreneurs themselves at least do not experience a transition from socialism to capitalism, or in the same dichotomy-thinking: from dictatorship to democracy, from micro-state monitoring to freedom, or any other single pathway from another A to another B. Those entrepreneurs mainly experience a transition between two different working cultures: an old ‘revolutionary’ one with all business activities limited to the thriving black market, and a new ‘entrepreneurial’ one with blooming small business and strong entrepreneurs, well adapted to the new policies. But now, I believe we are somewhere in between. Whereas policies are easily changed, the ‘slowness of culture’, as Ton Salman (2) called it, makes that people’s mindsets and habits stay behind. Culture takes its time to adapt. And the decades of state socialism logically have their impact on the Cuban culture, that we could view as a consequence of governmentality (3).


To discuss Cuba’s future with my informants in terms of socialism versus capitalism appeared inevitable, but this does not mean that Cubans agree with the in the West envisioned capitalist future for Cuba. I heard very different opinions, varying from “Socialism? That is long gone in Cuba” to “We will not become capitalist, but remain on the revolutionary path.” Overall, most interlocutors do not see a future for capitalism in Cuba but they find it important to take some of the good aspects, for example more freedom (not only entrepreneurs). Most Cubans do derive hope from the recent Cuba-US rapprochement that their country is going to improve economically and some even are preparing for opening businesses when the relations are fully recovered. Apparently, Cubans also have no straightforward answer to what Cuba’s political-economic future contains, showing diversity and heterogeneity.


The transition is obviously still ongoing and this means that a lot is yet about to change for cuentapropistas. In my last week, three days after Obama left Havana and I was waiting for the Rolling Stones concert to begin, I felt the significance of my research more than ever. Everyone around me said it was an historical week marking the changes that are going on in Cuba. But it remains important to keep in mind that Cuba’s evolving future might take several and unprecedented directions instead of holding on to the ‘evolutionist’ idea that the only possible end goal for Cuba is capitalism as we know it.

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