Residents of this small city on Cuba’s southern coast awaken every other Thursday to the Fathom Line’s MV Adonia looming in the bay, but the 704-passenger cruise ship’s visit is fleeting.
Even though large and enthusiastic crowds greeted the ship on its inaugural voyage from Miami to Cuba in May, the Adonia is only in Cienfuegos for the morning, and some residents say they haven’t seen too many benefits trickle down when the Carnival Corp. ship calls in this city known as “The Pearl of the South.”
On a recent Thursday, an elderly woman trudging through the Reina neighborhood gave a quick nod toward the ship at berth and the government’s Transtur buses lined up to take the passengers on a city tour and said, “It really hasn’t resolved anything.”
But cab driver Eddy Pérez Ojeda was a bit more optimistic. Even though the ship was due to leave at noon, he said he was happy to have it. “It’s tourism. What else is there?” asked Pérez.
He said he really wants the rapprochement with the United States to succeed and he is among those hoping that American Airlines’ new daily flights from Miami to Cienfuegos will change the equation. American began service aboard an Airbus 319, which seats 144 passengers, on Sept. 7. Silver Airways plans to begin twice weekly flights to the city using 34-seaters from Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 21.
“What’s important for me is that normalization helps communication between families,” said Pérez who owns his own Lada taxi and is used to squiring around tourists from other countries. “The economic part [of rapprochement] hasn’t been as important for me.”
Other cuentapropistas — independent workers — would like to get a bigger piece of the economic pie now that Americans have begun to visit their city in increasingly numbers.
On its website, Fathom, which recently added two new fall sailings to Cuba to complement its biweekly schedule, promises: “In Cuba, you participate in an ongoing cultural exchange program that gives you the opportunity to interact with the Cuban people, one on one.”
But some cuentapropistas complain that the visitors’ time seems to be monopolized by activities organized by Havanatur, a government tourism company: a quick tour of city landmarks, a stroll down El Bulevar, the pedestrian street where they get a glimpse of how Cubans shop, and then a stop at the Tomás Terry Theater for a choral performance by the Cantores de Cienfuegos.
They say the itinerary leaves scant time for interactions — both of the monetary and social kind — with everyday Cubans.
Omar Romero Díaz often parks his cart loaded with slices of cake topped with a dab of pink merengue on a side street next to the theater, which is usually cruisers’ last stop in Cienfuegos before they move on to the next port of call in Santiago.
But he said he’s never sold anything to the American visitors and the crucero (cruise ship) hasn’t really helped him. His big customers are Cubans, especially the kids from a nearby school.
It is on the steps of the theater where cuentapropistas have their best chance of interaction. Vendors from peanut salesmen who hawk roasted nuts wrapped in little paper cones to purveyors of polvorones (shortbread cookies made with lard) approach the cruisers as they stream into the theater.
“Peanuts, peanuts,” Anthony García calls out in English. For him, the cruise passengers represent pretty good business. García charges one Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which is just over $1, for the nuts and can earn 20 to 40 CUCs per day. His supplies, he said, cost him about 10 CUCs daily.
But the cruise passengers haven’t been finding their way around the corner to Yusi’s Art Alliance a private workshop/gallery shared by 15 artists. It’s located in an old colonial house across the street from Romero’s cart of sweets.
Yusimi Arias, who is contracted to help the artists sell their work, said they could use a boost from the American visitors.
“But the guides don’t bring them in here or to the other private workshops. They give priority to the state enterprises. It’s different with the Europeans and Canadians. They can move around on their own,” said Arias. “We would like it if the state and private entrepreneurs were more connected so we could all do well.”
Yanzel Medina Pérez, a 22-year-old artist whose hyper-realistic oil paintings are on display at the gallery, said he still hasn’t had an American buyer. Most of his sales are to Germans and other Europeans.
“It’s still early [in the U.S.-Cuba relationship] to talk about economic impact, but I have a lot of hope this will be beneficial for Cuban artists and the rest of the population,” he said.
Cuban engraver Annia Alonso, who runs a gallery-studio across from José Martí Park, was having slightly better luck. “Today I showed quite a lot,” said Alonso who displays only her own work. “I had some people from the [American] flight and on Thursday some from the cruise ship.”
But she is a well-established artist and said she also has the support of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), which sends her referrals.
If their guides allow it, the visitors do walk around the square, Alonso said. “For this reason, I’ve made a big sign,” she said. “Perhaps I need to make a sign in red letters.”
José Piñeiro Guardiola is one of the Cienfuegos area’s pioneers of private enterprise. For the past 22 years he has run Finca Los Colorados, a restaurant and five-bedroom bed and breakfast, just past Rancho Luna beach.
It hasn’t been easy, he concedes, with changing government regulations and attitudes towards self-employment and the constant battle to get the supplies he needs to run his business.
But he has made a go of it. “I’m listed in 22 guidebooks, international guides,” he said and began to tick them off.
However, Piñeiro said rather than encouraging cuentapropistas, the Cuban government sees them as competition: “I feel the government is trying to monopolize tourism for itself.”
He used to hold Benny Moré-themed parties at the finca where he would do DJ mixes of famous Moré mambos and rumbas with reggaeton. Some of the parties, which were held in a large patio anchored by two bars, attracted as many as 400 to 500 young Cubans, he said.
“But the government didn’t want me to have that type of party here,” Piñeiro said. “It was suggested I could do smaller parties for around 50 people in tourist groups.”
Since the summer season has been difficult, Piñeiro’s glad that more Americans may be arriving on AA flights. “We want to break the ice and open our hearts [to Americans],” he said. “Of course, it’s complicated by politics. But it’s necessary to open up. It’s our time.”
Clarity on the direction of the opening with the United States, he said, will have to wait a few months until the U.S. presidential election.
“People see in Hillary Clinton the continuation of the work of Obama,” he said.
With Donald Trump, he is not so sure. “Sometimes he says he wants to change the relationship and he is critical of Obama,” Piñeiro said, “but sometimes he says black and sometimes he says white so I just don’t know. We’re going to have to wait to see, but the Cuban people do dream a new relationship with the United States can be possible.”
Christine Valls, AA’s regional sales director for Florida, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and the U.S. Hispanic market, says the airline is supportive of the efforts of cuentapropistas and hosted a group of young Cuban entrepreneurs at its offices this summer. They were taking part in a Florida International University entrepreneurial training program called InCubando@FIU
Although many of the private businesses are small, they have an enormous amount of potential, she said.
“For people who want change, to develop markets, that’s where they need to start — with the cuentapropistas,” said Valls. “If we develop business ties between the two countries, the passengers will get aboard the flights.”