Starting a business in Cuba is more difficult for entrepreneurs of African descent

Alberto González, owner of the artisan bakery Salchipizza, takes part in an Afro-Cuban Movement conference at Harvard University in April.
Alberto González, owner of the artisan bakery Salchipizza, takes part in an Afro-Cuban Movement conference at Harvard University in April.

The first Cuban chef with a Michelin star, and the chef — and owner — of the private paladar where former President Barack Obama dined during his trip to Cuba, have something more in common than love of cooking: Both represent snippets of success that Afro-Cubans can find in the emerging private sector on the island.

Alberto González, owner of the artisan bakery Salchipizza, and Carlos Cristóbal Márquez, owner of the San Cristóbal paladar —along with the equally successful Mady Letamendi, who heads the family-owned Zulu leather handbags business, and María Ferrer, director of MAFA, an aesthetic and beauty center — spoke about the challenges they have had as private entrepreneurs known as cuentapropistas during a gathering with activists of the Afro-Cuban movement held at Harvard last month.

“I have had the opportunity to serve seven presidents at the restaurant, including Barack Obama” — who visited Cuba in March 2016 — said Márquez, owner of the San Cristóbal paladar. “For me it was an honor to have him there. I don’t know if it was because it is the only successful restaurant in Havana ... owned by blacks,” he added, hesitantly. San Cristóbal was selected the fourth best restaurant in the Caribbean in 2014 by TripAdvisor.

“I am the first Cuban with a Michelin star,” González, owner of the artisanal bakery Salchipizza, said proudly. “Today I make a bread that is called ‘grandmother’s integral bread.’ I am one of the few people who has the oldest masa madre (baker’s yeast) in Latin America, which is 87 years old,” he explained.

The exclusive leather handbags made by Letamendi and her family received a prize last year at the International Fair in Havana, and Ferrer says she has clients from as far as Europe and the United States and who travel to Alamar, a modest working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, for her products.

But their cases, while serving as a model for other Afro-Cubans on the island, appear to be exceptional in a sector where whites are far more represented, one of the most visible examples of increased racial inequality on the island.

Among the obstacles encountered by the Afro-Cuban population to launch a private business is the lack of start-up capital. Houses for rent on tourist circuits are mostly owned by whites, and that population also receives more remittances from relatives who live abroad. According to Baruch College professor Katrin Hansing, about 90 percent of Cuban Americans are “phenotypically white.”

The problem, she says, “is not the sending of remittances, or that the Cuban diaspora is predominantly white, but rather that the Cuban government does not have a sufficiently large loan system so that the entire population can participate in the new economy.”

This has the consequence that large sectors of the population that do not have resources or relatives abroad — especially Afro-descendants — “are left out.”

The social mobility stories of most of these entrepreneurs show why their cases are exceptional. Their success is marked by constancy, but also by years of specialization and studies, as well as by contacts with foreigners or periods living outside Cuba, which has allowed them to acquire the initial capital, know-how and networks of contacts that help to set up their businesses — all, by the way, based in Havana, the capital.

It was in Italy where González, a chemical engineer, won his Michelin star before repatriating to the island. Ferrer, a teacher with a master’s degree in business administration, worked as a specialist in foreign trade at the CARICOM office in Havana before delving into cosmetology. For his part, Márquez — who was sent to the Angolan war at a young age — rose to become the head of the Hotel and Tourism School in Havana and participated in international events before becoming the butler of a Spanish businessman in Cuba. He also lived in Brazil for five years.

“Those five years gave me the opportunity to make my money and start my business,” he said, a business that now generates 15,000 Cuban pesos in monthly tax payments.

Some made clear that their starting point is not the same as that of self-employed whites.

“It is complicated to obtain supplies, and that makes my work a little difficult sometimes but not impossible,” said Ferrer, who explained that she does not travel to Miami like other Cuban entrepreneurs to buy supplies, because she has no family “nowhere abroad.”

“We Afro-Cuban entrepreneurs did not get where we are as a result of an economic inheritance,” she said. “We got here because of a desire to make it happen, and knowledge as a fundamental tool.”

Hansing said that the government and the international community should take action and study solutions that could alleviate these disadvantages, such as microlending systems. But the difference in access to money in today’s Cuba, depending on the color of the skin, affects not only the possibility of opening a private business but also the possibility of acquiring other capital (cultural and social) that is then indispensable for economic success.

“It’s not just one problem that affects business. If you do not have capital or a family abroad, you also stay mostly outside the educational system, because to get good grades and go to college you need private tutors and money to pay them,” Hansing said.

Also, in lucrative sectors such as tourism, activists and academics have denounced labor discrimination against Cuban blacks. The effects of all these social dynamics have very concrete outcomes.

For example, Márquez said he had “very little black staff working” at his paladar because “it is very difficult in Cuba today to find black professionals in the gastronomy field. In sports, you will find that there are millions who are stars and in other industries, but not in gastronomy.”

Some of the activists noted that many young black people simply believe that it is not worth studying because later they will not be able to find employment in tourism or the paladares and the state sector pays meager salaries.

Racial awareness is not something that all these entrepreneurs had reflected on before.

Márquez said he was not familiar with the Afro-Cuban movement represented at Harvard. But at the end of his presentation he called on activists, many involved in community projects, to collaborate to “try to insert the young black community” in gastronomy courses that exist in many municipalities across the country.

“From now on we will do business together,” González promised, pointing to the rest of the Afro-Cuban entrepreneurs on the panel.

“I emigrated, I repatriated and the only thing I triumphed with was unity. What Harvard is doing here, I want to do it in my bakery,” he said.

Citing a widely used adage in Afro-Cuban religions, he concluded: “Un solo palo no hace monte (A single tree does not make a forest).”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres