Starting a business anywhere in the world is always like “swimming upstream,” says the entrepreneur behind a popular Havana restaurant.
But if you’re trying to navigate the private sector in Cuba, it’s like being “in a boat without oars in a current twice as turbulent,” said Sasha Ramos, the owner of El Cocinero, a restaurant located in an old brick cooking oil factory. With a fashionable rooftop bar and small plate specials, El Cocinero could be at home on South Beach.
But because the restaurant is in Cuba, it’s difficult to get enough of the same kinds of plates, glasses and cutlery so the place settings match, said Ramos, one of the entrepreneurs interviewed in a new nine-part documentary series on Cuba’s private sector.
The series, StartupCuba, premiered Tuesday on VERV.tv, a new digital media company for the U.S. Hispanic market, and also may be watched at YouTube.com/startupcuba.
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After a two-week hiatus, new eight-minute episodes — on topics such as private cab drivers and mechanics; internet entrepreneurs; independent designers and artists; budding restauranteurs and bed and breakfast hosts; and entrepreneurs finding a niche in providing services to private businesses — will be released weekly on Tuesdays.
VERV.tv’s mission is to bring U.S. Hispanics news they may not have heard about, and the emergence of Cuba’s entrepreneurial sector was one of those stories, said Ken Deckinger, executive producer and host of StartupCuba. Even though Cuba continues to be run by the Communist Party, things are happening on the island and entrepreneurs “are indisputably changing their lives, and possibly their country, as they build their businesses,” he said.
Cuba allows self-employment in 201 categories of work. Some jobs are quite modest and involve people working on their own selling artificial flowers or refilling cigarette lighters, but there are also “entrepreneurs starting real businesses,” said Deckinger. “It’s so much more than people just working for themselves. We wanted to add that color to the conversation.”
The inspiration for the series came in June 2015 when Tamara Park, executive producer and director of StartupCuba, made her first trip to the island. “I’ve sought out stories on transformation and change on five continents and I was just blown away by Cuba’s entrepreneurs.
“Cubans have this endless ability to re-engineer beauty out of scraps, to rally when situations seem impossible,” she said. “They always find a way and their ability to master the workaround is sure to inspire viewers in the U.S.”
Many of the new entrepreneurs grew up in the 1990s during a period of scarcities following the collapse of the former Soviet Union when Cubans learned to survive by working with what they had, and they have translated those skills to their businesses.
Because independent magazines aren’t allowed in Cuba, Robin Pedraja created Vistar, a digital magazine delivered via el paquete, another Cuban invention in the absence of widespread home internet connections. El paquete is a weekly compilation of American TV shows, recent movies, MLB games, apps, digital magazines and more that is copied and distributed on portable hard drives and USBs across the island.
“The cuentapropistas (the self-employed) are actually starting industries such as advertising and marketing” that haven’t existed in Cuba in many years, said Park.
Billboards and signs in Cuba tend toward extolling revolutionary values, but Pedraja and photographer Luis Mario Gell, who are featured in one of the episodes, began creating their own fashion and consumer product ads for the magazine. Now, Pedraja said, instead of commenting on the stories and interviews, “sometimes [people] just talk about the ads.”
StartupCuba was shot between March and September last year — without official permission from the Cuban government. The producers tried to get journalist visas but never heard back from officials. “Finally we just went for it,” said Park.
Despite the creativity and enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs in the series, StartupCuba debuts at a time of uncertainty for Cuba’s more than 540,000 cuentapropistas. Last summer, Cuba began cracking down on some businesses suspected of improprieties and shut down several popular private restaurants.
While new regulations are formulated, the government has stopped issuing new licenses for private restaurants, bed and breakfasts (casas particulares) and for several other approved categories of self-employment. Licenses had been issued to 2,000 private restaurants and there were around 22,000 rooms offered in casas particulares at the time new licenses were frozen.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who began emphasizing cuentapropismo in 2010 as a way to move hundreds of thousands of workers off bloated state payrolls, has said self-employment is now essential. But government officials appear willing to only tolerate it to the point that private entrepreneurs don’t become too successful or too wealthy.
With Castro expected to retire next week and to pass the reins of power to a new president selected by the National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, it will fall to his successor to oversee the new rules for entrepreneurs.
StartupCuba’s producers will be watching those developments carefully. They’re considering a second season of the show and will be traveling to Cuba next week to throw a party for those they met in the cuentapropista community.
“We’re thankful to the Cuban people for welcoming and accepting us and letting us into their lives,” said Deckinger. “It’s this warmth and spirit of the Cuban people that we wanted to share with Americans.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi