In 2010, in an effort to relieve some of the Cuban economy’s struggles, Raul Castro approved over 200 private sector jobs. Businesses like manicurist, clown, and seamstress are included. As of 2015, these “cuentapropistas” number almost 500,000. Barber is #12 on the list of approved jobs. 12/8/11
Cuba has been called a living museum. Families fleeing Cuba after the revolution left behind many things to start new lives elsewhere. This family runs a small business selling antiques out of their home in Havana. Cuba. They quietly buy, trade and sell mostly housewares and jewelry. 12/13/10
At the Hotel Nacional, a bartender pours two mojitos for me and a friend as he prepares for a rush of tourists arriving via bus. Tourism-related jobs earn higher salaries than doctors in Cuba. 4/9/11
Bicitaxis (approved job #175) take Cubans to work and to school. And haul tourists around the busy streets. In the background is the Capitolio. This building, modeled after the U.S. Capitol, was once the seat of government. After the Revolution, it was used as offices for the Ministry of Science. Renovations are now underway so that Capitolio will once again host Cuba’s National Assembly.
Children’s ride operator is another approved job on the small business list (#75). These rides most often pre-date the 1959 Revolution. Baracoa, Cuba 4/8/12.
“Parking attendant for cars, bicycles and tricycles” is #76 on the list of private sector jobs approved by the Cuban government in 2010.
Construction laborer is job #3 on the approved ist of private-sector jobs in Cuba. Years of neglect and lack of resources means that Cuba has a massive infrastructure problem. Now that Cuba-U.S. relations are thawing, more materials are making their way to the island. There is visibly more construction, more repair, more cranes and more scaffolding. April, 2011 Havana, Cuba
Some categories of small business, like this one selling used baby gear in Havana, have been on the fringes of approval. In 2013, restrictions on retail activities were tightened to crack down on people who sell goods brought back by Cubans who travel abroad or buy the items at state stores. Flights from Miami into Cuba are ladened with full cargo holds. It is common to see sofas, bikes, TVs, computers, tires and baby strollers wrapped in cellophane while waiting in line at the airport. Supplies, once in Cuba, are often sold by cuentapropistas and then recycled and reused many times over. 12/9/11
Many Cubans are figuring out how to open cafes and bars, converting parts of their homes into space for business. Without a wholesale component, small businesses buy at regular retail prices and have to work carefully to earn a profit. Arianne and her mother consider expenses in their Havana cafe which opened in 2013. Restaurant/Cafe owner is #35 on the approved list of jobs. 12/18/13
Hair and make-up preparation backstage at a fashion show at Bertolt Brechtin in Vedado, Havana. Creativity and the arts flourish in Cuba. Make-up artist is the #65 job on the approved private sector occupations. 12/18/12
Backstage at a fashion show at Bertolt Brechtin in Vedado, Havana. Creativity and the arts flourish in Cuba. 12/18/12
While photographer, artisan and producer/seller of arts and crafts are on the list of approved jobs (numbers 9, 50, 94 respectively) video/movie maker is not. Havana is a hub for art, both of Cuban artists and visitors at their odd-year Biennale and annual December film festival. More celebrities are showing up in Cuba and many USA-based production companies are scrambling to film TV-series and movies in Cuba.
Illegal fishing in the blackwater of Havana’s river. Fish caught are sometimes sold to paladars on the black market.
A pre-revolution neon sign remains hanging over a busy Havana street. After the revolution, Fidel Castro banned the capitalist tool of advertising. Many signs throughout Cuba were destroyed. Today, Cubans are up-to-date on world pop culture, TV, music and fashion thanks to “él paquete semanal”, a collection of material passed on thumbdrives in the underground black market for ~$1 U.S. 12/11/2010
There has been an extraordinary growth of new private sector cafés and bars with prices in tourist CUCs. However most Cubans cannot afford tourist prices. Many government-run bars continue to operate in more affordable Cuban Peso prices. For comparison, 24 Cuban pesos = 1 CUC = $1 US dollar. In Cuba, doctors earn ~$35 CUCs a month. A mojito ranges from $2-5 CUCs. 3/4/15
A family collects hay along the road one Saturday afternoon. While plow operator, part time farm laborer, and food vendors are on the approved list of jobs, farmer is not. Farms are part of the state and produce food for the country. Fuel shortages mean that food distribution can be tricky business. It is estimated that, in Havana, about 90% of the city’s fresh produce comes from local urban farms and gardens. And shortages of fertilizer mean that much of Cuba’s agriculture is organic. 12/14/13
A young boy buys juice from a home-based vendor. Sales from home windows are allowed for non-alcoholic beverages (job #37).
Manicurist is #64 on the list of the 200+ approved private sector jobs. This manicurist gets her supplies from family in Miami. She also takes care of a statue of St Lazarus and his dog who is believed to protect one’s health. On December 17, many Cubans honor Lazarus (or Babalu Aye in Santaria) by lighting a candle or making a pilgrimage to a shrine just south of Havana. Historically, to be a member of the Communist Party, one must not be religious. In 2015, Raul Castro said, “I am from the Cuban Communist Party that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it. It’s an important step.” 12/8/11
Clothes washing and ironing is job #59 on the approved list.
House painter is #82 on the approved list of private sector jobs. Construction, renovation or just getting a fresh coat of paint are frequently seen in Havana now that restrictions are easing.
Fósforero y Relojero…Lighter Refills and Watch Repair. Approved private sector jobs #125 and #107. Havana, Cuba 2015.
You hear the cries of “Mani” and see the discarded white paper tubes all over old Havana and the Malecón. Peanut roaster is # 137 on the approved private-sector job list.
There are two currencies in Cuba: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). Cubans are paid in CUP, which is about 24 CUP-to-1 CUC. Tourist business is transacted in CUC, which is 1-to-1 with the U.S. dollar. While tourists may pay $10 for a 10 minute taxi ride, Cuban pay about $0.50 CUC to ride across town in peso taxis. These operate like buses, stopping periodically to pick up/drop off passengers. Taxi driver is #170 on the list of approved jobs.
As more money cycles into Cuba, there is more disposable income. For animal lovers, this is bringing some disturbing new trends–puppies as accessories and dog fighting. Breeder/Seller of Pets is #26 on the list of approved jobs. There are no animal welfare laws in Cuba, and no shelter system. Unwanted animals are left to wander the streets, often unvaccinated, sick and hungry. Periodically, strays are rounded-up by Zoonosis. The process is not humane–dogs are picked up by hind legs, thrown in a small metal box and taken away to be poisoned. Aniplant is a small organization in Cuba working to provide spay/neuters and trying to educate Cubans about good and humane animal care.
Trained dog exhibitor is #161 on the list of approved private sector jobs. The dachshunds are good sports about it…wearing watches, glasses and clothes…but they are not amused.
Shoe repair and resale is a vital business in Havana. He works in a room full of shoes at the front of his home in Centro Havana. Shoe Repair is #143 on the list of approved private-sector jobs.
Caretakers of the Elderly or Handicapped are considered approved private sector jobs (#30). Havana, Cuba, 2011.
This government owned shop, Variedades, closes its’ doors for the evening. This was once a Woolworth’s, one of eight in Cuba that were nationalized between 1959-1960 in the wake of the Revolution. Woolworth’s first opened in Cuba in 1924 and was referred to as “Centavos” by locals. 12/9/13
In the tourist areas, there are many approved jobs…like this one: sketching popular scenes of Old Havana is #155 “Painters-selling pictures in the street”.
There is no official wholesale in Cuba. Small businesses must rely on family bringing supplies in from off the island or buy supplies in Cuba. In Cuba, the options are to pay full price at government supplied shops, or to find black market sources. Havana, 2015.
In September, 2013, 18 jobs were added to the approved list of private sector licenses. One of them was Vendor of Agricultural Produce.
An old building along Parque Central in tourist-heavy Old Havana has been emptied of tenants. Renovations are underway to turn the building into a hotel with a mall of shops. Like the Cuban flag ripped by the barbed wire around this construction site, there is a growing divide among the haves and the have-nots in Cuba. Cubans who have family outside Cuba often have more resources than those who don’t have family outside Cuba. 12/17/13
Cuba’s Entrepreneurs – Cuentapropistas
Between 2010 – 2013, in an effort to relieve some of the Cuban economy’s struggles, Raul Castro approved over 200 private sector jobs. These self-employed entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas, now number almost 500,000 and are learning to do business quickly despite many challenges like limited access to supplies, and lack of wholesale pricing.
Photographed over 7 visits from December 2010 – March 2015.
View this in slideshow to see captions for each photo. Start slideshow by clicking on the first photo.
Around this time last year, I was traveling in Cuba. On the road across the length of the island. Such an exceptional place, and even more so when saturated in spring rain. These images washed over me like a dream. Looking at the photos now, I’m reminded of the fresh smell of that warm Caribbean air. I remember the feel of the humidity, the breeze, the sound of the rain, and the low rumble of thunder rolling. The season was changing. I was changing. What is it about Cuba that draws us out, that lifts life, calls it to the surface?