Introduction to Cuban Portrait Series
Cuba has been on the cusp of change for a long time. It is interesting to understand both the times that have past there, and the current situation, especially since nobody really knows what is to come.
Cuba is a country of characters, raised in the isolation of a small Caribbean island, weathered by a revolution that aged with its leader. Cubans are educated, curious and artistic. Sipping rum in the vegas (tobacco farms) at sunset you talk politics, family stories are told over dinner, and the vibrancy of the Cuban culture pours onto the dance floor at night.
The following series of three portraits of Cubans helped me understand the diversity of experiences people had with the revolution, and provided some insight into where it is headed. Jose and Rosa benefited from it directly through a prestigious appointment, Rigo was given a first class education, and ironically Pancho was able to take advantage of the broken property market that emerged as a result of it. However, despite these benefits, each of them is adapting in different ways to a situation where the government is able to give them less, and market reforms may bring them more in the future.
The following is the story of Rigo and Cuba’s shadow economy. (Names have been changed to protect privacy).
Cuban Portraits: Havana’s Shadow Economy
While anywhere in the world you can to hop into a taxi and expect to have a lively conversation with the driver, the only place where that might turn into a sophisticated conversation on computer science is Cuba.
Rigo was trained as a computer scientist for free by the government, and had worked for the Cuban government for a number of years developing software. However, while he enjoyed the subject matter, he hated the work. His colleagues were unmotivated, there was little chance for advancement or creativity, and his pay was not very high, especially considering the complex tasks he was given.
Rigo had a classic entrepreneur’s mindset where he could see what was wrong with other people’s approaches to problems, and had creative ideas for better ways to address them. However, unlike in other places around the world, Rigo had absolutely zero access to capital. His government wages gave him just enough to subsist with his family, and all of his connections were in similar situations.
So Rigo quit, and ironically decided to become a taxi driver to earn more money. He was able to get a yellow cab from the state owned taxi company, but generally would not offer service to local Cubans. He was interested in earning US dollars, which he could use to invest in his own off-the-books small business.
He had the cleanest, most organized taxi I had ever seen. Whenever we stopped he was always buffing some spec from the outside, and every morning he had cleaned the upholstery with some sort of antiseptic cleaner. It felt like riding around inside a computer.
He made friends with a number of the homestays around Cuba, so that when the travelers needed transport, Rigo would get the call. Rigo spoke English flawlessly, and not only could he explain the history of the country and the nuances of the land, he could also make very deep philosophical comments about governance and society. He had well thought out, complex views. While he was a deep critic of Fidel, he was also a proud Cuban, and was keen to point out the lack of slums in Havana, the health care his family got, and acknowledged the education he himself was given.
He had no ambition to leave his country, but did lament how hard it was to try to get ahead, and how ridiculously broken the markets had become. He took us to see a rations store. Every Cuban gets vouchers to buy a certain amount of rations to subsist. Things like bananas, milk, rice, beans, soap. Just the basics.
The store we saw was empty. It looked like raided stores I had seen in Bolivia after a civil disturbance, but they were not raided, they just were never filled anymore. These basic commodities were sold to the Cuban government as required by law, for prices set by the state, but farmers, factory workers, and traders, all seemed to know how to hold a little back to sell on the side, and it seemed like over time that little had become quite a lot.
In fact, Rigo told us everyone had a side hustle in Havana. Everyone went to work for the government during the day, but at night sold beans out of their backdoor, cut hair on their terrace, or taught salsa to tourists. It was this shadow economy that kept the island running. He told us, you can get anything in Cuba as long as you know the right people, and have something to trade.
Rigo had saved his money judiciously from his taxi business, and while he had no ambition to go to Miami, he had friends who traveled there regularly. He had them bring back antennas, routers, cables, and small satellite dishes. Customs officials mostly did not know what they were, he explained. He then set-up his informal business where he would climb up onto the rooftops of Havana at night and install cable TV and internet systems for households. The government never checks people’s rooftops, he shrugged.
While he was proud of what his government had given him, his family and his people, he was extremely proud of the services he was able to help provide that his government repressed. For him, it was time Cuba adapted with the rest of the world, and he was leading that change.
It was intriguing to understand that while most countries do their business between nine and five, Cuba advances at night, under the cloak of darkness, fueled by the entrepreneurial power of its people and the shadow economy they have created.
It was both regretful to see such a smart, educated man having such difficulty converting his skills into wealth, however, it was also wonderful to see the education system from a developing country create someone as skilled as him. Raul Castro is already giving more opportunities for small businesses. So hopefully in the near future, hardworking, innovative risk takers like Rigo should be better able to invest in themselves and better provide for their families.