HAVANA – While opening and maintaining a private business in Cuba was challenging before the onset of the coronavirus, entrepreneurs now are facing new obstacles and being forced to reinvent themselves to survive an unprecedented crisis.
Even so, some of these pioneering business leaders on the Communist-ruled island are making the best of the situation and may even emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.
Long accustomed to coping with shortages and bureaucratic red tape, Cuba’s “cuentapropistas” are drawing on their ingenuity and adapting their business ventures to the new reality, with many of them going all in on home delivery and engaging more closely with customers online to stay afloat amid the health emergency.
Others have taken steps such as lowering prices and offering additional benefits such as complimentary face masks and free or half-price delivery.
As recently as early March, bars and restaurants in Havana were packed with customers. Homes for rent were in high demand and Cuba’s iconic and colorful classic cars filled city streets.
But later that month those same streets were left deserted due to stay-at-home orders and now only feature signs reading “Closed for COVID-19.” Cuba also closed its borders to tourism, the largest source of revenue for the Caribbean island’s private sector.
The pandemic has battered entertainment-based businesses, as well as cafeterias and restaurants that lack access to wholesale markets and depend on the government for supplies at elevated prices.
“Conditions were difficult to begin with” and now the challenges are much greater, said Enrique Suarez, owner and chef of the TocaMadera restaurant in the residential Havana neighborhood of Miramar.
“Operating a food business in a contracted economy is complicated. Since we began, we decided to cook with whatever we could find without tying ourselves to a fixed menu … Without knowing it, we were preparing ourselves for what was coming,” Suarez told EFE.
Lacking both a steady provision of supplies from the government and a wholesale market, TocaMadera looked for alternatives. Now, amid the coronavirus, when shoppers must wait in hours-long lines to buy food, Suarez’s business purchases more than 80 percent of its raw material directly from food producers.
“The supply isn’t the same now. A lot of resources are starting to become scarce, but we’re still at the point where we can keep working” thanks to home delivery, the entrepreneur said.
Cuba’s government has also instituted some rescue measures for the private sector, including temporarily relieving private passenger carriers of their tax obligations and allowing them to temporarily hand back licenses that otherwise would have left them on the hook for monthly fees.
Those measures were necessary due to the nationwide suspension of public transportation, but they still do not resolve the difficult situation of Cuba’s “cuentapropistas,” who have seen their revenues fall even as they lack the safety net provided to state employees (guaranteed to receive at least 60 percent of their monthly salary).
Badly in need of cash flow, many Cuban entrepreneurs are using the Internet to open online stores, while others have completely changed their business model.
The latter include Cuber, a taxi company similar to Uber that now delivers fruits and vegetables to customers who place their orders via WhatsApp, a popular application on the island following the activation of mobile data services there just over a year ago.
That messaging app also has allowed Beyond Roots – a private company devoted to promoting Afro-Cuban culture – to stay in contact with its customers and continue offering hair and skin products as well as handicrafts and clothing.
“We decided to maintain our delivery service as a way to satisfy demand while also allowing us to cover our business’ fixed costs,” said Adriana Heredia, the founder of a project that currently is the only one of its kind offering products specifically designed for the Afro-Cuban community.
The young entrepreneur added, however, that “safety comes first” and that she only leaves her home two days a week to make deliveries. Customers who live near her store in Old Havana, meanwhile, can buy items on-site but only after washing their hands with a chlorine solution she leaves at the entrance.
“The pandemic has hit us quite hard, but you have to reinvent yourself. We’re always well-supplied, and so we managed to make it through the first month without restocking,” she said. “But now we’re down to almost zero in hair products.”
Leire Fernandez, co-founder of urban fashion brand Clandestina and another entrepreneur who has moved her business online, said crises always represent opportunities.
“I know some friends who want to start an online gym. And that’s how it works. You adapt. You start thinking in another way. In our case, the online store for Cuba will continue on and may be expanded beyond Havana,” she said.