Up until 2011, owning a small business in Cuba was against the law. However, this changed when 300-plus laws were passed, creating sweeping reform to benefit the Cuban economy. Some of these laws legalized private business ownership for the first time in over fifty years. Although some small business did exist, much of it was secretly ran out of peoples homes out of the watchful eye of the government.
In Havana, we met many small business owners. One of the first was an elderly man, named Raul, who had turned his home into an upper class restaurant, which he named Bella Habana. At the restaurant, we also met a couple that ran a restaurant consulting business and a business that professionally cleaned restaurant kitchens. I noticed right away the pride that these people had in owning their own business. This was not the general pride you think of in the U.S.. It was a genuine, puffing out their chest, “look what I own” type of pride. You could tell from their faces that being able to own a business was a new sense of self worth that the Cubans were experiencing for the very first time.
When the group traveled to Cienfuegos, we also met a man, whose name was Alien, who owned a cell phone repair business. He told us that due to the fact that owning a business was a such a new concept, it was very much a “learn as you go” situation. There was no one to learn from, many times there were no rules to follow in terms of customer dispute resolution, warranties, ect.. So he just had to deal with situations the best way he could think of as they came up.
During our travels, we met many other small business owners. While many mentioned the frustration with having to pay taxes for the first time (10% of monthly profit, then another 10% of annual profit), this frustration did not come close to out-weighing the pride they felt by owning their own business. Even though they are having to figure much of what it means to be a “business owner” by themselves, they are more than capable, and more than willing, to climb that learning curve to have something that is truly their own.