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A business-friendly Cuba gets a hand from Canada Add to ...

Or, as Biniowsky puts it, “We’re simply filling a space that if it weren’t for the U.S. embargo probably would be completely filled by U.S. companies.” Some firms, he adds, are not in for the long haul. “They’re saying, ‘Okay, here’s an opportunity. Let’s set roots so that when, inevitably, the embargo is lifted, we sell out to American interests.’ Definitely there are a lot of companies here just for positioning.”

360 Vox hopes to break ground early next year on what will become the five-star seafront Monte Barreto Hotel, beside the national aquarium on Havana’s western shore. Chartier expects its location, on the way to Mariel, will attract foreign businessmen, technicians and professionals descending on the capital once the expanded port and free-trade zone open.

“We’re really building the product of the future,” he tells me over coffee. “It will be the first property of its kind in the country. It will meet Florida construction code; it will meet the toughest U.S. and international industry health and safety codes.”

After Monte Barreto construction begins, the firm will turn its attention to a plan to develop Jibacoa, a sleepy strip of beach halfway between Havana and Varadero. The project includes a golf course, marina, hotels and private villas. In the longer term, 360 Vox also has plans for a resort on Cayo Largo, off Cuba’s southern shore – near the key where Fidel Castro and Pierre Trudeau speared fish together in 1976.

The company bears the imprint of a Bay Street legend – Ned Goodman of Dundee Capital, who spearheaded a $20-million investment and serves as chairman. The financier has made several trips to the island, including one in 2011 during which he met with cabinet minister Ricardo Cabrisas. Goodman deems Cuba “a unique country with extraordinary unexploited resources, the most important of which are the Cuban people themselves.”

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When my wife and I first visited Cuba as backpackers a decade ago, we naively hoped to self-cater. To our frustration, we found empty grocery shelves and sparse produce stands.

But now, thanks to the modest success Cuba has achieved in the first goal of its economic reform – increasing food production – we’re able to keep our pantry well-stocked. Sure, certain imported items disappear for weeks on end – any pasta other than spaghetti, for example, or dog kibble, which made feeding our 100-pound Bernese a challenge at one point in December. But, in general, decent ingredients are readily available, particularly produce.

Going out to eat, too, is not the grim experience one is told to expect – in fact, Havana’s bustling restaurant scene is the most visible sign of Cuba’s emerging small-business sector.

According to Betancourt, the culinary revival stems from two things. One, there’s “more demand and more income to satisfy it, whether it’s from the foreign or Cuban consumer.” And two, there’s “a greater availability and variety of products that comes from the development of an agriculture that is diverse and that isn’t only focused on import substitution for basic goods.”

But there is little to no space for professionals to practise their craft – and earn more than a paltry state salary of 450 pesos a month, or about $19 – within the existing approved categories of private employment.

“Although I really enjoyed the work I was doing before – at an information centre in specialized health sciences – it wasn’t possible to earn enough to support my family,” Gustavo Kourí tells me one afternoon during the lunchtime rush at Rio Mar, his year-and-a-half-old restaurant that offers a stunning view of the mouth of the Almendares River. “And then the state opened more opportunities to develop private businesses, for cuenta propia.”

The term translates as “one’s own account,” and Cuba’s new breed of entrepreneurs are known as cuentapropistas. By the end of June, there were 429,000 of them – up from 143,000 in 2010. They are the front-line soldiers in the country’s economic battle.

Like Kourí, 44, José Colomé opted to leave a professional career in favour of entrepreneurship. The 39-year-old lawyer is co-owner of Starbien restaurant, which opened last December on a quiet street near Plaza de la Revolución. Having gotten to know Starbucks during trips abroad, Colomé crafted a similar brand – even registering it as a trademark in Cuba, just in case the coffee chain expands here in future.

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