While neither he nor Kourí had experience in the industry, dining at Starbien or Rio Mar is as delectable as sitting down to eat in Toronto or Montreal. And both men expressed similar concerns when asked about the challenges they face in Cuba’s new private sector. “It’s hard,” Colomé says. “Taxes are high, but that’s the rule right now. We have to dance to this music. And I’m happy to have the opportunity.”
The wholesale food supply business is still a work in progress, and “it’s very difficult to get supplies and equipment,” Kourí says, pointing to Rio Mar’s crystal glassware and modern furniture. “We have to import them. But since there’s no possibility of importing them in large quantities, it’s piece by piece.”
Other newcomers to the restaurant business include artists and athletes. Mireya Luis, for example, runs Las Tres Medallas, a pizza-and-pasta spot named for the three Olympic gold medals her volleyball team won between 1992 and 2000.
Luis, 46, describes her 2012 decision to become an entrepreneur as a chance to “realize a dream.” “Being able to open a place – a restaurant, a bar, a cafeteria, whatever – is a good opportunity for self-development, for people to demonstrate a capacity for business, and for them to grow personally,” she tells me one summer night. “It’s something incredible.”
You hear similar sentiments from cuentapropistas in other lines of business.
Gilberto Valladares, who everyone calls Papito, started a hair salon in his family’s home in Old Havana in 1999. “Initially, it was a dream of dignifying and recovering a certain degree of respect for the trade of hairdresser and barber,” he tells me, after tending to his last customer one spring evening. “As my business grew, so did the dream.”
Papito, 43, has made Arte Corte Studio into a “living museum.” Its cabinets are filled with haircutting tools of old and its high-ceilinged walls are covered with paintings depicting different visions of the trade.
He employs a half-dozen people, nearly all from the surrounding neighbourhood. And he closes early one day a week to teach tonsorial skills, as well as marketing, business and personal development. His entire stretch of cobblestone street is becoming a destination for hair care.
“In a spiritual way,” Papito declares, “I already feel like a millionaire.”
Three of 360 Vox’s staff in Havana are lawyers whose first task with any project is to pore over land-title records to find out who owned the site before the Revolution. “If they were American, then it’s off-limits because we don’t want to be in a position where we could be considered to be trafficking in claimed property,” Chartier says.
If the previous owners were Cuban, the firm finds out whether they stayed or went – and if they went, where. It then investigates whether the owners or their kin have since made claims to the land. Finally, 360 Vox takes its findings to a U.S. law firm for an opinion before any project can proceed. Otherwise, the company could run afoul of the Helms-Burton Act, which punishes those who invest in Cuban assets seized from Americans decades ago.
Though he can’t argue with Sherritt’s success and profitability, Chartier notes that the firm “took a very different approach.” A more daring one.
The challenge, as Betancourt puts it, is this: “How can you talk about Cuba accessing international capital in the context of the blockade?” Because of the U.S. embargo, joint ventures will only be established here “little by little, piece by piece and always with companies that are willing to challenge the wrath of the monster.”
Sherritt is one of those. An American firm owned the mine it operates in Moa before the Revolution, so in 1996 Delaney received a letter informing him that he and other Sherritt officials were blacklisted from the United States for violating Helms-Burton. Undaunted, Fidel Castro’s “favourite capitalist” – as he became known – framed the missive and kept it in his office until his retirement last year.
El bloqueo is also why Cuba restricts foreign-investment opportunities to strategic industries. “It’s like a war economy,” Betancourt says. “Don’t expect an opening up of the foreign sector until you have a different international environment that will facilitate greater investment and greater flows of capital.”