By Ted A. Henken
Two things stood out most to me on a trifecta of recent trips to Havana in October and November 2015 after more than four long years of not visiting the island.
First, led by too many breathless press reports of a fundamentally transformed island by President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms, I was surprised to find the gray dinosaur of a ruined, if often disarmingly charming, capital city largely intact. Despite the undeniable surging innovation exhibited by hundreds of enterprising habaneros who have set up astoundingly creative and sophisticated businesses in response to Castro’s economic opening, such ventures remain islands of innovation in the sea of neglect and inefficiency that has long characterized Cuba’s state-run economy.
And though I learned long ago not to give undue credence to spontaneous reports from random, anonymous cabbies, one such comment stood out to me as I took the pulse of a city I’d once called a second home. After hopping into the ancient hulk of an American cruiser, used as a “taxi colectivo” (10-peso cab) due to its ability to fit as many as 8 passengers at once, I asked the driver about the twin pair of small U.S. and Cuban flags he had mounted on his dashboard. This was just his way of saluting the hopeful thaw in relations between our countries that had taken place during the previous 10 months, he explained. The driver, an Afro-Cuban, also lauded President Obama’s youthful vision and political bravery at reversing the U.S.’s isolationist policy enthroned in the widely detested bloqueo (blockade).
However, he then turned to me and wondered aloud whether he could expect his government to respond by exhibiting any bravery of its own by beginning to dismantle the thick wall of control it imposed over citizens like him, referred to derisively by this Cuban as the auto-bloqueo (internal embargo).
“I’m hopeful, but the truth is that I’m not very confident. They control everything here: the party, the economy, the media… So I don’t see how they’re going to give that up so easily,” he noted in Spanish before adding the rejoinder, “hope dies last they say, but I hope it doesn’t die before I do.”
The second surprise I found during my recent visits to Havana is that, despite the cabbie’s well-earned skepticism, there are, in fact, a handful of Cubans taking full, creative advantage of the small but significant crack that Castro has opened for the island’s cuentapropistas, or home-grown entrepreneurs. This was most evident in a visit I made to the offices of the entrepreneurship training program known as Cuba Emprende run out of the Catholic Church’s Centro Padre Félix Varela located adjacent to Havana’s Cathedral in La Habana Vieja. In just three short years, the program has graduated over 1,800 students who have quickly become leaders in Cuba’s long-frustrated but now surging entrepreneurial sector.
I was also introduced to some of Cuba’s cutting edge innovators among the young, tech-savvy attendees I met at a path-breaking seminar “Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba’s Future” in early October at the Norwegian embassy in Havana. The seminar, organized by Cuban cyber-activists Norges Rodríguez, Taylor Torres, and Yasmín Portales, included fascinating and pioneering Internet projects from Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Spain, and Portugal.
However, the most notable, practical, and promising contributions came from the Cubans themselves. Internet incubated start-ups such as AlaMesa, Conoce Cuba, and Isladentro all seek to connect potential customers (both islanders and foreign tourists) with the rapidly growing number and diversity of goods and services offered by Cuba’s revitalized private sector through apps customized to function in Cuba’s unique off-line smart phone environment. Besides offering a diverse plethora of data and photo-rich profiles of hundreds of Cuba’s new micro-enterprises, each of these apps relies on the backbone of digital maps that provide real-time geolocation feedback to the user by triangulating its GPS location with that of each business and Cuba’s cell towers, all without access to web data or the Internet.
In most cases, the business model is to provide free apps to the public via Cuba’s private cell phone repair shops while charging businesses 5 CUCs ($5 USD) per month to include them on the apps. Some have worked out exclusive arrangements with these repair shops so that their apps, and only their apps, are automatically loaded onto the cell phones they service. Others are experimenting with Living Social-style discount coupons, and still others have partnered with independent digital magazines to feature reviews of private restaurants.
Given continued internal restrictions on Cuban cuentapropistas, however, these fantastic start-ups cannot yet gain recognition as either private businesses with a legal personality, or as cooperatives with the tax breaks and import/export benefits that would include. And while the number of non-agricultural cooperatives has surged in recent years, the approval process is agonizingly slow and none of those start-ups so far approved have been in the dynamic and innovative tech field.
Neither can these tech start-ups access foreign investment, import equipment, sign contracts with foreign or state entities, gain easy or inexpensive access to the Internet, nor allow their customers to make payments or reservations using credit cards. This being Cuba, however, these entrepreneurs are surging ahead regardless, following the tried and true pair of proverbs: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” and “everything is prohibited, but anything goes.” Still, this legal libo makes Cuba’s domestic start-ups especially vulnerable to a possible government crackdown or to being swamped or gobbled up by the impending tide of international Internet service companies such as OpenTable, Tripadvisor, or Yelp, which seems to have been one outcome of Airbnb’s propitious arrival in Cuba.
On the bright side, changes to U.S. policy announced in September have given these Cuban start-ups and the young, ambitious programmers behind them access to the U.S. as a place to market their services for the first time. In fact, AlaMesa holds the distinction of being the first Cuban engineered app to ever be available via Google Play for Android. Conoce Cuba and Isladentro are sure to be close behind.
In the meantime, you can download their apps before you depart or, better yet, by taking your cell phone to your friendly neighborhood repair shop once you arrive in Cuba: the land of the disconnected, but (at least so far) not of the hopeless.
Ted A. Henken teaches at Baruch College-CUNY, where he is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies. He is President ex-officio of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, and his authored and co-authored titles include Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape (2015), Cuba in Focus (2013), and Cuba A Global Studies Handbook (2008). Dr. Henken blogs at http://elyuma.blogspot.com and tweets @ElYuma.
[Photos by Ted A. Henken]