I was a Freelancer for 37 years so I have an affinity for individuals independent from traditional work places. In Cuba the source of employment for almost everything has been the state. As government regulations have relaxed, some have been motivated to seize the opportunity to become independent entrepreneurs. A classic style taxi is easily one of the most recognizable independent businesses. Cuba is primarily a cash economy. To ordinary Cubans getting a loan to start a business or even a mortgage to buy a home isn’t possible. Therefore, many are attracted to opportunities associated with the tourist trade that require little or no upfront investment.
Throughout the world a barbershop is a universal small business. In Vinales, Yissel Ramos opened her shop 1 week before I visited to get my hair trimmed down. At 34, she is a single parent living with her mother, sister & her niece. At the gate outside her 2 chair shop was a sign BarberiaYissel.com. I asked her about using the Internet & her response was “I don’t have time to stand around in the park on my phone. I have to work.” Access to the Internet in homes is almost non-existent. Plazas with WiFi hot-spots were easy to find. I just looked for people staring into their phones. Since I was totally off the grid my attention was to the people & the place via my viewfinder.
Yissel’s work ethic is a trait I witnessed in many Cubans I met. With the ink fresh on her Self-Employed Workers-License, & no shortage of self confidence, I believe she will have a good chance of realizing her dream to visit the Eiffel Tower. The part of her job she enjoys most is helping people change the way they look. That may be a metaphor for her country.
In Las Terrazas along the shore of Lake San Juan the unpretentious house with tropical orange shutters caught my eye. Built on a small bluff beside the winding road it has a serene perspective of the natural environment. Louis Borrego Linares is the brother of Polo Montañez who at 40 carved a place for himself into the rich legacy of Cuban poet songwriters. Tragically, Polo of the Mountains died in a car crash only 3 years after his music captured the hearts of his people. Louis recognized an opportunity & turned his brothers home into a Graceland type of museum where the music lives on. It is supported thru sales of memorabilia, CD’s & tips. In a country with many museums & a rich cultural history this may be the 1st commercial enterprise dedicated to a cultural iconic hero.
On a long road trip my guide asked to stop so he could order a ham. Ricardo, our driver, knew where to pull over on an open stretch of highway. There were no signs indicating anything special. Obviously not a spot for commerce with tourists, I was hesitant to push for details like his name. Word of mouth & reputation powered this farmers roadside market. His face was perfect for portraiture with the beard, hair & mustache framing the lower 2/3 of his face & the hat accenting the top of his head. The matching color & texture of his eyebrows reinforce his dark eyes. On our return, Lidier picked up 2 hams. I asked why 2? He told me 1 was a surprise gift for his mother who I would meet when we got to Camaguey.
Anything with wheels can become a taxi with the potential to be a good Freelance gig. Pedal taxis are required to be registered & licensed. Cars are inspected. Since Cuba has zero taxes the owner/operator has no paperwork & keeps all income. Most of the ridership I saw was made up of tourists. However it wasn’t unusual to see locals in vehicles holding 4 or more. I wouldn’t be shocked, or offended, if locals paid less.
When not being used as a taxi, this car serves as an outlet for fresh food. Without looking hard you can find bikes or carts with racks filled with onions, potatoes, rice, beans, garlic & other fresh goods. Along the side of the highway people stand holding cheese or have their arms draped with the latest harvest. Produce seemed to be the main Cuban to Cuban independent business ventures not intended for tourists.
Street vendors with their assorted offerings had become commonplace until I saw this guy. I’m not sure how large the market is but since this enterprising individual was the only vendor I saw with a live turkey he might have a monopoly. Even though there is no tax on any business transaction, barter is common & black market exists. I was told in a bar how fueling stations attendants would short fill a request of a government vehicle by a few liters & then sell it to someone at a discounted price. Just like some I worked with that loved to “stick it to the man”, Cubans find ways to bend the rules to their advantage.
Ingenuity can be inspired by a lack of resources. A successful Freelancer needs to understand that at times you just make it up as you go. A Cuban mechanic fixing a car must deal with the challenges of no spare parts on the shelves, few of the proper tools needed to do the job & no maintenance manuals. Somehow they get it done. Based upon my conversations & observations with workers in Cuba, I’d be honored to work alongside them. I have no doubt they could teach me a thing or two. A cultural exchange I would enjoy doing is introducing Cubans to G-tape.
The content of these postings are based upon my observations, conversations with my guide, interviews with people interpreted by my guide & interactions I had with people I met. Any mistakes are entirely mine with no intention to mislead.