Nightclubs and markets flourish as Cuba slowly embraces capitalism

The free market is still limited in Cuba, but already it is altering lives and reshaping attitudes

Havana

It might not yet be Wall Street or the Square Mile, but as more and more Cubans go into business for themselves under President Raul Castro’s economic reforms, the ethos of capitalism is increasingly seeping into the island’s daily life, often in stark conflict with fundamental tenets of the Cuban revolution.

These days it seems there’s a snack shop or pirate DVD stand on every other block in parts of Havana. Farmers line up before dawn at an open-air market to jockey for the best spot to sell their produce. After decades of being urged to report any black-market activity in their neighbourhoods, some Cubans now find themselves worrying that they’re falling behind.

The free market is still limited in Cuba, but already it is altering lives and reshaping attitudes. Some fear – and others hope – that values anathema to a half-century of communist rule are taking root more with each passing day: it is OK to make money, within limits; workers can reap the benefits of their own labour directly, instead of seeing it redistributed; individual enterprise is rewarded.

“There have been changes, and as the country grows there will be more,” said Luis Antonio Veliz, the owner of the Fashion Bar Habana nightclub. “It’s a very positive thing, but some Cubans are having difficulty understanding that now not everything depends on the state.”

While many new entrepreneurs have failed, undone by a lack of supplies, a limited customer base and scarce resources, many of those who have succeeded have entered a glamorous world that disappeared after Fidel Castro’s arrival in Havana put an end to the freewheeling 1950s.

It is on display at Fashion Bar Habana, where Mr Veliz has done well enough that he recently was able to relocate his business to the colonial quarter that draws well-heeled tourists. But with success, came sacrifice. Mr Veliz realised he had to be on-call 24 hours a day to solve problems – an unthinkable notion when he was a state-employed restaurant worker. 

“When you work for yourself, you have to look out for your own interests,” Mr Veliz said. “I have become harder, tougher, more confident.”

The law of the marketplace visibly dominates places such as  Egido Street, which teems with horn-blowing cars and independent pedicab drivers calling out to potential fares. 

Dozens of entrepreneurs have moved in to take advantage of the crowds around a farmer’s market. They include 13 flower shops and at least seven snack bars that all offer the same ham and cheese sandwiches. 

Yeska Estiu, a 44-year-old florist, recalled the dilemma she faced when stores ran out of the green spray paint they use to spruce up their arrangements. She hit on switching to white paint – giving her bouquets a snowy touch that was a big hit with clients.

Within a few days, the others had copied the technique. “Here, sales are based on quality, on innovation,” said Ms Estiu, who also tries to stand out from her neighbours by swathing her bouquets in brightly coloured paper and ribbons brought from overseas by her husband.

The new business ethos comes with risks, some Cubans say. Gilberto Valladares, better known as “Papito”, worries that competition and self-interest will eat away at revolutionary values such as solidarity, unity and nationalist pride. Mr Valladares is the founder of the private hair studio Artecorte, which resembles an opulent European salon with its mosaic floors and intricate plaster moulding.

He is on a mission to convince fellow entrepreneurs that they have a moral duty to give back to the community. In recent years he has used his salon to bankroll a neighbourhood revival project, opening up an adjacent barbers’ school, repainting walls and installing plants and street lights. “I want people to understand that not only should there be economic benefit, but they can contribute to the social benefit,” said Mr Valladares.

Back at Egido Street, Manuela Pena, 73, complained that prices were soaring. After hearing decades of Marxist preaching that all Cubans should share the same fate, she is falling behind. “The country is going from bad to worse,” she said.

AP

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?