Havana is full of small businesses. The most common entrepreneurs are ladies who sell cupcakes and cookies from their front door or window, small cafeterias with coffee and a sandwich for some pesos, people selling the latest American movies and series on copied DVDs, and men walking with carts and shouting in a special loud and low tone that many of them use: “Tengo galletas de mantequillaaaaaaaaaa” (I have butter cookies). When there are eggs and/or potatoes – products that are scarce – that is shouted loudly: “Hay papa, hay huevo, hay papa, hay huevo” (there are potatoes, there are eggs). It is almost like a song, or maybe a rap. Together with the roaring engines of vintage cars, and an occasional rumba or reggaeton beat, it forms a cacophony that is typical for the neighborhood.
This cacophony of the street has not always been like it is now. Cuba is in a transition that went from frozen contacts with the United States and a travel and trade embargo since the 1960s to tourist flows and the visit of Obama in 2016; from prohibitions on internet and foreign media and (rock) music to open WiFi-parks and a Rolling Stones concert attended by supposedly half a million people; from socialist labor perceptions and practices of work, in which entrepreneurship was forbidden, to a more open and free landscape with room for self-employment and an adapting working culture; and from politicians seeing as an evil, only necessary to save the Cuban economy from collapsing, to them viewing it as a building stone to even perfect socialism (1).
Ever since Obama and Castro shook hands, Cuba has been a hot item in media worldwide. In general, journalists write in the line of thought that the island is becoming capitalist, and will soon be flooded with franchises of Starbucks and McDonalds. Likewise, tourists are urged (2) to go to Cuba before it loses its ‘authenticity’ (whatever that may mean). In this mostly Western view, entrepreneurs are seen as the key agents who push Cuba towards a free market society. But how do they themselves perceive this role? How do they experience the Cuban transition? And how do they see their own and Cuba’s future?
In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy came in an abrupt crisis due to a high dependency on the Soviet bloc. The Cuban government was confronted with urgent needs for reform: opening up to foreign investments, increasing efficiency and productivity, and… giving space to new small entrepreneurs. In 1993 it became permitted to start a private business, but only in a limited number of professions. In 2010 the government announced new guidelines for entrepreneurs. Self-employment was totally abolished after 1959 and the regulation from 1993 that legalized non-state enterprises was mostly a necessary anti-crisis evil. Now they were supposed to save the economy and peculiarly even appointed to strengthen the revolution. But becoming a capitalist country…?
I found out that Cuban entrepreneurs themselves do not experience a transition from socialism to capitalism, or to put in similarly dichotomous terms: from dictatorship to democracy, from micro-state monitoring to freedom. Entrepreneurs mainly experience a transition between two different working cultures: an old ‘revolutionary’ one with business activities limited to the thriving black market, and a new ‘entrepreneurial’ one with blooming small business and strong entrepreneurs, well adapted to the new policies. Whereas policies are easily changed, the ‘slowness of culture’, as Ton Salman (3) calls it, makes that people’s mindsets and habits stay behind. Culture takes its time to adapt. And the decades of state socialism logically have their impact on the Cuban culture, which we could view as a consequence of governmentality (4).
To discuss Cuba’s future with my informants in terms of socialism versus capitalism appeared inevitable, but this does not mean that Cubans agree with the in the West envisioned capitalist future for Cuba. I heard very different opinions, varying from “Socialism? That is long gone in Cuba” to “We will not become capitalist, but remain on the revolutionary path.” Overall, most Cubans do not see a future for capitalism in Cuba but they find it important to take some of the good aspects, for example more freedom. Most Cubans do derive hope from the recent Cuba-US rapprochement that their country is going to improve economically and some even are preparing for opening businesses when the relations are fully recovered. Apparently, Cubans also have no straightforward answer to what Cuba’s political-economic future contains, which shows diversity and heterogeneity.
The transition is obviously still ongoing and this means that a lot is yet about to change for cuentapropistas. Three days after Obama left Havana and I was waiting for the Rolling Stones concert to begin, I felt the significance of my research more than ever. Everyone around me said it was a historical week that marked the changes that are going on in Cuba. But it remains important to keep in mind that Cuba’s evolving future might take several and unprecedented directions instead of holding on to the ‘evolutionist’ idea that the only possible end goal for Cuba is capitalism as we know it.
I wrote this blog for the platform of my faculty, Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University: http://www.standplaatswereld.nl