Cuba's digital destination
by Victoria Alcalá
Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba made the word “entrepreneur” fashionable, especially when referring to the young, although restricting the meaning to the private sector of our economy. The Real Academia Española defines the adjective as “someone resolutely taking difficult or hazardous action.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is on the same track with its definition that says: “One who organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” And so all those young people who are working in the state sector are eliminated from this definition; they have been undaunted by the difficulties inherent in their trades and professions. which have been hurt by the difficult economic conditions in which they operate: scientists, technologists, sportsmen and women, peasants, artists, teachers…
But without a doubt, the opening up of the Cuban economy in recent years towards the private and cooperative sector is a brand new phenomenon. It has attracted a lot of attention and its share of controversy both inside and outside of Cuba. And just like the Millennials who are always ready to experiment, they have decided to take this giant step into the Great Unknown. It is said that they represent 30% of self-employed workers and they have been receiving a lot of attention, and not just from the smiling Mr. Obama.
What is motivating the youth to abandon the comfort of a steady salary (generally insufficient, but sure) and fling themselves into projects for which, at least apparently, they are ill-prepared? Some would immediately reply money. It is the best way to improve your economic situation, of not depending forever on parents who are often working day and night to provide the minimum comforts. But I think there are other necessities such as proving something to themselves completely on their own, to work at something they really like and not just where they have been placed and, of course, the eternal and not always attained illusion of “triumphing.”
A number of obstacles get put in their way: their inexperience and that of the country in not knowing how to run these types of businesses, the restrictions and undefined details that end up putting many plans into a sort of legal limbo, the lack of initial capital….But they do have the advantages of a high level of education, the economic help of relatives in Cuba and abroad and, sometimes, of the social, intellectual or political capital of their parents—all this may open some doors.
But we are already talking about successful young people who own or run top-quality restaurants like El Cocinero or Le Chansonnier, rental apartments such as Doña Isis, Hostal Bohemia or Casa Vitrales, real estate agencies like Zafiro or Cuba Inmobiliaria, publicity agencies such as ETRES, gyms, beauty salons, spas, photographic studios, design groups, offset printing workshops, audiovisual producers, art galleries, construction and restoration companies, and many more. They are also in charge of organizing parties and events. They are chefs, masseurs and masseuses, curators, architects, fashion designers. They have started up businesses that would have been unthinkable five years ago such as La Marca where not only can you get a tattoo in the safest, most hygienic conditions but you can also see exhibitions and performances related to the skin arts.
And of course, businesses are being set up in the field of computers and digital media. AlaMesa is the Cuban restaurant directory, which has become a respected platform for publicity and promotions; Isladentro is now known as the Cuban “Yelp,” a cell phone app that allows you to use your phone in Cuba without connecting to the Internet and which also gives you a sort of directory of private businesses, museums, banks and hospitals as well as other places of interest; sites such as the pioneer Revolico or the more recent Bachecubano carry classified ads; digital magazines Vistar dedicated to show business, Garbos connecting you to fashion and others like D’Gustando on the culinary arts are all conceived, written and designed by recent computer science graduates and students, just like websites like Cachivache Media or El Toque. And of course, there are all the Cell Phone Clinics which will repair any device and are managed by people under the age of thirty.
It is interesting and comforting to know that many of these young people aren’t limiting themselves to reaping personal success—they also aspire to transmit their experiences to their contemporaries and they show a marked social consciousness that extends to their surroundings. For example, we have seen the cases of the Callejón de Los Peluqueros and the La Moneda Cubana. Both have been involving hundreds of youngsters who are school and work drop-outs in a school-workshop, the former teaching hairdressing and the latter food services under the auspices of the Cuban Culinary Association, the Office of the Historian of the City and several private restaurants, all headed by La Moneda Cubana, hence its name. Others commit themselves with a passion to non-lucrative projects such as Palomas, Escaramujo, Manglar Vivo or Barrio Habana, dedicated to transforming human beings and their natural and social milieu.
Although they are not too visible at the political level yet (I don’t know whether it’s because they are not interested in being promoted or because nobody is interested in promoting them), it would not be a bad idea to see them injecting some youthful audacity and impatience to the government “engines” of science, medicine, the economy, sports and the arts, in agriculture and industry, as well as in the broadening spectrum of private sector companies. Our Millennials are gradual, almost silently, imposing their style and their rhythm, certain that the future is within their reach and that it belongs to them.