Cuban Youth Mastering the Art of Economic Improvisation

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A report by Julia Rainer for In Depth News.

Trinidad, one of the most popular cities in Cuba, is a place where time seems to stand still. At least that is what the thousands of tourists who come here every year from all over the world are made to believe.

Colonial cathedrals and majestic houses have been guarding the city for hundreds of years and are beautifully restored as if time had never passed. Indeed, the picturesque city – together with the marvellous surrounding sugarcane plantations – were declaredUNESCO world cultural heritage in 1988.

It is part of Trinidad’s unique charm that nothing is supposed to change – a concept that can be transferred to Cuba’s tourism strategy as a whole.

In recent years there has been an enormous trend to travel to the island nation in the middle of the Caribbean, precisely because the decades of isolation and the socialist economic system led by Fidel Castro have left the country in an almost “time capsule” state.

Low crime rates and the stable – or enshrined – political conditions compared with other Central American countries have added to the appeal of Cuba as the tourist destination to visit.

Following loosening of U.S. restrictions on Cuba and with U.S. tourists increasingly starting to frequent the island, the former “outsider” Cuba has risen to new heights, gaining much of its national income through tourism.

2016 was the first year in which more than four million tourists travelled to the island. This year there have been 45 percent more visitors from North America, 33 percent more from Europe and 16 percent more from Latin America.

However, Cuba finds itself with a dilemma – tourists are flooding the nation to see that nothing has changed for hundreds of years, but in order to deal with these developments the government needs to allow innovation, change and progress to be part of the process.

Furthermore it is not possible to fully preserve a socialist economic system while allowing millions of people from capitalist countries to enter the state.

Cuba is waking up from its isolation like Sleeping Beauty, caught in a mixed system with socialist and capitalist influences.

Confronted with tourists constantly displaying their iPhones and waving other brand new technical gadgets in their faces, Cubans are beginning to call for change, and it is island’s young people who are at the forefront of the arousal.

Just a few decades ago, many Cubans saw little to no possibility of being successful within the country. Now many of the young generation are impatient to see where newly-arrived progress can lead their country.

Lyhán Arango Alfonso, Carlos Alberto Alonso Duffay (known as Carlitos), Laura Vaillant and Yilién Moje are four young entrepreneurs living in Trinidad, who have taken the bull by the horns.

They recently opened a coffee shop/bar in the city centre that is the exact opposite of what many tourists are expecting to see in a traditional Cuban setting. It is not the sound of salsa and reggaeton, but European and American electro-music, which is attracting the locals and tourists who frequent the bar.

The location, a real eye-catcher, looks like you could have stumbled in there off one of Berlin’s trendy streets or one of New York’s boho-chic neighbourhoods. Chairs hang from the ceiling and the unique artwork, made by co-owner Laura, is nowhere to be found in the cliché tourist shops of the city.

The only hint of its Cuban origin is a book with the diaries of revolutionary Che Guevara, controversially placed on a bridal magazine on one of the tables.

A few years ago, opening an establishment like this would have been impossible due to strict government regulations on economic activity. The experience of owning a business is therefore relatively new for many Cubans.

In a country where education and access to university is free and well established, but where – after years of studying – a lawyer earns 20 to 25 dollars a month, many are now trying to explore this new-found economic freedom.

Like the group of friends from Trinidad who transformed the living room of Carlito’s family home into one of the most striking bars of the hundred-year old city in just 15 days.

Lyhán and Carlitos, who knew each other from university, were the founders of the project. “One day I went to Carlito’s house and said: Hey, you have such a good place to make a bar, right?” “OK, let’s do it,” he replied.

“And we just started. We didn’t have anything to make a bar. We didn’t have money, no music records, we just started making it with the stuff we could find”, Lyhán recalls with pride. Carlito’s mother immediately supported their idea, offering a huge part of her house to the two young men in their early twenties.

What may not seem like a big deal in capitalist countries means a great deal in a place where one of the only possibilities for income and engaging freely in the economic system is the tourism sector.

This is why there are thousands of Cubans sharing their homes with tourists in so called “casa particulares”, more or less the airbnb of Cuba.

With Carlito taking care of the location and his grandmother offering tables and some of the decor, local art school student Laura pitched in with her decorating work and start-up money came from Lyhán who worked at night as a musician in the city’s many restaurants. Yilién, a local girl speaking French – which is a real asset in the highly touristic city – was the last to join the group, and the “fantastic four”, as they call themselves, were complete.

There was no business plan, no real seed capital, no security, just a dream to build a place that was completely different to anything else that could be found in Trinidad. One day they even hope to transform the bar into a local cultural centre, where the aspiring artists and musicians of the city will be able to perform.

In order to get their project under way, they could have taken money from the state, which was supporting new business owners, but because they did not know if their plan could be successful, they did not dare taking the risk and decided to rely only on themselves.

And so far it has worked. They celebrated their first day in business on November 25, 2016, a memorable day in every sense, as Lyhán recalls. “We were just starting the inauguration party, when there was suddenly a lot of commotion. By chance we had opened our bar on the same day that Fidel Castro died!”

The four young entrepreneurs still face constant challenges, like the country’s bureaucracy which is difficult to deal with. For example, the government currently does not issue permits for bars, so the group had to resort to a restaurant permit which results in having to pay much higher taxes.

Sometimes an undercover government official visits the bar to check how many customers are being served and adjust the tax to be paid, which can then be relatively high, although the bar might only have had one very lucrative day.

Despite all obstacles the business is going well. Maybe the secret to success is that the friends have resorted to a strategy that most Cubans have been following successfully for decades – improvising and making the best of any situation.

Indeed, even improvisation was needed when it came to the sign for the group’s bar, which is known as ‘El Mago’ – The Magician.

Due to the fact that the city is a world cultural heritage, it is not allowed by law to put up new signs on colonial walls.

So, as always, a creative way was found to deal with this challenge. Every day, on his way to open the bar, Carlito carries a suitcase with the name of the establishment painted on it, which he then carefully hangs up over the door.

It seems ironic that it is a suitcase – a symbol for the many people who have left the country over the decades in order to find their future somewhere else – which might now be determining the future of four young entrepreneurs.

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