Friday, April 10, 2015

A Taste of "Entrepreneurial Cuba" + Video

Last Thursday, April 2, Arch Ritter and I were welcomed to the Americas Society/Council of the Americas by Alana Tummino to give our first joint presentation of our new book "Entrepreneurial Cuba."

I'm proud to say that the event was sold out (even if it was free - along with a free lunch!) and Arch and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves thanks to great moderation by Alana and many eager and incisive questions from the attendees.

The video of the event is here (beginning at 1:00).

ascoa on Broadcast Live Free

For those of you who were not able to make it, here is a special order form for the book at a big discount. Also, below I'm providing the preface to the book along with a link to chapter 1.


This book is the product of the authors’ many years of investigation of and fascination with small enterprise and the informal, underground, and second economies of revolutionary Cuba. We hope that it reflects the unending resourcefulness, as well as the innumerable inventos (inventions), often technically illegal, that most Cuban citizens have long had to undertake in their daily struggle to resolver or “make ends meet.” As with the countries of Eastern Europe, this part of the economy—long hidden, but everywhere in plain sight—has been of major importance in the everyday lives of the Cuban people, playing a role in the provision of needed goods, services, and employment.

Prior to 2010, serious study of this sector was taboo because state policies had consistently stigmatized it as illegitimate and banished it to the shadows. Even since 2010, small private enterprise has been relatively under-analyzed within Cuba, a trend partly remedied by the important work of Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and Pavel Vidal Alejandro (2010, 2012) and Juan Triana (2012, 2013). Elsewhere, the earliest and most rigorous work on the subject is easily that of Cuban-American economist Jorge Pérez-López, whose insightful 1995 volume, Cuba’s Second Economy: From Behind the Scenes to Center Stage, set a high bar for those who might follow him. In the ten years following that book’s publication, an increasingly antagonistic public policy toward microenterprise pushed self-employment (trabajo por cuenta propia) behind the scenes once again, culminating in its practical extinction by 2005. During those years, as well as more recently, the work of Joseph Scarpaci (1995, 2009, and 2014), Richard Feinberg (2011, 2013), and especially Phil Peters (1997, 1998, 1998 with Scarpaci, 2006a, 2012a, 2012b, and 2014), has been exemplary both for its rich ethnographic reportage and its original, dispassionate analysis of Cuba’s now reemerging small enterprise sector.

The main thrust of the present volume is to analyze why self-employment has returned once again to the center stage in Cuba—and to what effect. Our objective is to analyze the policies of the Cuban government toward the legal small enterprise sector, always recognizing that a continual counterpoint is played out between legal private enterprises and “extra-legal” or informal ones operating clandestinely, out of the reach of the regulatory and fiscal controls of the state. Our central focus is on the varying policy approaches (including implementation and consequences) toward small and microenterprise on the part of the government of Fidel Castro in contrast with the subsequent dramatic re-forms of Raúl Castro’s presidency.

• • • 

Arch Ritter was first introduced to Cuba’s underground economy and to its rich variety of illegal economic activities during his many re-search visits to the island beginning in the 1960s. Some these activities are chronicled in his 1974 book, The Economic Development of Revolutionary Cuba: Strategy and Performance. His subsequent trips to the island in the late-1980s and especially the 1990s when he was the co-coordinator of a Cuban-Canadian academic program at the University of Havana revealed that such practices had only intensified during the intervening years. He was fortunate to have a number of good Cuban friends who provided insightful if informal exposure to the sector first in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, 2000s, and through 2014. On repeated lengthy visits to Cuba, he was able to ob-serve the travails and successes of various legal and extralegal microenterprises first hand. These trips have only deepened his interest in Cuba’s resilient small and microenterprise sector, especially now that state policy seems to have definitively shifted away from ideology, placing Cuba’s second economy once again at the “center stage” of Raúl’s economic reform program.

Ritter is indebted to many people for insights into the small enterprise sector and the underground economy. Many legal cuentapropistas provided him with valuable information on their activities. Many microentrepreneurs in the shadow economy were also helpful in illuminating how that part of the Cuban economy functioned and interacted with the legal self-employment sector. Most of those who provided such assistance in the 1990s and 2000s cannot yet be named. However, he can thank some of his friends and guides from the 1960s, namely Modesto Alcalá and the brothers Nieves and José de la O—now unfortunately deceased—who took him under their collective wing during some of his visits and guided him around the economic underside of Havana. Ritter is likewise indebted to many analysts and scholars who shared their ideas on Cuba’s economy over many years. Among these are the late Evaldo Cabarrouy, Francisco León, Richard Carson, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Jorge Pérez-López, Sergio Díaz-Briquets, Juan Antonio Blanco, Luis René Fernández, Alberto Díaz, Ana Julia Faya, Óscar Espinosa Chepe, Adrián Denis, Jorge Mario Sánchez, Juan Triana, Omar Everleny Pérez, and Pavel Vidal, as well as analysts and scholars at the Centro de Estudios Sobre la Economía Cubana in Havana and, of course, his co-author Ted Henken. He is also indebted to David Clift for valuable editorial work.

Ted Henken first traveled to Cuba as a graduate student in the sum-mer of 1997, with follow-up trips in the spring and summer of 1999. Initially, he was studying the social costs, economic benefits, and political contradictions of Cuba’s then reemerging international tourism industry. However, a number of vivid encounters during those initial three trips to the island shifted his focus away from tourism as a government development strategy toward microenterprise as an individual and family survival strategy. The first encounter took place as he left Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport on his first visit to the island on a hot summer night in 1997. Met by a throng of boisterous, expectant Cubans and inundated with offers of help with his bags and transportation into the city, Henken was particularly struck when a slight Cuban man brushed quietly past him whispering, “¿Taxi particular?” (Private taxi?). The man soon reappeared, standing at the far back of the now thinning crowd and giving a sly glance that seemed say, “Well, what’ll it be?”

After nodding casually in the cabbie’s direction, Henken spied him slowly make his way out to the parking lot, stopping periodically to check if anyone else had taken notice of the “deal.” Following the cabbie’s lead, Henken gathered up his belongings and headed toward the parking lot too, taking care not to make it obvious whom he was follow-ing—even as he attracted more than a few quizzical looks as he walked away from the waiting state-run cabs. Minutes later, the cabbie pulled up, sprang out of his car (a small, Russian-made Lada), and began hastily throwing Henken’s bags into his trunk, saying, “Rápido, rápido, para que no nos vean” (Quick, quick, so that they don’t see us). After bundling hurriedly into the car with him in tow, the driver came out onto the main road (deserted except for an occasional car or, more commonly, a bicycle) and breathed a sigh of relief as he had once again successfully avoided detection and an exorbitant fine for transporting foreigners without a government license. His relief was mingled with a kind of happiness, he explained, since his $15 fare (paid in U.S. dollars) was more than he made monthly (in Cuban pesos) working as an air-traffic controller at that same airport.

Two years later, during an unforgettable visit to the renowned tourist resort Varadero Beach in summer 1999, Henken stumbled upon a whole range of informal entrepreneurial activities run out of the private home where he stayed. Despite the fact that paladares (private, home-based restaurants), bed-and-breakfasts, and private taxis—three of the most common and lucrative self-employment activities at that time (and once again since 2010)—were all prohibited in a place almost completely given over to international tourism, underground activity thrived. Arriving without a place to stay, he was offered efficient and personalized assistance in finding lodging by a waiter in a state-run restaurant. Like a man on a mission, the waiter took a “smoke break” from his official job and led him on foot to six different private bed-and-breakfasts within just 15 minutes. After settling on a place and leaving his belongings in his room, Henken was advised by the owner not to return until after 9 p.m.

Though initially baffled at such a request, on returning he discovered that his intrepid hosts ran a clandestine seafood restaurant out of what was to become his bedroom. They also used their aged Russian-made Lada sedan to transport their guests around the island and were even then in the process of expanding their operation by adding a second floor to their home, all without much effort to conceal these activities from their neighbors or the local housing inspectors. Eventually, he would learn that even his friendly waiter and guide was paid a $5 com-mission for each night he spent in the home. In other words, like the air traffic controller cabbie from two years before, this waiter’s official job was not necessarily his real job. This odyssey and innumerable subsequent experiences like it all across the island caused Henken to reevaluate the focus of his research, and he ended up spending much of his time in Cuba on his yearly visits over the following decade investigating Cuba’s unique brand of self-employment and visiting and interviewing scores of cuentapropistas to learn about their survival strategies. That is, he sought to discover how private microentrepreneurs (both legal and extra-legal) stay afloat and turn a profit in a still nominally revolutionary socialist society.

Henken has also incurred many debts over the course of his re-search. He would first like to acknowledge the trust, honesty, and generosity of scores of private entrepreneurs who opened their lives to an un-known and often overly inquisitive outsider. Thanks are also due to the Havana Times blogger Erasmo Calzadilla, who expertly transcribed all of Henken’s 2011 follow-up interviews with Cuban cuentapropistas (barbers, cabbies, bed-and-breakfast proprietors, and paladar owners-operators). Excerpts from these interviews and other stories collected over the course of his many visits between 1997 and 2011 appear in Chapters 4, 7, and 8. Over many years, Henken also received vital feed-back and encouragement on this project from a host of scholars, mentors, and colleagues both in Cuba and abroad, including Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Jorge Pérez-López, Óscar Espinosa Chepe, Miriam Leiva, Lisandro Pérez, Julio Carranza, Pedro Monreal, Marc Frank, Julio César González Pagés, Armando Chaguaceda, Miriam Celaya, Dimas Castellanos, Yoani Sánchez, Reinaldo Escobar, Alejandro Portes, Damián Fernández, Neili Fernández Peláez, Elena Sacchetti, Adrian Hearn, Javier Corrales, Peter Roman, Phil Peters, Joseph Scarpaci, Richard Feinberg, J. Timmons Roberts, Eloise Linger, and Holly Ackerman. Some of these col-leagues are also fellow members of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), a true caldo de cultivo for this book. In fact, it was at one of ASCE’s annual gathering in the summer of 2002 that Henken first met the person to whom he owes his greatest debt in bring-ing this project to fruition, Arch Ritter.

Indeed, years earlier in the fall of 1995, while living in Mobile, Alabama, and working as a resettlement coordinator for recently arrived Cuban refugees from Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, Henken came across a discounted 50¢ (!) copy of Ritter’s first book while rummaging through a cart of remainders at the Mobile Public Library on Government Street. Five years later, in the summer of 2000, they stayed in private bed-and-breakfasts just a block away from each other in Havana; although they did not meet, Ritter was kind enough to leave behind one of his penetrating articles on Cuba’s underground economy for Henken to read (“El régimen impositivo para la microempresa en Cuba,” Revista de la CEPAL 71, pp. 145-162, August 2000). These near misses culminated in their meeting finally at ASCE’s annual conference, followed by more than a decade of subsequent visits between New York City and Ottawa, their respective homes.

Henken also thanks the many good folks at the Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies—Gene Yeager, Richard Greenleaf, James Huck, Suyapa Inglés, Thomas Reese, Valerie McGinley Marshall, and Ana López—and the associated Cuban-Caribbean Studies Institute at Tulane University (his alma mater) for their funding and support, which enabled him to make various trips to the island between 1997 and 2001. He also gratefully acknowledges an initial seed grant from The Johns Hopkins University’s Cuba Exchange Program (then directed by Wayne Smith) for travel and research in Cuba in the summer of 1999. Subsequent travel grants between 2003 and 2011 were provided by the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Caribbean Exchange Program and the Research Foundation of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress. Financial support from Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences and Provost’s Office also helped to fund travel to both Cuba and Canada during the many years of this project’s gestation. Finally, Henken tips his hat to Virginia Sánchez-Korral, the senior faculty facilitator of a CUNY Faculty Fellowship Publication Program peer writing group where early drafts of Chapters 2 and 8 of this book were critically (and very kindly) scrutinized by her and his faculty colleagues including Amy Chazkel, John Collins, Tomás López-Pumarejo, Gilbert Marzán, Carolina Bank Múñoz, and Eva Vásquez.

Both Ritter and Henken express their sincere thanks to Lynne Rienner and to the always intrepid and ebullient Jessica Gribble and Alex Wilcox, former and current acquisitions editors at Lynne Rienner Publishers and FirstForumPress. Their presence and solid advice at the Latin American Studies Association conferences over a period of years acted as an always encouraging reminder that our at times nebulous and seemingly never-ending book project on the fascinating world of Cuba’s “underground” would eventually find a publishing home (with them) and an receptive audience (with you). Our colleague Gabriel Vignoli and two anonymous reviewers selected by the publisher were kind enough read our entire manuscript at vital stages in its development. Their generous and critical feedback has made the final book much stronger and more clearly focused. We also thank our multitalented research assistant, copy editor, and overall formatting guru Derek Ludovici for his assistance on the final stages of this project, along with Jeffrey Peck, dean of Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, for the funding that allowed us to bring Derek on board for the last leg of this journey.

In the summer of 2010 as Raúl Castro began to publicly embrace the very thing that his elder brother, Fidel, had long vilified and stigmatized—small, private enterprise—as a key part of the solution to Cuba’s economic woes, we knew that the time was ripe to finish our book com-paring these differing policy approaches and chronicling the intense struggles and inventive strategies of Cuba’s cuentapropistas. This is that book.

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