Monday, December 21, 2015

¿Plus ça Cuba? Cuba's Entrepreneurs Moving Ahead Despite Obstacles - Part I: Return to Havana

Below is the first of a three-part series of posts (one, two, & three), "¿Plus ça Cuba?" that I published over the past month at the World Policy Institute's blog, "The Cuban Reset."

This first one I have re-titled: "Return to Havana."

[Part II is "10 things to consider before planning your trip."]
[Part III is "Quick Facts on Cuba's Cuentapropistas."]

Two things stood out most to me on a trifecta of recent trips to Havana in October 2015 after more than four long years of not visiting the island.

First, led by too many breathless press reports of a fundamentally transformed island by President Raúl Castro's economic reforms, I was surprised to find the gray dinosaur of a ruined, if often, disarmingly charming capital city largely intact.

Despite the undeniable surging innovation exhibited by hundreds of enterprising habaneros who have set up astoundingly creative and sophisticated businesses in response to Castro’s economic opening, such ventures remain islands of innovation in the sea of poverty, neglect, and inefficiency that has characterized Cuba's state-run economy.

And though I learned long ago not to give undue credence to spontaneous reports from random, anonymous cabbies, one such comment stood out to me as I took the pulse of a city I'd once called a second home.

After hopping into the ancient hulk of an American cruiser, used as a "taxi colectivo" (10-peso cab) due to its ability to fit as many as 8 passengers at once I asked the driver about the twin pair of small U.S. and Cuban flags he had mounted on his dashboard.

This was just his way of saluting the hopeful thaw in relations between our countries that had taken place during the previous 10 months, he explained. The driver, an Afro-Cuban, also lauded President Obama's youthful vision and political bravery at reversing the U.S's isolationist policy enthroned in the widely detested bloqueo (blockade).

However, he then turned to me and wondered aloud whether he could expect his government to respond by exhibiting any bravery of its own by beginning to dismantle the thick wall of control it imposed over citizens like him - referred to derisively by this Cuban as the ‘auto-bloqueo’ (internal embargo).

"Tengo esperanza," he said. "Pero la verdad es que no tengo mucha confianza." (I'm hopeful, but the truth is that I'm not very confident).

"They control everything here: the party, the economy, the media... So I don't see how they're going to give that up so easily," he noted in Spanish before adding the rejoinder, "hope dies last they say, but I hope it doesn't die before I do."

A second thing I found surprising during my recent visits to Havana is that, despite the cabbie's well-earned skepticism, there is, in fact, a handful of Cubans taking full, creative advantage of the small but significant crack that Castro has opened for the island's cuentapropistas, or home-grown entrepreneurs.

This was most evident among the young, tech-savvy attendees I met at a path-breaking seminar "Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba's Future" at Norway’s Embassy in Havana (also see here). The seminar organized by Cuban cyber-activists Norges Rodríguez, Taylor Torres, and Yasmín Portales included fascinating and pioneering Internet projects from Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Spain, and Portugal.

However, the most notable, practical, and promising contributions came from the Cubans. Internet incubated start-ups such as AlaMesa, Conoce Cuba, and Isladentro, together with the young filmmakers behind the investigative documentary project "La Hora de los Desconectados" (The Hour of the Disconnected), which attempts to give voice to Cubans' often frustrating but always inventive experiments using the Internet in a country largely off-line.

Each of the above start-ups seeks to connect potential customers (both islanders and foreign tourists) with the rapidly growing number and diversity of goods and services offered by Cuba's revitalized private sector through apps customized to function in Cuba's unique off-line smart phone environment.

Besides offering a diverse plethora of data and photo-rich profiles of hundreds of Cuba's new micro-enterprises, each of these apps relies on the backbone of digital maps that provide real-time geo-location feedback to the user by triangulating its GPS location with that of each business and Cuba's cell towers, all without access to web data or the Internet.

In most cases, the business model is to provide free apps via Cuba's private cell phone repair shops while charging businesses 5 CUCs ($5 USD) per month to include them on the apps. Some have worked out exclusive arrangements with these repair shops so that their apps, and only their apps, are automatically loaded onto the cell phones they service. Others are experimenting with Living Social-style discount coupons, and still others have partnered with independent digital magazines to feature reviews of private restaurants.

Given continued internal restrictions on Cuban cuentapropistas, however, these fantastic start-ups cannot yet gain recognition as both businesses with a legal personality as well as cooperatives with the tax breaks and import/export benefits that would include. Neither can they access foreign investment, import equipment, sign contracts with foreign or state contracts, gain easy or inexpensive access to the Internet, nor allow their customers to make payments or reservations using credit cards.

All this makes the start-ups especially vulnerable to being swamped or gobbled up by the impending tide of international Internet service companies such as OpenTable, Tripadvisor, or Yelp, which seems to have been one outcome of Airbnb's propitious arrival in Cuba.

On the bright side, legal changes in the U.S. announced in September have given these Cuban start-ups and the young, ambitious programmers behind them access to the U.S. as a place to market their services. In fact, AlaMesa holds the distinction of being the first Cuban engineered app to ever be available via Google Play for Android. Conoce Cuba and Isladentro are sure to be close behind.

In the meantime, you can download their apps before you depart or, better yet, by taking your cell phone to your friendly neighborhood repair shop once you arrive in Cuba, the land of the disconnected, but (at least so far) not of the hopeless.

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