Out of a total population of roughly 11 million, the number of self-employed Cubans rose from 150,000 to 500,000 between 2010 and 2015. The state still controls the press, the internet, and most of the “formal” economy, but a small portion of the Cuban population is finally gaining the freedom to innovate and create on their own.
To explore that shift firsthand, entrepreneur and investor Marcus Lemonis recently visited the country to film a special edition of CNBC’s The Profit — walking the streets of Havana and talking one-on-one with the country’s “pioneers of capitalism.”
“Walking around the old city, I saw a place full of life, energized by the changes,” Lemonis says. “Instead of working for the State, thousands of Cubans are now working for themselves…A taste of capitalism has helped, but it’s just a taste.”
You can watch the first segment here (or see the full thing on-demand):
In a typical episode of The Profit, Lemonis seeks to save a failing business by investing his own capital and expertise, demonstrating principles of good business and the glories of entrepreneurship along the way. Here, his task is somewhat the opposite: Talk to business owners who are somehow managing to succeed, even despite the obstacles and oppression that surrounds them.
After hitching a ride from a private taxi driver (who likely earns more than most doctors), Lemonis visits Burner Brothers Bakery, whose owners, siblings Sandra and Tony Camacho Rodriguez, left their government jobs in dentistry and mechanical engineering because selling donuts made them more money. “The reason why I see an opportunity here is because it isn’t easy,” Tony says. “If it were easy…you know how many people would have opened a bakery?”
Even amid their success, however, the owners continue to face unique obstacles and risks. They are limited to having only 50 seats and one location, despite their tremendous growth. Key ingredients like chocolate are never reliably available due to shortages from the government-controlled supply chain. And, as with any business in Cuba, there is always the chance that the government will suddenly decide to shut you down.
“People probably think, ‘oh this is just a bakery,’” Lemonis concludes. “No. This happens to be thriving entrepreneurship in the face of very strong headwinds of regulation. They weren’t taught this. They didn’t go to school for this.”
From there, he visits Kirenia Reguera, a seamstress who runs a fashion and costume design company out of her apartment, reliant on the black market for basic materials and unable to open her own store due to a range of government obstacles. He then talks with Sandra Aldama, a former hairdresser who started her own handmade soap business, and restaurateur Enrique Nuñez, who, after decades of success, longs for an economy where all Cubans can enjoy both his food and the economic opportunities he’s enjoyed.
He also meets successful vegetable farmer Fernando Funes Monzote, a former professor and “pure socialist” who, despite his continued embrace of communist ideology, finds no irony in exploiting a government opening in agriculture and living in an extravagant house — funded, we learn, by his lecture gigs around the world (and the freedom to do so).
To more fully grasp the backdrop of all this, Lemonis chats with American professor Ted Henken, author of Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape. Henken summarizes the changes as follows:
The changes have been significant but woefully insufficient…You get housing, you get education, you get healthcare, and you get a job. So there’s a basic bottom below which people aren’t allowed to sink. But that bottom has become frayed. It has lots of holes in it.
One of the reasons why the state is providing more economic freedom is it needs to relieve itself of the burden of providing for people…They want to be connected to the rest of the world. They want to have opportunity now, especially young people. They don’t want to have the same problem their parents did: waiting for the future to come and it never arrives.
The episode was filmed before Fidel Castro’s death, an event that has only compounded Cubans’ hope for a greater shift toward freedom. The country continues to struggle, but as Lemonis’ journey aptly illustrates, the Cuban people are most certainly not the problem. They are the solution.
“Cuba stands at a moment of possibility,” Lemonis concludes. “Tensions with the U.S. have been eased. The people I met are hungry for the chance to rise or fall on their own. But make no mistake, their fate may rest less in their hands than in those of their government.”