For Good or Bad, the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Alive and Well in Cuba

By Ed Easton

The bright yellow cab sped through the traffic between Jose Marti International Airport and Central Havana, blowing its horn and flashing its high beams to remind the slowpokes of whose road it was. Julio, the driver, sat straight up in his seat, running the car too high in a low gear and talking about the problems of his country.

Julio worked as a chemical engineer for 14 years, but grew dissatisfied with the low wages he earned from the government.

"Driving a taxi is a good job in Cuba," he said. "I can make more in one trip from the airport than I could in one month working as an engineer."

Julio also earns money on commission from hotel and restaurant managers. Starving for tourist dollars, many of these establishments tip Cubans who help bring in business. Tourists walking through the streets of Havana will find themselves bombarded by people asking if they are looking for a hotel or a nice place to eat.

One of the underlying premises behind Marxist theory is the abolition of economic classes. Everyone must get an equal share for such a system to work in practice. Food is rationed out in the same quantity to all citizens. The price of housing is based on monthly salary and family size. Health care and education are free to all.

Cuba, a small island in the Caribbean and one of the last vestiges of Marxist governments in the world, has all these traits. Everyone has enough to survive, and, though Cuba is a poor Third World country, many of its citizens are far better off than the people of other Latin American countries. The island has one of the highest literacy rates in the Western Hemisphere, and abject poverty is nonexistent.

But it is not part of human nature to be satisfied with what you have. People always want more, some to better themselves and their families, some just to have nice things. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Cuba. Though government and economic policy forbid many of these practices, the Cuban people have come up with some ingenious ways to get ahead.

Another way Cubans make money is by renting rooms out to foreigners. This practice was illegal until recently, but the Cuban government realized that taxing these homeowners was more efficient than prosecuting them. Now these hosts must pay more than $100 each month in taxes, whether they have guests or not.

Magales Sanchez, a Havana housewife who prefers to be known as Malez, says high taxes force many people to run these operations under the table, risking heavy fines.

"Itís hard," she said in Spanish through an interpreter. "We have to pay the tax even if we arenít making money. Some people donít pay, but they can be fined 400 pesos [about U.S. $20] if they get caught."

The average monthly salary in Cuba is about U.S. $10.

But Malez and her husband, Miguel, say they get by. When they donít have guests, they open their home up as a paladore or private restaurant. Malez charges from $2 to $5 a meal for heaping plates of delicious Cuban food. This also allows her to cook more than enough to feed guests, so her family gets to eat better quality food. The government provides monthly rations of rice, beans, chicken and other basic goods, but much of the higher quality food is available only at dollar prices.

Malez grew up in Holguin, a province of eastern Cuba known for its breweries, but she said there was no opportunity back home. It took years of working and applying for permits before she and Miguel, an office worker, were given permission to move to Havana. The tiny woman, whose features betray a distant Chinese grandmother when she smiles, says she lived in six different apartments in Havana before finding one suitable to host foreigners. Now she and Miguel save money so they can afford creature comforts like an air conditionerópractically a necessity for surviving the humid, tropical summersóand to help their daughter, Salay, 17, establish herself at a nearby trade school.

Though an education is not likely to help them earn a lot money, many Cubans strongly believe in schooling. After the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Prime Minister Fidel Castro and his aides set out to abolish illiteracy. They succeeded, and Cuba now has one of the finest education systems in this part of the world.

Education level in Cuba is linked to salary. After completing high school, all Cubans must attend some type of training, usually college or trade school. There are three levels of schooling in Cuba, each with its own pay scale. Doctors, lawyers, professors and scientists earn the most, about $18 a month. People working in technical fields, such as engineering or communications come next, earning about $12 a month. And civil fields, such as laborers and store clerks, earn the least, about $8 a month.

Carlos, a construction worker from the city of Varadero, said he earns enough to get by and enjoy himself, but his wages donít meet all his needs.

Though medical care is free in Cuba, waiting lists are long, and only the most serious cases get top priority. Carlos had broken his glasses two months before. He wasnít able to get an appointment with an optometrist in Varadero, so he saved his money and came to Havana to find one who would work for dollars.

"Itís hard, man," he said, squinting through bloodshot eyes. "I havenít been able to see for months, and now I have to come here and spend all my money just to fix my glasses. Itís supposed to be free."

But not all the ways Cubans find to earn extra money are legitimate, and many of these illicit activities are the cause of many of Cubaís social problems.

Prostitution among young girls has been a problem throughout Cuba for years. Police conduct periodic raids to round up these girls and send them to so called reeducation camps. But with low wages, high prices and the desire to have more, it is no surprise that girls as young as 13 would sell themselves to foreign tourists for $20 or more a night.

Known as jiniteras, these girls hang around hotels, bars and restaurants, waiting to make eye contact and negotiate a price with a rich foreigner. Some will even join hands with men simply walking down the street, offering themselves before the men know whatís happening. Still others stand dressed in tight Spandex or evening gowns, calling out to men or whistling to get their attention.

Yanella and Marislava, two Havana jiniteras, walk the streets lined with outdoor tourist cafes near Havanaís China Town, looking for men. Restaurateurs are happy to have these girls around because businesses can sell more food and drinks if the tourists have to entertain dates.

Both girls say they are 21, but theyíre probably adding a few years to that figure. Though they both claim to be students, neither seems self conscious about this side job. Yanella, short with elfin features and more voluptuous than chubby, says she wants to be an elementary school teacher.

"Iím not a whore, but I do need money," said Marislava, tall and slim and light skinned for a Latina, in Spanish as Yanella nodded in agreement. "If a nice man takes me out and makes me his girl, then he doesnít have to pay."

But where there are jiniteras, there are jiniteros, the male version, pimps and hustlers rather than prostitutes. These men befriend male tourists and run down lists of the goods they have to offer. Many receive commissions from the girls, cigar factories or businesses for whom they find customers.

Aldo says he was a "good communist" before he went on disability benefits after a botched operation on his shoulder. The former teacher, who claims to have written school textbooks and biographies of the Cuban revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos, says he no longer can get by on his meager stipend.

Aldo now spends his evenings in Central Havanaís Bar Monserrate, offering everything from girls to drugs.

"I find you whatever you want," he said, showing his teeth in a wide hustlerís grin. "If you like ganja or coca, I get it. If you want girls, I get girls. What color you like? I even find lesbians. No problem, man."

These jiniteras and hustlers take serious risks to practice their businesses. Police are constantly on the lookout for Cubans harassing tourists and often ask girls walking with foreign men to prove that they are not prostitutes. Drug peddlers face the biggest risksóany drug crime in Cuba is punishable by imprisonment.

Julio, the taxi driver, attributes Cubaís low crime rate to the harsh penalties for everything from selling drugs to petty theft.

"Cuba is very safe," Julio said. "You can walk anywhere at night. Itís especially safe for tourists because anyone that commits a crime against tourists goes to prison for three years."

"Prison in Cuba is not good," he said. "They abuse you there."

But even with the fines and potential prison sentences Cuban entrepreneurs face, they are seldom deterred from engaging in these practices. Itís hard to say what causes these people to take such risk, but it is a worldwide phenomenon to go for the easy money drugs and vice can bring. Itís also part of human nature to work hard, like those who run paladores or open their homes to travelers.

Malez says most Cubans do not agree with some of the more illegal activities, but they do sympathize with those who try to get ahead.

"Everyone needs to work so they can make money," she said. "Girls shouldnít have to sell themselves for money, but it is a job."