Havana Times did an article on the San Jose Market that made me even more sorry that I didn't put more effort into enjoying the time that I spent there. (Click here to read the article.) My Shopping Mall Instinct kicked into high gear when faced by a giant warehouse of people selling many of the same art and trinkets that we'd seen near tourist spots around Cuba...but when I see some of the treasures my fellow travelers brought home, or read about the importance of the Market to Cubans' entrepreneurial opportunities, I'd like to take back that great nap I had in the bus while everyone else shopped.
I did stay awake long enough to get this fun picture near the market, though:
The San Jose Market, like the much smaller shopping market near our hotel, is a bustling display of the entrepreneurial hopes recently revived in the Cuban people. Last year, President Raúl Castro expanded the number of opportunities for Cubans to own their own business. The government, who has been cutting back on state-funded employment as revenues continue to fall short, stated its intention that 240,000 private jobs be created even as 170,000 government jobs were cut. And for a short time that goal appeared to be realistic: a quarter of a million people applied for licenses to operate their own businesses since the government broadened business ownership opportunities. Recent actions by the government, however, along with intense competition between private businesses for the tourists' dollar, have slowed growth among Cuba's privately owned businesses.
"Necessity is the mother of invention" is an overused phrase but it certainly holds true in Cuba, where the people have to be creative in obtaining even the basics of life like soap and food. Under the new business opportunities, an unofficial import system began as family from other places - like the U.S. - would bring items with them for their Cuban relatives to sell in private shops. Castro's government recently added a tax to those imported items which, combined with significant taxes already placed on business owners, threatens the success of many entrepreneurs.
All these factors add up to make tourists very, very popular. In Old Havana in particular, the competition between businesses is obvious. To those (like me!) who feel oppressed by heavy sales pitches, the pushy musicians, salesmen and marketers for private businesses created a less-than-relaxing environment.
These musicians, unlike most in Cuba, were driven by the dollar rather than by their love of rhythm.
It was fascinating, however, to see the different marketing techniques that emerged in a country with no real advertising system. Many opted for the shove-a-menu-in-your-face strategy, others tried to entice you into their restaurant with promises of drinks that were more often than not connected in some way to Hemingway. (The writer is so connected to Cubans' view of what tourists are interested in, I half expected to see his metal image emblazoned on a building like those of Cienfuegos and Che.) Without a doubt, my favorite marketing came from a paladar that was located in an upstairs apartment. In order to draw people up the stairs to eat, a lovely gentleman wore a noticeable uniform designed to draw attention to him, though he seemed very uncomfortable when people did look his way. I got the upper hand on the advertisers when I caught them totally off-guard by pulling a matching figure from my purse and capturing what I humbly believe is an award-winning photo for the "Where's George?" contest among the GWU alumni:
Cuba's private businesses fight on despite growing uncertainty and competition. It's certainly a big step away from the policies of Fidel Castro, and it highlights the Cuban desire for opportunity even when faced with tax rates that would make many Americans throw in the towel. So if you happen to pop over to Havana anytime soon, try to avoid the hotel buffet and instead give your money to one of the people who open their homes to you every night. The food's better and you may never fully understand your power to improve someone's life and/or make new friends.
BBC News. Cuba's new entrepreneurs say times are tough. November 3, 2011.
The New York Times. (Victoria Burnett). Cuba hits wall in 2-year push to expand the private sector. July 16, 2012.