When you’ve spent your entire life on a communist island where staples like eggs and chicken are rationed, lunch in Miami can be overwhelming.
Ask Sandra Aldama, a Cuban mother and former special education teacher who made her first visit to the United States this month. Settling into a downtown Italian restaurant as waiters whizzed by with plates of fettuccine alfredo and veal parmesan, Aldama was almost certainly reminded of what the average Cuban can’t get at home.
But these days Aldama is bothered by another Cuban shortage: sodium hydroxide, a basic chemical for making soap.
Last year she started a business in Havana called D’Brujas that produces scented natural soap. Her hypoallergenic product is a popular novelty for most Cubans – but in the country’s threadbare economy she has scant access to necessary ingredients.
“It’s hard to find the simplest supplies you need to run a business there,” she says. “And even if you do, you can’t be sure they’ll be there tomorrow.”
So while she was in South Florida, Sandra sought advice from entrepreneurs like Ricardo Lastre.
Lastre, himself a Cuban-American, has his own Miami Beach soap-making business called Lastre Botanicals. As he mixed some cocoa butter soap bars recently, he talked about Aldama’s visit and the chance to counsel a novice Cuban entrepreneur.
“She gave me one of her soaps,” he said. “It was called café menta, which is coffee mint. Beautiful, smells great, elegant, simple.”
Sandra almost cried when she saw the shelves in Lastre’s workshop: Row after row of oils, herbs and emulsifiers that she can only dream of using in Cuba. And lots of sodium hydroxide.
Lastre gave her tips on how to do more with what she does have, and how to market it better.
“That knowledge exchange is invaluable,” Aldama said. “Learning business tools and techniques I didn’t know I had.”
The Miami-born Lastre, a son of Cuban exiles, condemns Cuba’s communist dictatorship. But Cuban leader Raúl Castro needs to rescue his country’s desperate finances – and he’s decreed reforms that, while limited at best, do allow a broader range of private enterprise. Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church even offers business classes.
So Lastre is considering efforts to get supplies to Aldama in Cuba. And Cuban-Americans like him think the Obama Administration should relax the U.S. trade embargo so investors can funnel more help to the island’s fledgling private sector.
“I think that we should be able to help people that are starting from the beginning,” says Lastre. “If people realize in Cuba that they can do it on their own, I think things would change [there].”
That’s a central issue, if not the central issue, in the Cuba policy debate today.
Sandra and four other Cuban entrepreneurs were invited to Miami by the Cuba Study Group. The Washington-based think tank, headed by more moderate Cuban-American businessmen like Miami millionaire Carlos Saladrigas, supports empowering Cuban capitalists. One aim is to help them become as important as dissidents when it comes to undermining communist authority.
“It’s important for us to not just read theories and hypotheses [about] what’s happening in Cuba,” says executive director Tomas Bilbao, “but to actually meet the people who are on the ground working independently of the government, gaining greater control of their lives and employing other Cubans.”
But more hardline Cuban-Americans who want to keep the embargo intact say any investment sent to Cuba – even to independent entrepreneurs – is all too likely to aid the Castro regime.
“What’s going to end up happening is the regime will have its ability to decide who gets that money,” says Miami attorney Marcell Felipe, a director of the Cuban Liberty Council.
Felipe insists that capital has to be channeled through bona fide dissident organizations, because only they can vet which enterprises are genuinely private and which are state-controlled ventures in disguise or at to be co-opted by the government.
“If [Cuban entrepreneurs] have no commitment to that…tremendously difficult fight of defying the government,” Felipe argues, “they will eventually be brought in as servants for the government, willingly or unwillingly.”
Even pro-reform Cuban-Americans like Lastre say they’re nervous about how insidiously Castro and company can manipulate the country’s new burst of free enterprise.
Cuban cuentapropistas, or entrepreneurs, are understandably reluctant to shake their fists at the regime. When I asked Aldama and the other visiting cuentapropistas about Cuba’s notoriously heavy small-business taxes, they declined – surprisingly – to criticize them.
Still, Cuban-Americans are sending billions of dollars and tons of capital goods directly to relatives in Cuba – about half a million of whom are cuentapropistas or their employees.
Says Yamina Vicente, who owns a Havana event-planning business, “This has altered the potential of the individual and our perception of work.”
And maybe Miami’s perception of Cuban capitalism.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.