MIAMI — An unprecedented visit to Miami by a large group of Cuban entrepreneurs last week is providing a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the private sector in Cuba, the struggles the fledgling company owners face, and the potential for assistance from both the U.S. government and the South Florida business community.
The group of about 70 entrepreneurs from the island participated in panel discussions with lawyers, U.S. officials, representatives of American companies and prominent Cuban American business leaders in a meeting hosted by Akerman LLP, a Miami-based law firm that has represented companies doing business with Cuba.
Private enterprise at the current scale is a new phenomenon in Cuba’s otherwise rigidly controlled Marxist economy. Although the government had allowed the existence of self-employment at small levels for some time, it wasn’t until two years ago, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, that it began to permit its citizens to start their own businesses, buy supplies abroad and hire as many as a hundred workers each.
Cuba’s economy minister recently told the country’s National Assembly that private businesses are already on track this year to import more than the government does — about $1 billion worth of goods. Experts in and outside Cuba say the entrepreneurs also employ more workers in most sectors of the economy, 1.6 million than the government does.
Because the Cuban government severely limits what foreign journalists on the island can report, the rapid growth of the private sector had until recently gotten little attention outside Cuba, so the Miami visit offered an eye-opening look at Cuba’s baby steps into capitalism.
Here are some compelling insights gained from the visit:
Cuba’s private sector is surprisingly diverse
In just two years, the businesses — known as pymes, a Spanish acronym for Peque ñ as y Medianas Empresas, small and medium enterprises — have played a significant role in importing food and other basic supplies, at a time the cash-strapped government has faced major difficulties providing essentials for Cuba’s population.
But the group that visited Miami included several businesses producing other goods like clothes (Los Hilos de Ariadna, Confecciones Ramos, Zory), beauty products (D’Cabellos SURL), fruit juice and preserves (Conservas El Roble, Media Luna, La Ceiba, Reyna Victoria), lamps (Vitroarte), and decorations and furniture (Yes Group). Other enterprises export software and provide services like logistics, transportation, interior design and company-management solutions. And the companies are spread throughout the island, not concentrated just in Havana.
Looking to stay nimble in such a challenging environment, many of the companies have diversified, adding other lines of business to their main activities. D’Cabellos SURL, for example, mainly makes beauty products like shampoo and bath gels, but has also branched out into making plastic bottles and bags.
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