The Seeds of Capitalism
Odin is the head chef at a great restaurant in Habana Vieja called Café Rum Rum. I know him through Steve Anchell, who regularly takes his photography workshop participants there. Odin has a fondness for Steve, and invites him to his house for dinner with his family every time we are there. Steve takes me along as his translator and “wingman.” I treasure these dinners, not only for the great food, but because I feel like a I am a member of this wonderful Cuban family. Unlike many popular restaurants in Cuba, Café Rum Rum is privately owned. Odin's brother Osiris and his partner Carlos started the restaurant four years ago, when President Raul Castro began allowing more private business ownership to bolster the perpetually-lethargic Cuban economy.
When I first began traveling to Cuba in 2013 we stayed at Hotel Los Frailes. We had dinner at the best-known restaurant in Havana, Paladar La Guarida, with its walls covered by photographs of the rich and famous people from around the world who have eaten there. We went to the Hotel Nacional for mojitos on a lawn bristling with cannons pointed north to defend against the expected invasion from the United States. Some went to the show at the Tropicana nightclub. To travel outside the city we boarded a bus emblazoned with the name Transgaviota, or yellow Cubataxi vans. All of these tourist-oriented “businesses” are in fact owned by the Cuban government, with their revenue going directly to support the military.
But every afternoon a door from a stairway across the street from the hotel opened, revealing inexpensive jewelry, trinkets, the ubiquitous Che Berets, and other merchandise offered for sale by a young woman. There were a few other such souvenir shops, the usual buskers, and some small, privately-owned paladares scattered about. Each time I returned to Cuba I noticed the growth of this entrepreneurship, growth which fairly exploded after the December 17, 2014 announcement of normalized relations between our countries, and the easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba by US citizens.
We no longer rent rooms at the state-owned hotel, instead staying in a casa particular, a privately-owned home with individual bedrooms, a large kitchen, and a common area. Our host Juan Miguel and his wife Odalys have an apartment and gift shop on the main floor, with the casa on the floors above. Every morning Juan prepares for his guests a great Cuban breakfast of eggs, fruit, ham, bread, juice, and, of course, Cuban coffee. Business is so good that each time I stay there he is adding another room, the last being little cabinas that have been built on the roof with wood harvested from their family farm out in the country...pure Caribbean!
In June of 2017 Donald Trump declared in a speech to the cheers of the Cuban diaspora in Miami, “I am cancelling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” New rules published late that year fell far short of the rhetoric, of course, but did sow enough confusion to discourage many Americans from traveling to Cuba, and steering most of those who did go toward the larger tour operators. The Cuban businesses who have suffered most from this change in policy represent the seeds of a capitalistic economy: paladares such as Cafe Rum Rum and casas owned by people like Juan Miguel. The antithesis of communism, capitalism had lain dormant for over a half century until the pragmatic Raul Castro permitted a little sun and warmth, allowing it to germinate. Increased tourism from the US gave it the nutrients it needed to flourish. And now, just as the Cuban people are beginning to see capitalism as a path to freedom and democracy, the Republican administration has poured an herbicide on it.