Cienfuegos entrepreneurs hope U.S. tourists will boost scant business
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Residents of this small city on Cuba’s southern coast awaken every other
Thursday to the Fathom Line’s MV Adonia looming in the bay, but the
704-passenger cruise ship’s visit is fleeting.
Even though large and enthusiastic crowds greeted the ship on its
inaugural voyage from Miami to Cuba in May, the Adonia is only in
Cienfuegos for the morning, and some residents say they haven’t seen too
many benefits trickle down when the Carnival Corp. ship calls in this
city known as “The Pearl of the South.”
On a recent Thursday, an elderly woman trudging through the Reina
neighborhood gave a quick nod toward the ship at berth and the
government’s Transtur buses lined up to take the passengers on a city
tour and said, “It really hasn’t resolved anything.”
Cienfuegos entrepreneurs hope U.S. tourists will boost scant business
Private entrepreneurs in this small Cuban city hoped the arrival of a
cruise ship from the United States would pump up business. So far, not
so much. New flights from the U.S. could change the equation.
Al Diaz Miami Herald
But cab driver Eddy Pérez Ojeda was a bit more optimistic. Even though
the ship was due to leave at noon, he said he was happy to have it.
“It’s tourism. What else is there?” asked Pérez.
He said he really wants the rapprochement with the United States to
succeed and he is among those hoping that American Airlines’ new daily
flights from Miami to Cienfuegos will change the equation. American
began service aboard an Airbus 319, which seats 144 passengers, on Sept.
7. Silver Airways plans to begin twice weekly flights to the city using
34-seaters from Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 21.
“What’s important for me is that normalization helps communication
between families,” said Pérez, who owns his own Lada taxi and is used to
squiring around tourists from other countries. “The economic part [of
rapprochement] hasn’t been as important for me.”
Other cuentapropistas — independent workers — would like to get a bigger
piece of the economic pie now that Americans have begun to visit their
city in increasing numbers.
On its website, Fathom, which recently added two new fall sailings to
Cuba to complement its biweekly schedule, promises: “In Cuba, you
participate in an ongoing cultural exchange program that gives you the
opportunity to interact with the Cuban people, one on one.”
But some cuentapropistas complain that the visitors’ time seems to be
monopolized by activities organized by Havanatur, a government tourism
company: a quick tour of city landmarks, a stroll down El Bulevar, the
pedestrian street where they get a glimpse of how Cubans shop, and then
a stop at the Tomás Terry Theater for a choral performance by the
Cantores de Cienfuegos.
They say the itinerary leaves scant time for interactions — both of the
monetary and social kind — with everyday Cubans.
Omar Romero Díaz often parks his cart loaded with slices of cake topped
with a dab of pink merengue on a side street next to the theater, which
is usually cruisers’ last stop in Cienfuegos before they move on to the
next port of call in Santiago.
But he said he’s never sold anything to the American visitors and the
crucero (cruise ship) hasn’t really helped him. His big customers are
Cubans, especially the kids from a nearby school.
It is on the steps of the theater where cuentapropistas have their best
chance of interaction. Vendors from peanut salesmen who hawk roasted
nuts wrapped in little paper cones to purveyors of polvorones
(shortbread cookies made with lard) approach the cruisers as they stream
into the theater.
“Peanuts, peanuts,” Anthony García calls out in English. For him, the
cruise passengers represent pretty good business. García charges one
Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which is just over $1, for the nuts and
can earn 20 to 40 CUCs per day. His supplies, he said, cost him about 10
But the cruise passengers haven’t been finding their way around the
corner to Yusi’s Art Alliance, a private workshop/gallery shared by 15
artists. It’s located in an old colonial house across the street from
Romero’s cart of sweets.
Yusimi Arias, who is contracted to help the artists sell their work,
said they could use a boost from the American visitors.
“But the guides don’t bring them in here or to the other private
workshops. They give priority to the state enterprises. It’s different
with the Europeans and Canadians. They can move around on their own,”
said Arias. “We would like it if the state and private entrepreneurs
were more connected so we could all do well.”
Yanzel Medina Pérez, a 22-year-old artist whose hyper-realistic oil
paintings are on display at the gallery, said he still hasn’t had an
American buyer. Most of his sales are to Germans and other Europeans.
“It’s still early [in the U.S.-Cuba relationship] to talk about economic
impact, but I have a lot of hope this will be beneficial for Cuban
artists and the rest of the population,” he said.
Cuban engraver Annia Alonso, who runs a gallery-studio across from José
Martí Park, was having slightly better luck. “Today I showed quite a
lot,” said Alonso who displays only her own work. “I had some people
from the [American] flight and on Thursday some from the cruise ship.”
But she is a well-established artist and said she also has the support
of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), which
sends her referrals.
If their guides allow it, the visitors do walk around the square, Alonso
said. “For this reason, I’ve made a big sign,” she said. “Perhaps I need
to make a sign in red letters.”
José Piñeiro Guardiola is one of the Cienfuegos area’s pioneers of
private enterprise. For the past 22 years he has run Finca Los
Colorados, a restaurant and five-bedroom bed and breakfast, just past
Rancho Luna beach.
It hasn’t been easy, he concedes, with changing government regulations
and attitudes towards self-employment and the constant battle to get the
supplies he needs to run his business.
But he has made a go of it. “I’m listed in 22 guidebooks, international
guides,” he said and began to tick them off.
However, Piñeiro said rather than encouraging cuentapropistas, the Cuban
government sees them as competition: “I feel the government is trying to
monopolize tourism for itself.”
He used to hold Benny Moré-themed parties at the finca where he would do
DJ mixes of famous Moré mambos and rumbas with reggaeton. Some of the
parties, which were held in a large patio anchored by two bars,
attracted as many as 400 to 500 young Cubans, he said.
“But the government didn’t want me to have that type of party here,”
Piñeiro said. “It was suggested I could do smaller parties for around 50
people in tourist groups.”
Since the summer season has been difficult, Piñeiro’s glad that more
Americans may be arriving on AA flights. “We want to break the ice and
open our hearts [to Americans],” he said. “Of course, it’s complicated
by politics. But it’s necessary to open up. It’s our time.”
Clarity on the direction of the opening with the United States, he said,
will have to wait a few months until the U.S. presidential election.
“People see in Hillary Clinton the continuation of the work of Obama,”
With Donald Trump, he is not so sure. “Sometimes he says he wants to
change the relationship and he is critical of Obama,” Piñeiro said, “but
sometimes he says black and sometimes he says white so I just don’t
know. We’re going to have to wait to see, but the Cuban people do dream
a new relationship with the United States can be possible.”
Christine Valls, AA’s regional sales director for Florida, Puerto Rico,
the Caribbean and the U.S. Hispanic market, says the airline is
supportive of the efforts of cuentapropistas and hosted a group of young
Cuban entrepreneurs at its offices this summer. They were taking part in
a Florida International University entrepreneurial training program
Although many of the private businesses are small, they have an enormous
amount of potential, she said.
“For people who want change, to develop markets, that’s where they need
to start — with the cuentapropistas,” Valls said. “If we develop
business ties between the two countries, the passengers will get aboard
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