Dispatch, Cuba: Resourceful entrepreneurs

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Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers was in Cuba on a six-day Friendly Planet travel agent fam trip, exploring Havana and its environs. Her third dispatch follows. Click to read Gay's first and second dispatches.

On a sunny rooftop atop a family home in the small town of Cardenas in Matanzas province 85 miles east of Havana, fashion designer Mariela Aleman Orozco scattered large green leaves on a large piece of damp white cotton fabric.

She then randomly sprinkled uncooked rice grains on the fabric and placed remnants of a small metal ladies' fan here and there.

Aleman picked up bottles filled with vividly colored inks and squirted the liquids all over the fabric, blending the inks with her fingers.

"Now we let the sun take over to dry the fabric," Aleman said.

Behind her, finished pieces in all colors and designs were displayed on clotheslines.

Separate displays held women's and children's dresses, scarves, purses and men's shirts.

There was even a brightly colored Speedo for sale. There were no takers in my group for that item, but all of us came away many pesos lighter.

Aleman started her own fashion design business several years ago, one example of the gradual spread of private ownership of businesses in Cuba now sanctioned by the Cuban government following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Ari, our guide, told us that 80% of Cubans work in state-run businesses where salaries average $20 per month, "but private ownership is gradually growing. You see it in the paladores (private restaurants) and at the bed-and-breakfasts and the taxi drivers who drive tourists around Havana in vintage '59 Chevy taxis and the like."

From Cardenas, we visited another Cuban entrepreneur, a passionate fruit farmer named Hector Correa who founded his 18-acre Coincidencia Farm in 1987 with a cart full of seedlings.

"It was my dream to create a space to take care of this beautiful nature and to make a home for my family," Hector said.

Mangoes are his main crop, and we tasted the fruits of his labor at a simple lunch at a long communal table under a thatched roof, sipping mango juice, tasting it in salad and spooning up mango ice cream for dessert.

In between were bowls of crema, a vegetable bisque, followed by shredded beef, pieces of chicken and pork, fried plantains and the ever-present rice and beans.

"I did not see my farm as a business opportunity. That was an outcome, not an objective," he said.

"I do not do this to please tourists but to share ideas on nature and farming. If visitors come, that is nice," he said.

Hector also is a ceramicist and he sells his pottery as well as his fruit crops at the local market in the small provincial town of Coliseo.

Local transport there are horse-drawn carts and handmade bicycles.

Our accommodations that night were a complete contrast to our activities that day.

The 490-room Melia Varadero is one of 55 all-inclusive resorts on the narrow Hicacos peninsula that makes up Cuba's Varadero resort region.

The agents on the trip gave the Melia a thumbs-up. We stayed on The Level, an executive floor that opened six months ago, complete with a lounge open from 7 a.m. to midnight, concierge services and a check-in desk.

Free time was in short supply, given the pace of our itinerary, but most of us managed a dip in the pool, a walk on the beach and two even got in a round of golf.

To welcome us, the hotel hung the flags of the U.S. and Cuba side by side in the atrium.

"We don't get many American groups here. Americans can't be tourists yet in Cuba, just visitors on special programs," reminded Amado Acosta, general manager.

The resort was full, however, with Canadians, Europeans and even a Chinese group.

"Do you like Cuba?" I asked a very sunburned woman from Montreal, sipping a mojito at the swim-up bar.

"Yes, yes, we come often," she answered.

She seemed surprised when I asked her what sites she had visited so far.

"We always come here. This is Cuba, this is all we want," she said and ordered another drink.

Not for me, not for me.

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