In Cuba, the stories of 3 tourism entrepreneurs

The new Capicua store in Havana sells hand-designed fashion accessories and clothing items.
The new Capicua store in Havana sells hand-designed fashion accessories and clothing items. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

I was in Cuba two weeks ago to gauge the impact of recent developments -- the Trump ban on calls by U.S. cruise ships and the elimination of the people-to-people travel option -- on the country's tourism industry.

Conversations with artists, photographers, tour guides, shop and restaurant owners, chefs and managers of the casa particulares (private homes that accommodate tourists) gave me that information, but also insight into the entrepreneurial spirit of Cubans.

In the face of daunting regulations, hurdles and roadblocks that Cubans face when setting up businesses, buying homes, opening restaurants, obtaining licenses and navigating shortages that range from gasoline to chickens (the current lack of soybeans as food for chickens means fewer eggs are being laid), Cubans persevere and get it done.

Resilience appears to be part of every Cuban's DNA.

Here are three stories involving three young entrepreneurs and their accomplishments.

I met May Reguera, a 29-year-old photographer, at her studio, which is also her home. Her photographs often are series focusing on equality and human rights.

"I'm from Cienfuegos. My parents are artisans, so my interest in art comes from them," she said. "I left there in 2015 to study drama, theater and artistic photography in central Cuba, and then I came to Havana."

Because Reguera is not yet able to register as an artist with Cuba's Creative Registry, she cannot exhibit her photographs in galleries.

"I have no degree in visual arts, and there is no fine photography school here to get that degree," she said. The Creative Registry requires that degree, as well as recommendations and endorsements from 12 galleries and art critics.

Without access to public exhibit space, Reguera has turned to Instagram to display her portraits and other photographs. "A lot of people see my work that way, and they contact me to take photos or to buy what they see," she said.

She's compiling a book of her work and plans to exhibit her photographs in November in an alternative gallery in Havana's new arts district, where non-licensed artists can show their work.

"I will obtain my license and my registration," she said. "It just takes time, and I am used to waiting."

Idania del Rio, one of two women who recently opened a small shop called Clandestina in old Havana, which sells contemporary posters, t-shirts and jewelry, described herself as "part of the current creative boom led by women in Cuba.

"We are prepared for this movement, because we come with a good education and we have great ideas."
She's seeing a wave of private businesses being opened by women.  Of 12 new fashion stores in Havana, nine are owned and run by women.

"Men run restaurants, women open shops and manage casas (private homes)," del Rio said.

In the past, she had worked in stores and was a teacher of fashion design, but she hated both jobs.

"I didn't want to work for anyone anymore," she said. "I returned to Havana when prospects looked good during the Obama years. It took me four months of knocking on doors to find a space for my shop." The store was converted from a ground floor apartment; her living space is in the rear.

In Havana now, each resident is allowed to own one home, which is usually an apartment in a multi-unit building, many of which are in need of repair.

She sold her classic '50s car to raise some of the money for the purchase.

"We are doing pretty well, but we need more tourists. We all do," del Rio said.

A fashion shop called Capicua, owned and run by two Cuban designers in their mid-20s, opened four months ago in central Havana.

The author wearing her wasasa, which she purchased in Havana.
The author wearing her wasasa, which she purchased in Havana.

While the small shop stocks hand-designed jewelry, accessories and clothing, the two co-founders have garnered a lot of attention for a product they created called a wasasa, which has quickly become a best-seller.

Essentially, it's a fanny pack, "but it's much more contemporary than the old ones from years ago," co-owner Laila Chadian told me.

"I use material from Africa, with bold fabrics and colors and designs," she said. "The fabric is shipped to the U.S., and a friend brings it down here. Then we cut it and sew it and sell it. Each wasasa uses a different fabric and each one has a separate pouch to hold a phone or keys."

She said her customers love it, "especially the Americans when they were coming here. Not so many are here now, but I hope they come back. I know they will return," she said.

FYI, I bought a wasasa ( price is approximately $20).

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