As tens of thousands of Cuban millennials give up on Cuba and head north, a big part of an expanding class of entrepreneurs who are opting to remain, betting on Cuba’s future despite serious challenges.
As an inside joke about all the cookies they burned on the road to establishing a successful bakery, Antonio and Sandra Camacho Rodríguez named their Havana sweets shop the Burner Brothers.
To them, it was a metaphor for the relentless trial and error it took for two inexperienced and untrained chefs — she is a doctor, and her brother was a salesman — to start a business in a communist country that was taking its first steps in private enterprise.
As tens of thousands of Cuban millennials give up on Cuba and head north, the Camachos are part of an expanding class of entrepreneurs who are opting to remain, betting on Cuba’s future despite serious challenges.
“There’s an extremely powerful emerging market right now in Cuba,” said Mr. Camacho, 26, standing in their tiny shop, where cookies are 10 cents each, in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. “To me, it’s easier to become part of an emerging market than to try to make it in some other country, where the market was created years ago.”
As President Obama meets with President Raúl Castro of Cuba on Monday, a surprising statistic will loom over the two leaders: More than twice as many Cubans went to live in the United States last year than in 1959, when Mr. Castro’s brother Fidel came to power and unleashed a wave of migration that altered South Florida forever.
While Mr. Obama attends a conference Monday afternoon with American business leaders and new entrepreneurs who are breathing life into a dying economy here, Cuba is bleeding doctors, small-business owners, construction workers and waitresses. Even with the country’s new restaurateurs and innkeepers, more beauticians have put down their clippers and more farmers have left their crops behind.
“I think some people suffer from a lack of vision,” Mr. Camacho said. “Many people also live in a precarious situation, in humble surroundings or even extreme poverty.”
Recent migration patterns cast doubt on how much faith Cubans have in private-sector reforms. Last week, after Costa Rica cleared out dozens of shelters filled with Cuban migrants, 1,000 more showed up at its border with Panama.
“If you take a census of Cuba now, I’m not sure what would be left,” said Jenny Heredia Ocaña, 33, a former hospital administrator who recently closed her beauty salon in Havana and left for the United States.
On her way she was marooned for months in Costa Rica, shuffling between migrant shelters where she encountered thousands of fellow Cubans.
Federal figures show that at least 63,000 Cubans moved to the United States last year, the bulk of them crossing the southwestern border on foot. More than 250,000 Cubans have been granted residency during the Obama administration alone — enough to populate a city almost the size of Orlando, Fla.
In 2014, 122,000 Cubans were on the waiting list to join their families, one of the longest lists for American visas in the world.
“If the Cuban economy continues to falter, many Cubans will vote with their feet,” said Richard E. Feinberg, the author of “Open for Business,” a book about Cuba’s new economy.
Yet even as tens of thousands of Cubans have given up on their homeland, millions have opted to stay.
“Maybe 50,000 or 75,000 people left — that still means 11.2 million are still there,” said Mr. Feinberg, whose book includes a chapter on millennials who have opted to remain in Cuba.
Under new rules that allow private enterprise, the Cuban government last year issued about 496,000 small business licenses. Nearly one-third of those business owners are young people.
“When people started to travel and could do so without being forced to stay abroad, it changed life here — the way people lived, the way they dressed,” said Emisleidy Maza Ramos, 27, who holds a number of jobs, including at her boyfriend’s food delivery business. “There’s a difference in the air.”
Alvin Pino Estrada, the owner of D’ Abuela (“ Grandma’s”), opened her business a month ago and employs 12 people. She said she struggled to find supplies like napkins and plastic forks, raw materials like potatoes, and industrial equipment.
“It has to work,” said Mr. Pino, a former musician who returned to Cuba after living in Spain for three years. “I’m not motivated to leave.”
Charles Shapiro, a former American ambassador to Venezuela who heads the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and travels frequently to Cuba, said people who stayed were increasingly able to live comfortably, particularly in contrast to neighbors who earn $25 a month in state jobs.
“I met a tour guide who was recently offered a scholarship to get a master’s in Washington, who makes $1,000 a week in tips,” Mr. Shapiro said. “He’s staying.”
The biggest problem in growing entrepreneurship, he added, is the stranglehold on the supply chain.
“The supply of spare parts, for food, for toilet paper, it’s in the hands of the government,” he said.
Igor Thondike, who worked as a glassmaker in Cuba and recently moved to Tampa, Fla., said many new business owners back home could not get materials. Shoemakers, he said, could not find leather and “lost their investments.”
Ihosvany Oscar Artiles Ferrer, 44, a veterinarian who worked in Camagüey but recently moved to Queens, said the lack of wholesalers to buy supplies from made it difficult to eke out a profit.
“The private business is like a handkerchief the government puts over everything to be able to say to the United Nations that in Cuba people own small businesses,” Mr. Artiles said.
“In the beginning, almost all of us were revolutionaries,” he added. “But now, we quit all that because we don’t believe in Fidel, in the revolution, in socialism or anything.”
The Obama adminstration clearly hopes that as the Castro government moves toward economic reform and Washington permits more commerce and travel, more Cubans will stay put, slowing the steady stream of exits that has contributed to a broader migration crisis.
But Cuba also benefits from those who leave. Many businesses on the island begin with the remittances emigres send back from the United States. The Camachos said that it took about $25,000 to start a business like their cookie company, and that they were fortunate to count on American citizens in their immediate family.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, the White House’s point man on Cuba, said last week that “greater economic activity in the island is going to be good for the Cuban people.
“It’s going to be a source of empowerment for them,” said Mr. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser. “It’s going to improve their livelihoods.”
But Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, scoffed at the empowerment reference and blamed Washington for the exodus. Many Cubans have said they have rushed to leave because they fear that after normalizing relations, Mr. Obama will do away with migratory policies that give Cubans special status in the United States.
Such American laws are “selective, politically motivated and encourage illegal, unsafe and disorderly migration,” Mr. Rodríguez said at a news conference on Thursday.
Holly Ackerman, who studies Cuban migration at Duke University, said this recent wave of migration was still smaller than other episodes, like the rafter exodus in 1994 and the Mariel boatlift in 1980, which were directly prompted by the Cuban government.
“This is a self-initiated surge,” Ms. Ackerman said. “If it were government-initiated surge, it would be a stampede at this point.”
New York Times | By FRANCES ROBLES