What We Know About Starting (Food) Businesses in Cuba



While the trade embargo remains, President Barack Obama’s recent and unprecedented 21st entury visit to Cuba is symbolic of a new amiable age between the two nations. On December 2014, presidents Obama and Raul Castro simultaneously addressed their nations, promising to restore diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, after more than 60 years. In August 2015, the US Embassy in Cuba raised its flag, and since, Cuba has been in the global spotlight, romanticized as a place for nostalgic tourism and economic opportunity.


The rapidly changing economic climate comes with business opportunities: the Port of Havana is only 198 nautical miles from the Port of Miami, which would ease exports and tourism between the two countries. European and Asian countries have decreased the barriers to entry for doing business on the island; they have been there for decades. the nation boasts of a population of 11 million, previously secluded and longing for American goods. Illegal satellite TV hardware present in many Cuban homes are eyes into the world of American capitalism.


Demand is high. The supply is there. But as of March 2016, Cuba isn’t quite ready for capitalism just yet.


Removing the embargo would facilitate investments between the US and Cuba — meaning between the US government, US companies, US individuals, and US entities and the Cuban government. See the disparity? Also, only Cuban nationals (excluding expatriates) can ‘own’ property in Cuba — so unless a foreigner marries a Cuban national and opens the business under his/her name, dreams of opening small businesses like restaurants, cafeterias and bars are futile.


According to the Los Angeles Times, while the U.S. Treasury and the Commerce Department has eased restrictions on remittances, facilitating trade in the telecommunication and agriculture sectors and allowing some U.S. companies to establish a physical presence on the island — most U.S. firms are still not allowed to invest in Cuba.


A few American businesses are already operating in Cuba: Airbnb and Netflix uniquely satisfy a preexisting model of ownership.


Tyson Foods is perhaps the largest American food business present on the island. It has been doing business with Cuba since 2000, when restrictions on farm products were lifted.


I was there just days before the arrival of Obama, and I can tell you that Cuba is not ready yet.



At a restaurant in the Prado district of Havana, I had a conversation with a waiter, whom I had invited to dinner. It was his first time there. Most Cubans live off government salaries of around $25 a month, the cost of our meal. There, he told me of his dream of going to the US to work on a trucking business, returning with enough capital to open a restaurant in Havana before they let the yumas (foreigners) own property in Cuba.


“Havana is where I belong,” he said.


Cuba is not ready yet, but if his eagerness is any indication of the omnipresent entrepreneurial spirit that inhabits the island — for better or for worse — capitalism isn’t all that far away.


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