I recently spoke with Marta Deus, one of Cuba’s most popular cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) and the co-founder of the Mandao app, a food delivery service in Havana, Holguin, Matanzas and now Santa Clara. Using the Mandao app, Cubans can order food from over 100 restaurants, agromercados, and small stores and have it delivered to their home. For those on the island who can afford it, it’s a way to support the private restaurants and paladares during the pandemic. Mandao, which works in the United States and abroad, also enables people elsewhere to order food for delivery to family and friends on the island.
The Cuban economy, which is highly dependent on its tourism industry, has been strangled by the COVID-19 pandemic. I was curious to speak with Marta for a first hand account of how Cuba’s private sector is faring. It’s a sector largely made of privately owned casas particulares and restaurants, both of which serve tourists bringing money into the country.
“There are some tourists but I think you can count them with the fingers on your hand,”Marta Deus, Co-Founder, Mandao
The biggest and perhaps most expected impact on Cuba’s private sector is to the groups of businesses that directly serve the tourism industry: its casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) and paladares. Most of these are closed. “There are some tourists but I think you can count them with the fingers on your hand,” Deus tells me.
Cuba is safer than most countries when it comes to COVID-19. Relatively speaking, the numbers are low. Yet tourists must quarantine when they arrive and flights are expensive right now. When you do get to Cuba, there aren’t a lot of places to go. Combine that with COVID-19 restrictions at travelers’ home countries, Cuba’s recent designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the US State Department, and Western Union’s closing; unless you have family to visit, travel just doesn’t add up right now.
Yet despite these challenges, Cuban ingenuity continues in these extremely difficult conditions. Cubans continue to “resolver.” Restaurateurs and others are setting up ghost kitchens in their homes to sell food on WhatsApp and for delivery via Mandao. Craft makers are selling their products, also by their mobile devices. And remember it all trickles down (or at the moment, doesn’t), so if tourists are spending less (or zero) money at the casas and paladares, there is less money to pay the barbers and taxi drivers. The economic contraction is real, and it’s a very hard time right now.
Cuba’s entrepreneurs and creatives, like Deus, are following social distancing rules too. Meetings are not being held in person as frequently. Conversations are mostly happening via WhatsApp, so it’s hard to get a sense of how people are feeling emotionally. A vaccine is expected this year, and one thing is for sure: like everywhere else in the world, everyone is ready for that.
When the Trump administration took office, Cuban Entrepreneurs like Deus anticipated changes to the Obama era policies that helped their private businesses flourish. As anticipated, Trump administration policies slowed the water coming from the faucet and the private sector, made of Cuban citizens trying to make it on their own without the government, felt the pain. Then, the pandemic essentially turned the faucet off. Not even a drip.
In a country that’s had to figure it out against all odds for decades, they’ll figure it out again. Cubans are resilient and creative. It sure would be nice though if they didn’t have to. To support Cuba’s private restaurant and paladar owners, you can order food for friends and family on the island via Mandao from the United States and abroad. And, once you’re vaccinated and the world starts to open up again, I’d encourage you to visit Cuba and show your support to the entrepreneurs who have worked so hard to build businesses.
Update: 10-13-21 Mandao was recently classified as an SME in Cuba, a Small, Medium Enterprise. One of the first to receive such notice.