Cuban cuentapropista Marta Deus, talks to us about how the private sector is doing in the midst of economic and COVID-19 pressure.
mandao app marta deus
Photo credit: Mandao

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.

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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.

mandao app
The Mandao app. Photo: Mandao
marta deus mandao
A Mandao backpack sits in an ice cream shop. Photo: Mandao

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.

marta deus
Mandao Co-Founder, Marta Deus. Photo: Marta Deus

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.

mandao app marta deus
Photo credit: Mandao

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.

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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.

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Ken Deckinger is the co-founder and CEO of Startup Cuba and the executive producer and host of its namesake docuseries. A native of South Florida, Ken has been an entrepreneur for his entire professional career. Previously he was co-founder and CEO of HurryDate, pioneering the global concept of speed dating to 45 cities throughout the US, UK and Canada. HurryDate eventually evolved into online dating and was acquired by Spark Networks, the parent company of ChristianMingle.com and JDate.com. Ken is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Florida, where he was honored with the University’s Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Under 40 award and sits on the Board for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He actively advises entrepreneurs and is a two-time protagonist of a Harvard Business School case study. Ken’s filmmaking and journalistic journey is inspired by a love of travel and authentic connections with other cultures. He believes that the more we know about each other, through stories, the closer we can become — thus the mission of Startup Cuba: to amplify the voices of the people sharing stories in the Latinx space. After living in New York City for 15 years, he encouraged his wife to move their family to Miami to get back to his South Florida roots. Needless to say, it was a short discussion and he and his family now call Boston, where his wife grew up, their home.

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