Cuban entrepreneurs determined to 'resolver'

After decades of a US embargo and authoritarian government, Cubans have a reputation of 'figuring things out.' Just look at the new entrepreneurs emerging amid gradual reforms.

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

I returned recently from several weeks in Cuba spent at a fascinating time. The Cuban government is in the middle of a gradual series of economic reforms that amount to an overhaul of the inefficient, troubled Cuban economy. The current centrally managed system is becoming one that allows for more freedom of entrepreneurship and private enterprise. I had the privilege of meeting a number of the new entrepreneurs of Cuba – those that have opened bed and breakfast-like operations in a spare bedroom, transformed living rooms into a two-chair hair salon or barbershop, or turned their homes into cafes, bars and restaurants. I also met some of the economists who are at the helm directing the current step-by-step reforms.

In a country where personal freedoms have often been limited – and in many cases continue to be – the moves to expand personal economic freedoms are historic. They are promising. They challenge long-standing status quos, and they point to a future for Cuba that is more open-minded and flexible as a younger generation (finally) takes the reins. I watched a number of American onlookers and visitors puzzle that Washington did not seem to recognize what was happening: freedoms are expanding in Cuba and opinions are changing with generational shifts in Miami – why hasn’t US policy followed suit?

In the course of a discussion with one Cuban economist who was a 40 year veteran of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, he shared an old African proverb: whether the elephant makes love or makes war, the grass always gets trampled. His point was somewhat counter to the lament that many share about the detrimental effect of the US embargo on the island economy, suggesting instead that whatever US policy does, Cubans will – as they always have – resolver.

The word resolvemos evokes something like we’ll figure it out, and it is used liberally in Cuba to refer to the ability to invent, get by, and overcome challenges as they arise. During the “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the word became commonplace in Cuban households. It maintains its place today as a staple in the language.

My husband and I spent a few nights of our trip at the home of a young couple in Viñales. On day two, we returned from our explorations to a bathroom teeming with ants. Hundreds were pouring in through a crack beneath the windowsill, and there was nothing I could see attracting them, no clear way to try solving this on my own. I dreaded breaking the news to our hosts.

It was the weekend, so the young man of the house was not far away. When I found him, I started guiltily with: “Tenemos un problema.” We have a problem. I explained the issue, then led him to the bathroom and showed him the scene.

I looked back at his face, expecting to see him upset, perhaps angry with us, and at the very least, worried about an overwhelming ant infestation. He was still smiling. Lo resuelvo, he assured me. And don’t worry; it’s not your fault, he added. I sighed with relief. So this has happened before? I asked. No, he responded brightly. Never.

Resolvemos. We’ll figure it out.

– Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read her blog, and follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.

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