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Diary of a Young Cuban Entrepreneur

Diary of a Young Cuban Entrepreneur

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on April 03, 2015

«Look, dad, I’m in the beach», Laura says as she submerges her 6-year-old imagination in a tiny washbowl. «OK, my girl, but be careful with the sharks», Jose warns her, making a frightened face to follow her game.

Out of all Jose Martinez Ortega’s occupations, being a father is perhaps the most rewarding one. However, in order to maintain this one and his condition of psychologist, photographer, peddler, actor, taxi driver… with has coped with a world of difficulties throughout his 33 years.

In a comfortable house nestled in the most exclusive neighborhood of the Cuban capital city, El Vedado, in Plaza de la Revolucion municipality, we talked about those challenges, his life and the present and future of Cuba. Laura was playing with her imaginary beach. Diosaime, his wife, was taking care of 2-month-old Amelia, while we were making the hot March afternoon fresher with Jose’s stories and a delicious guava juice.

From Contramaestre to Havana

The Spanish language professor gave a dictation: «There are many things that contribute to the psychological wellness. Having high self-esteem, counting on a solid, stable and positive social support network, adopting and optimistic philosophy... Life, however, is not a glass case where everything is pre-established for a happy ending, just like soap operas…”

And while he was listening to her and taking notes, that teenager, raised at the mountains of Contramaestre, nearly a thousand kilometers away from the Cuban capital city, realized that he had made up his mind. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was worth trying. «Actually ― he recalls in the distance ― I memorized that paragraph. I was sure that Psychology was my field. So, I studied it ».

Nevertheless, there was another trade Jose had tried since he was just a child, and he was good at it: peddler. Ranging from home-made tomato paste to candies, Jose has marketed several products. That was his way of helping his family and having minimum comfort.

When he was in his third year at the university, he was convinced: he should leave Santiago de Cuba if he wanted to succeed. So, influenced by his aunt, who was living in the Cuban capital city, Jose went to explore the unknown.

«I used to study in the morning and go shopping in the afternoons in an effort to buy recycled clothes and send them back to Santiago de Cuba, where my mother could sell it and make a profit», he recalls. «I met Diosaime at the theater, we rented an apartment together and those sales backed us up. Then I told my family: People, I need you to come».

And his parents and grandmother, who have always trusted Joseito’s intelligence, left behind a masonry house and came to live in a wooden hovel, in the outskirts of Havana. 

«We lived difficult times. My father couldn’t find a job, mom’s hairdressing salon wasn’t profitable, and my sister was unemployed. We didn’t have food or money, not even to buy clothes for my college graduation», he tells me while his older daughter comes to give him an imaginary fish.

Then a flashlight was triggered...

Door-to-door Pictures, “Burned” Discs

«Diosaime had a digital camera; it wasn’t a professional one. One day I told her that I would go out that take some pictures. I went to Lenin Park, where many parents take their children. I even had a slogan: “You pay for it when you receive it home”. I took nearly 20 pictures that day and the day after I walked throughout the city to deliver them. Each picture cost USD 25 cents and I charged 1 dollar». The battalion-family was soon involved in the business. Jose walked kilometers in Guanabo beach on a daily basis, taking pictures and, the day after, the whole family was in charge of making the deliveries. At the same time, Jose was working as a Psychology professor at the University of Havana, where he had graduated in 2005 with excellent results.

«After the pictures I included photomontage, pictures for ID cards; I diversified the business. I had a growing number of clients. My mother gave a boost to her hairdressing salon and dad got a job as a cook. Step by step, we built my parents’ house and this one»…, Jose tells me while Laurita persistently asks us to take a picture of her. Then he was sent to Venezuela in an eight-month-long educational mission. He returned with the minimum capital to buy a PC. His first daughter was born. Jose was busy with the work at the Faculty, the photographic world and his role as a father when a new element showed up.

«There was a boom of DVD players in Cuba and I started selling copies of musical discs. It was so good that I even hired my mother-in-law to burn 50-100 CDs every day. The money was coming in at a faster rate. Shortly after, this commercial activity was given a legal license. I was one of the first people to have a computer at the sales outlet so I could please personal preferences», he proudly narrates.

Without Losing the Course

Jose stopped teaching, but he founded a section within the Cuban Psychology Society named InterCreAcción, which annually organizes two cycles of international workshops. One of them it dedicated to Startups. As the vice president of this section he has already shared his experience with colleagues from France and Italy. «What I do with InterCreAcción is not positive for my business, because wasting 5 days, for example, has its price. I’m moved by the willingness of helping people in my country break barriers and put prejudices aside ».

― You haven’t forgotten the theater realm, one of your passions …

That comes with me since my time at the university, when I even won national awards. In fact, my thesis was based on the application of theater methods with Down Syndrome children... Last year, for instance, I worked as an actor and producer with Havana’s Teatro Espontáneo, led by Carlos Borbon».

―What do you think are the outmost barriers to be faced by young entrepreneurs in our country?

Lawfulness is the main one. Feeling that, in order to prosper, you could commit any felony, especially when you are an honest person. It’s pretty disturbing. For example: the limits are not clear when it comes to advertising your business. There is no legal system to legitimize some of the services provided by private workers. We recently bought a car, a 1955 Chevrolet and we hired two drivers to rent it as a taxi. When I need to fix the car I get no warranty because there is no institution providing the service, it’s all about self-employed mechanics.

―What is such an audacious man as you afraid of?

I’m afraid of losing the essential course of life. With every step I take, I think: “this is not about having more money, but sharing with your people: family, friends; the people you care about”. Now I’m raising my daughters and I think about the kind of father I am: the one that works late hours and doesn’t have a minute to play or the father that sacrifices material profits for spiritual elements. We have to be very careful and stay on track. I think that this is the dilemma between socialism and capitalism».

«Dad, dad, can we take the picture now? », Laurita repeats. Now we get the family flash.  

Article by Jesus Arencibia Lorenzo: Havana. Cuba.

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