I recently returned from Cuba, where I co-led a group of 18 delegates on a educational, people-to-people experience sponsored by the Sarasota, Fla., chapter of Mennonite Economic Development Associates. I have traveled to Cuba since 2012 on similar trips, and each time I’ve noticed changes.
From the time of the revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro rose to power, until 2009, no private enterprise was allowed. Everyone worked for the state. Salaries were virtually the same regardless of occupation. University-trained professionals, including doctors, were paid the same as unskilled laborers.
By the early 2000s the Cuban government finally realized this economic model was not sustainable and began to make changes. One initiative, begun in 2009, was allowing private businesses to form. Today there are nearly 600,000 of these enterprises, from restaurants to auto repair. In spite of heavy regulation, sometimes to the point of discouraging success, many are thriving.
In 2016, we met two women who were starting their own businesses — one a sewing business, the other a bakery. Both were operating out of small homes. The sewing operation was in a small room that could hardly accommodate two old sewing machines, much less space for visitors. The bakery was based in a home with minimal space and little equipment.
While both businesses faced daunting challenges for adequate space and supplies, they had a common mission — teaching other women to sew and bake. The goal was economic independence, since a number of them were survivors of abusive relationships. Their stories were compelling, and members of our group wanted to help.
Cuba has virtually no credit structure for individuals to obtain capital. So, with small donations from delegates, we occasionally helped them with supplies that are often not available in Cuba, due in part to the embargo that the U.S. has imposed for more than 50 years. As we visited from time to time, we saw progress, and we encouraged the sewing group to make items our delegates could buy.
On our next visit, dresses, shirts, blouses and other items were available for purchase. At the bakery, pastries and brightly decorated cakes were available. We saw people from the neighborhood stopping by for items. The businesses were growing. Both moved to larger spaces and invited more women to participate.
During our February visit, the sewing group met us with open arms and lots of items for sale. The inventory had expanded to include cloth bags suitable for grocery shopping, stuffed dolls and covers for kitchen appliances.
They told us that their group now included two adults with what they termed “special characteristics” — a woman with Down syndrome and a young man who is deaf. As one of them said, “We saw a need, and why wouldn’t we help?”
Seeing the joy on their faces and hearing their stories, which included Christian faith journeys, were holy moments. As we said goodbye to the sewing group, the leader gave us these words of affirmation: “We know that when you leave, you take us in your hearts.”
I left Cuba hoping positive change will continue and with a sense that change may be driven by entrepreneurs who have the freedom to chart their destiny — not dependent on the state but banding together for emotional and spiritual support.
I also was reminded how organizations like MEDA, creating business solutions to eliminate poverty, can be life-changing.
JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.