Cuba's budding businesswomen learn on the fly

Gretel de la Rosa, a budding Cuban businesswoman, had been in Mexico City for just a few hours, but she already had stuffed three bags with fabric for her shop back home.

MEXICO CITY: Gretel de la Rosa, a budding Cuban businesswoman, had been in Mexico City for just a few hours, but she already had stuffed three bags with fabric for her shop back home.
While Cuba's communist regime has implemented modest economic reforms, allowing some private ventures, running a business on the island remains a challenge for trailblazers like de la Rosa.
Her trip to Mexico's capital - a beehive of capitalism - with five other Cuban businesswomen was a chance not only to get goods they can't find at home, but also to learn from others with private sector experience.
As they sat at a bar in a hotel near the city's busy Reforma boulevard, the women said they have already learned much from their trips to places such as Chile, Bolivia and Cuba's former Cold War nemesis, the United States.
"Since this sector is so new, we need a lot of information on issues that are very common for the rest of the world, such as business vision, marketing," said 33-year-old Yamina Vicente, who organizes parties and events through her business, named "Decorazon."
"I have learned a lot. My business is different now than before I travelled," she said.
'DREAMS AND WISHES'
The six women came to Mexico City to participate in the Women's Forum on Wednesday and Thursday, an international gathering of women, but also men, from politics, business and civil society to discuss social and economic issues.
They came with an arsenal of business cards with phone numbers, email addresses and even Facebook pages or business websites.
While they use the Internet, web access is very expensive and hard to come by in Cuba, where it is tightly controlled by the state.
Only 3.4 per cent of households have Internet access, but the government is opening public Wifi hotspots and President Raul Castro has promised access to all Cubans by 2020.
"Our dreams and wishes include being able to export and through the Internet you can not only buy but also sell," said Caridad Luisa Limonta, who owns a workshop of seamstresses in Havana.
"If Cuba is opening up to the world, one of its potentials is to be able to export," she said.
GRADUAL CHANGES
In the meantime, like many Cubans who can afford to travel, they take advantage of their trips to shop for the things they can't find in Cuba.
De la Rosa bought fabric for her children's decoration store, but it was a "limited" quantity to avoid problems with customs in Havana.
It's nothing compared to the stuff that Nidialys Acosta buys and brings on planes.
"For example, I've had car bumpers and fenders in my luggage," said Acosta, who since 2011 has run a business that repairs the famous classic American cars from the 1950s that are part of Cuba's street landscape and which are used as taxis for tourists.
Most of the six women used to work for the government but they entered the nascent private sector that Castro allowed after he succeeded his brother, Fidel, in 2008.
This has helped them earn more money in a country where the average monthly salary is US$24.
Only 10 per cent of the island's labour force, or nearly half a million people, is in the private sector.
While the US-Cuba diplomatic thaw has raised hopes of change on the island and a potential end to the US trade embargo, the Communist Party Congress earlier in April suggested that Havana's opening to the world would remain slow.
"I think that there were a lot of expectations of sudden, quick changes, but I think the changes that are coming will be very gradual," Vicente said.

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