HAVANA– Being an entrepreneur in Cuba takes hundreds of times more grit, determination, surrender and creativity than those of us who choose this path elsewhere.
Living in Cuba is coming to grasp with the idea that contradictions can live together, side by side. Chaos and slow movement, oppression and joy, cat calls and female strength. It’s a place where the rules many of us off this island go by do not apply, and where a unique mixture of creativity and resourcefulness have made for an extremely dynamic and complicated society.
While female entrepreneurship has swept the world in the last decade, Cuba has not only followed suit, but the seeds were planted far before they were in the US and Europe. This is an island of strong determined women who have carved out businesses and creativity in beautiful ways. They also happen to do it with grace and a keen swager.
Lilliam Dominguez Palenzuela is one example of this. In the far reaches of Miramar, a leafy neighborhood of Havana, sits a large single story Spanish style home with a red tile roof and verdant garden that deposits you in an outdoor covered dining room filled with wooden tables, antiques from the 1950s and fountains giving off a soothing gurgling sound.
It is here that I meet with Lilliam , the founder and chef of La Cocina de Lilliam, one of the first businesses to be granted a private business license in revolutionary Cuba in the mid-90’s, and arguably the first female entrepreneur in Cuba. In operation for over 25 years, her restaurant is a bright star in Havana’s upscale food scene and is known for its extraordinary traditional Cuban food.
We sit down over strong sweet coffee, and I am immediately taken by her warmth, presence and comfort in her space. I first ask her about what it was like to be one of Cuba’s first female business owners. As is common in Cuba, she answers with the political context to help me understand. “Cuban women have always had a working role, we fought in the revolutions against Spain, ran clandestine messages across enemy lines,” she tells me. “And then, after the Revolution, we were all expected to work for the success of the society.”
In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution that implemented a communist government on the island, that is referred to here as the Revolution. “Men and women both worked and so that concept has been a part of our social structure now for over 60 years,” she recalls. “In the first half of the 20th century, up through the 50s, our lives were very influenced by American society and men were really the only breadwinners. We followed a much more traditional structure. The Revolution changed that dynamic.”
A further shift came during the Special Period, a time in the early 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union—and its support of Cuba—plunged the country into economic crisis. “Many men left in search of a job and a way to send money back to their families,” Lilliam says. “Families were ripped apart and the social structure changed. The women who stayed needed to figure things out.”
It was during the Special Period that Lilliam’s restaurant got its start. Electricity was scarce, as were TVs. Lilliam had a TV at her house, where her restaurant operates now, and friends and neighbors would gather at her home to watch a popular Brazillian soap opera. A character on the show was a woman from the countryside who moved to the city to build a better life. She began selling sandwiches, which grew into a successful business. “When the series ended, many people were talking about that character. I realized that I wanted to be like her. I saw the possibility of that kind of life.”
At the time, private businesses were not legal in Cuba. Lilliam petitioned her local government, and they granted her a very limited license to make food for family and neighbors. “I was making small snacks, like croquettas and other things. And it had to just be in my neighborhood, I could not expand. But I was beginning.”
In 1994 the laws changed. In an effort to help the country deal with economic hardship during the Special Period, citizens were allowed to start some small private businesses limited to a few categories, including restaurants in homes (paladars). Lilliam already had the license to cook and word began to spread beyond her neighborhood. Year by year she grew and slowly reinvested money into her business. “I gradually bought better tables and was able to expand the restaurant a bit. After nine years I was able to make a kitchen worthy of the kind of restaurant I envisioned.”
At age 76, she remains the head chef of that kitchen. As she takes me there, we say hello to sous chefs chopping vegetables for that night’s prep, stop by her station as she shows me pans she loves, and then into the expansive refrigerator where she offers me one of their famous chocolate mousse desserts to accompany the rest of our talk. “My kitchen and cooking are my life and passion,” she says. I can have four pans going at one time. It makes me so happy. I hire people who don’t know the craft and I love to mentor and teach them this craft that will help them have a better life.”
This is part one of a two part story from Kay Whitchurch out of Cuba
Kay Whitchurch is an American painter and entrepreneur who lives between Havana and Chicago. She and her husband, the musician Norberto Guerra, are the co-founders of Otros Ojos, a culturally immersive travel group that opens doors into Cuba’s creative enclaves. @kaywhitchurch.