Is entrepreneurship the next Cuban revolution?

The story of a small one-year-old magazine encapsulates the still-tough media and business atmosphere in Cuba

By Vangmayi Parakala

HAVANA – Halfway through our nine days in Cuba, when a colleague and I find a bilingual magazine on Cuban entrepreneurship, we are intrigued at its very existence.

Itself a fledgling media start-up, Negolution’s aim to cover business-culture in the country is far removed from the state-run style and socialist ends of Cuba’s one-party system.

But the magazine we learn, is now close to two years old. Run by Marta Deus, 31, and Rigo Garcia Berriel, 26, Negolution covers a range of stories—from profiles of up-and-coming Cuban businesses to interviews with established international entrepreneurs. It also disseminates information useful to all possible stakeholders inhabiting a brand-new ecosystem within the Cuban economy: private businesses.

Deus and Berriel ensure that the magazine is printed in Spanish and English— an important marker of their ambition in a country that branded the United States as “Yankee imperialists” and constricted English education after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

“English is the language of business. We think entrepreneurs should know English,” says Deus. “We were very clear about this from the beginning.”

Negolutionis headquartered in Miramar, one of Havana’s most upscale neighborhoods. As Deus and Berriel welcom me into its sparsely-furnished living area, I can’t help but ask if I was reading the magazine’s name right: “Negolution” felt like a clever and deliberate comment on the anti-privatization sentiment in Cuba’s socialist history. Was “negocios,” the Spanish word for business, mashed up with the English word “revolution?”

“Solution, too,” Deus is quick to chime in. This, she says, is what the magazine wants to provide for young and struggling entrepreneurs, hungry for better access to news and advice about developments in the business world.

This is no small mission.

In a country where any media—other than otherwise sclerotic state-run mouthpieces—are legally contentious, Negolution itself has also to deal with the near impossibility of access to forms of production-and-distribution that would be routine in any modern economy.

Yet, in the past five years, a crop of many such independent, Cuba-focused magazines and news outlets have started mushrooming across the country. There are now roughly 20 magazines like Vistar (covering art and culture), El Estornudo (focusing on long form journalism) and OnCuba (which covers a range of topics including culture, politics, economy, sport and science), that have flourished in a legally gray, and logistically chaotic area.

Living between the laws

Negolution’s goal of becoming a catalyst for socio-cultural change risks running afoul of Article 52 of the Cuban Constitution, which prohibits the existence of privately-run media. Article 53, while recognizing freedom of the press does so by limiting it towards the “ends of the socialist society.”

Despite putting together a year’s worth of monthlies, with stories from 17 different contributors located in different parts of Cuba and the world, Negolution is run as a website registered in Mexico. The apartment that they’re located in—the one where I’m meeting them—is a “casa particular” or private property, belonging to Deus’s father.

Of the two other rooms in the house, one is for her other business venture, a financial consulting firm, and the third room is a large and handsome office-space. It overlooks Miramar’s neat tree-lined streets that are home to countless international businesses and foreign diplomats and entrepreneurs.

While the room we are sitting in has a stack of printed hardcopies of the magazine’s latest issue, Berriel tells me that these are courtesy copies reserved only for advertisers and guests. Negolution, like most of its counterparts, is produced like a print magazine, whose .pdf copies are circulated through El Paquete de la Semana (The Package of the Week), a system that is itself also illegal but operating in a gray zone.

An offline data delivery system, The Package makes sure that Negolution reaches Cuban doorsteps in a 1-terabyte drive, through a network of trusted distributors. The latest soap operas, movies, and music from neighboring countries, too, are included.

Initially, Berriel found that there were three verticals of El Paquete, with different source-distributors.

“So, we released the magazine on all three, with a unique digital code on the cover released through each one,” Berriel says. “When someone tells us that they’ve read us on El Paquete, we ask them to recall the code, the version, so that we can keep track of which matrix is doing well for us.” After months of trial and error, Negolution figured which particular matrix of The Package was doing better for them than the others.

Many Cubans we spoke to referred to The Package with a common phrase: “illegal but tolerated”. As long as there is no pornography or anti-government propaganda circulated through The Package, the government allows it to exist.

The government, according to one theory, turns a blind eye to these otherwise-illegal ventures because they provide to the public what the government has yet not been able to. These also serve as safety valves, taking care, at least temporarily, of rising public discontent about the country’s inferior infrastructure and poor access to information.

When seen through The Package’s circulation, these magazines seem almost as unregulated as the party flyers handed out on Havana’s streets past midnight. And The Package, too, is an unregulated network of piracy, growing every day. Unless internet access and mobile data services in Cuba really pick up, Deus and Berriel’s job will only keep getting more complicated.

Change through reform

Despite existing and circulating under these constraints, the magazine El Estornudo even went on to win an award at the 2017 Gabriel Garcia Marquez Journalism Festival in Medellin, Colombia. The awards, instituted by the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism aim to “acknowledge and incentivize the search for excellence, innovation, rigor in dealing with facts, and ethical coherence on the part of journalists publishing regularly in Spanish and Portuguese for audiences in the Americas, Spain, and Portugal in an age of upheaval in journalism.”

Whatever its legal status, The Package’s popularity has helped these independent magazines create cracks in the well-cemented hold of traditional, socialist news publications: Granma, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party and Juventud Rebelde, run by the Young Communist League have both been operational since 1965, and Trabajadores published by the government-controlled Central Union of Cuban Workers has been running since 1970.

In 2017— the year that Negolution turned one— the number of Cubans engaged in non-public sector jobs grew to about 567,000 from 157,000 in 2010 when then President Raul Castro had pushed for privatization. This increased number translates to roughly 12 percent of Cuba’s workforce.

As Deus and Berriel try to ride and help raise this tide, they note that the government is also learning through the process, just like they are, as to what enterprises need in order to thrive.

“This is a government that has never had private business before. They have to deal with this new reality,” says Berriel. By being “respectful in covering this change, he says they’d “achieve more things and help in it.”

But not all journalists though toe this reformist line. Some journalists sidestep government scrutiny by avoiding words that might trigger government scrutiny, says culture reporter Veronica Vega.

Vega writes for Havana Times, another independent and online-only publication edited in Nicaragua. Others, like Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelis Nunez Leyva protest by showcasing silenced or nonconformist voices on their website, Museum of Dissidence.

“A little more effort”

Meanwhile, President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took charge in April 2018, has been hailed as an accessible, open-minded leader, pushing for greater internet access in Cuba. But in a leaked video from 2017, Canel was seen telling fellow party workers that the government would take down OnCuba, a website that, he said, was aggressively publishing anti-Revolution content.

Back at Negolution’s office, Berriel says that this uncertainty in Cuba’s media-and-entrepreneurship environment was already finding roots with Donald Trump’s ascension as President of the United States. The Obama-era thawing of relations between the countries had brought tourism and investment into Cuba. This, he adds, has slowed since Trump took office.

“We feel isolated again, like it was before Obama,” he stresses.

Despite this, Negolution is unrelenting in its international ambitions. At the end of 2017, Deus had attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit—with 1500 participating delegates from 160 countries—in India.

“Now more than ever, it’s very important to continue strengthening global relationships, and maintain exchanges and collaborations,” Deus says. “We want to show that though this is our reality right now, we’re still trying to do great things here. It’s just going to take a little more effort.”

Photo at top: A sample of some of Negolution’s issues. (Source: Negolution’s Twitter page)