An American In Cuba: The Necessity of Invention


"Every Cuban is a criminal," my taxi driver told me as we maneuvered through the decaying streets of Havana. Passing by crumbling colonial-era buildings awash in soft pastel colors, the soft-spoken 41-year-old man turned the wheel of his 1948 Ford coupe with weathered hands covered in scars and fresh stitches. “Those who only work a legal job don't eat."

From the outside Cuba looks like a picturesque post card, but things look very different when you look just a little closer.

Although I am of Cuban descent I must admit I had no real idea of what was going on in the nation that sits just 90 miles below Florida. What I learned from my week traveling through the narrow, history-packed island is that Cuba is place of contrasts: beauty and destruction, celebration and sadness, poverty and generosity, each curiously coexisting throughout the country and all its inhabitants.

I felt many emotions while in my mother's homeland, mostly utter disbelief at how upbeat and resourceful the people are in the face of such a difficult economy and living conditions. The Cuban will tell you of his Sisyphean efforts to constantly work, slowly pushing himself up the hill of financial independence, just to roll back down and start over should he have the gall to desire a better home or even a new toilet.

A mix of national pride and frustration with their inability to move up in social class seems to exist in every Cuban I spoke with. Cubans love their country, they just want to be paid fairly for the work they do.

In Cuba, entrepreneurship takes on an entirely new meaning. What I mean to say is that Cubans have some serious hustle—to a point I've never before seen—and “illegal" side-gigs are really the only way to get by. For context: only jobs that are approved of and taxed by the government are considered legal. To wit, taxi drivers are also house remodelers, teachers are restaurateurs, grocers are mechanics, farmers are tour guides. I met a doctor who sold empanadas on the side. I met a nurse who told me it made more fiscal sense for her to do nails than work at the government-run hospital, so she stopped going.

Many Cubans feel their country does not support its own people. Not only is the "Cuban" currency worth less than a tourist's, but Cubans are also not allowed on the grounds of many hotels.

Even my hard-working taxi driver, who still lives in the very house he was born in, isn't just a driver. He's also a painter, a construction worker, an HVAC engineer, and an expert car detailer. When I asked this man how on earth he learned so many trades, he responded simply; “When you don't have money to fix your car, you play with the wires until something works," he said. “Eventually you figure it out."

People in Cuba are creative (think: "if I can't afford it, I'll just make it"), communal and deeply complex. They have understandably frustrated feelings about their country, tourists and especially about ex-Cubans who they say forget where they came from (often severing ties and refusing to visit) after just a few months on American soil. Like us, Cubans share dreams for better futures. But unlike us, becoming wealthy, or even just financially comfortable, through hard work alone is nearly impossible. In fact, a common Cuban concern is that despite breaking their backs they will never be able to rise out of their economic status, or give their children a better life.

To understand Cuba's complicated economic climate and the DIY-life culture that has emerged as a result, you must first understand that there are two accepted currencies in the country. The Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, is the money that can buy you just about everything most people are used to, from a snack to a car to a home. One CUC is roughly $1 Euro or Canadian dollar, or 90 cents US. This conversion may make sense for tourists, but it doesn't for Cubans, who are paid via an entirely different, much weaker tender—the Cuban Peso (25 of which will get a Cuban just one CUC). Pesos are used for some groceries and food items sold locally, and not much else.

Cubans with legal jobs told me that they earn approximately $500 Cuban Pesos a month, which is about $20 American dollars, or $18 CUC. Meanwhile, the prices of consumer goods in Cuba are on par with most modern countries, which means a full day's work will get you approximately half a can of Ciego Montenegro soda, that is if it's in stock (I heard a lot of “no hay" or “there is none" when looking for particular foods or products).

Thus, the side hustling.

From a Cuban's perspective, the prices of things in Cuba are simply staggering. My driver reported that his engine-less Roosevelt-era car—rusty, musty and barely whole—cost more than $14,000 US dollars. For those who were curious, his hands were defaced while getting his automotive antique working order, which of course he did successfully. Most Cuban homes, although dilapidated and without plumbing will go for between $10,000 and $100,000 US.

How on earth can a Cuban on $20 a month ever hope to make these big-scale purchases? My brain hurt contemplating how a Cuban can ever do anything other than simply live life as it is.

It must be said that both cars and homes in Cuba are expertly finagled. Chevys older than my grandparents feature hand-installed amenities like DVD players and brand new air conditioners. Like magicians, Cubans figure out ways to hardwire cable television into mold-eaten homes, take hot showers without plumbing, and eat deliciously with nearly empty refrigerators. Everywhere you look there is proof of Cuban invention and ingenuity, worth a pretty penny in any other land yet nothing in their own.

As a result of this climate of competency, Cubans rarely stress. They truly believe everything will be OK no matter what ("tranquila" or "be calm" was a phrase this anxiety-addled New Yorker heard multiple times throughout her trip) and have the unique ability to be fully present in the moment (no internet connectivity helped in this regard), laughing with friends and family. In addition, because of how long it takes to make money, Cubans possess inhuman amounts of patience.

Lines are everywhere in Cuba. Due to the lack of computerized systems and Internet availability, everything is done via pen and paper. Whether you are trying to buy groceries, make a reservation or get on a bus, prepare to wait. Also, bring toilet paper.

In fact, one such woman I met told me she has been saving for decades just to buy a room in a building to open a restaurant. Her business plan involves feeding Cubans delicious, healthy and affordable meals, and giving away food each day to the homeless and elderly. Getting her hands on the $5,000 she needs to make this happen, however, has proved to be nearly impossible even though she works five days a week, eight hour days just like any American who can eventually see her dream through. Most Cubans who do start a business do so only with help from non-Cuban family members, a luxury not everyone has access to.

Unlike the opinion some might have of Latin people, this woman does not want a hand out and she does not want to sit home. She simply wants to get a small amount of capital to turn something old and abandoned into something warm and inviting, a slight of hand at which all Cubans are expert. In short, she wants to be an entrepreneur, which she already is, at least in mindset.

Regardless of the many emotions expressed to me by Cubans during my trip, the most common was optimism. It's been a complicated 60 years in Cuba since its glorified revolution, yet everyone seems focused on the future rather than rehashing the difficulties of the past. Are they bitter? Not so much. Are they ready to work? Yes. Are they ready to become self-made? They've already done it. They just want more.

5min read

How I Grew My Company To Over $400 Million In Sales By Age 30

From a young age, I was fortunate to know what I wanted my career to be.

Many 12-year-olds say they want to be a movie star, pilot or professional athlete, but I knew that I wanted to be a realtor. Growing up in an era when Miami's real estate business was exploding, I watched the city grow before my eyes. I wanted to have a part in that growth, which is why I decided to obtain my real estate license as soon as I turned 18.

Today, I run a luxury real estate group under Cervera, with sales of over $400 million within Brickell, Biscayne Bay, Key Biscayne, Design District, Midtown, Coconut Grove and Coral Gables. I've found a niche with penthouses, having sold Brickell's most expensive penthouse to date, along with two other penthouses in the past few years.

However, reaching this point did not come easy. I owe my success to two things: hard work and the people who took a chance on me. Without the former, there could never be the latter.

Here are the key reasons I was able to grow my business to over $400 million in sales by age 30.

Build Relationships

You've heard it before, but I can't stress this enough. Every person you meet is a door to a new opportunity. In real estate, as is the case with most other professions, people want to work with someone they trust and connect with. My team and I put a large emphasis on not only going to work, but also finding meaning in the work we do through personal relationships. That can mean a lot of things, whether it be finding the perfect first home for a couple or helping a family move to an area with the best schools.

Real estate is personal, and your clients should always be treated like people, not numbers. Whether someone has a $100,000 or $10 Million budget, I treat them with the same respect.

As a result, nearly all of my clients come from referrals or return to me as repeat clients.

Become An Expert In Your Industry

My team and I put a strong focus on truly knowing the neighborhoods we work in. We've become local specialists, making sure that we have a strong understanding of the ins and outs of the listing, the area and the potential buyers.

We familiarize ourselves with every aspect of an area, including: the neighborhood, the local housing market, the inventory, the schools, community issues and traffic concerns. Being knowledgeable on these aspects help us guide the potential buyer in making an informed decision.

That same approach should be applied to every profession. People are choosing to work with you for a reason, so try to maximize the value that comes with that.

Find Time To Do Nothing

We live in a go, go, go world, with not much focus on slowing down. You're responsible for your own mental wellbeing, so be sure to put in the time for yourself. For at least one hour a day, I allow myself the space to do nothing and truly live in the moment. That hour may be spent meditating, curled up with a book or watching my favorite Bravo show. The point is: that time should be for you, free of any distractions. Doing this allows you to go into work with a clear mind the following day.

It's Not All On You: Empower Your Employees

There's an emphasis put on working non-stop as the only way to succeed. That approach couldn't be further from the truth. While I'm all about working hard, as a leader, working smarter not harder is what will take your business to the next level. Remember, you hire people for a reason, so trust them to do their job and always make yourself available as a resource.

That way, you can spend your time on big picture initiatives, and your employees can own their work and grow in the process.

It Takes Money To Make Money

Don't underestimate the power of good marketing.

In business, especially when first starting out, it's important to spend money to invest in your company's success. Whether it be boosting your website's SEO, creating targeted ads or sponsoring social media posts, effective marketing is crucial when looking to reach your target audience.

Beyond traditional marketing, attending conferences and panels is essential to help you continuously learn about your industry, meet like-minded people and get your name out there.