Cuban entrepreneur Liber Puente is working on a master?s thesis about communication among ?nontraditional friends.?
?The question I?m trying to answer is how do we sit and negotiate with our former enemies?? Puente said during a quick trip to Miami before returning to the University of Roehampton, where he is studying on a Chevening scholarship awarded by the British government to future leaders and influencers.
The question is a good one as the United States and Cuba try to find ways to work together after more than five decades of hostility and while the rapprochement, begun by former President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro on Dec. 17, 2014, is still on shaky ground.
Puente is busy these days.
During daylight hours he works on his master?s degree at Roehampton and in the evenings he corresponds via email and with his colleague at Tostonet, a Havana tech operation, and makes plans with the two other people he works with in his consulting firm, Puente Cubano.
Tostonet repairs laptops, printers, PCs and phones and does network installations and software development. It has nine workers. While they are allowed to pursue contracts together, all hold their own licenses as cuentapropistas, self-employed workers. They aren?t recognized as a private cooperative either, although Puente says they have applied to become one.
Ted Henken, a Baruch college professor who studies entrepreneurship in Cuba, said there are around 400 non-agricultural cooperatives. Approvals for new ones seem to have been frozen for the past year or so. If approved, Puente said Tostonet would be the first IT cooperative in Cuba.
Currently there are some 535,000 self-employed Cubans, accounting for nearly a third of the workforce.
One of the biggest challenges in running a private tech venture in Cuba is getting the spare parts to operate the repair operation. ?We decided to buy old laptops, broken laptops so we could get the screws and hardware needed to make repairs,? Puente said. ?We learned how to do maintenance on motherboards to extend their lives.?
He said Tostonet is also willing to make an exchange: Two hours of free salsa lessons for any visitors who drop off an old computer at Tostonet?s Vedado office near the Coppelia ice cream parlor.
Tostonet workers have collaborated to compete for government contracts, building websites and installing networks for state enterprises. But Puente said it?s easier to work with the growing number of businesses in Cuba?s private sector.
?It?s better business ? they pay more quickly,? he said. ?Government companies take a long time to pay and there?s a lot of paperwork. Still, (government work) is a reliable business.?
Whenever possible, Puente said he likes to support other private businesses. A private accountant does Tostonet?s books and the Tostonet entrepreneurs hire other independent software developers from time to time if they need extra help on projects.
Puente?s other venture, Puente Cubano, is a play on his last name that translates as bridge, but it also defines what it does. It serves as a bridge, helping companies in South Florida and elsewhere navigate the Cuban market.
?They need someone to guide them through the Cuban market. The institutions and ways of doing business in Cuba are not what they?re used to,? he said. The firm also offers market research services.
Puente wants to learn as much as he can about American business, and during his recent trip to Miami, he met with executives from Stonegate Bank, which offers ATM and credit card services in Cuba; Airbnb, the online home-stay booking service that began operating in Cuba in 2015; and Facebook, which has caught on in Cuba as the number of public WiFi hotspots increases.