'Suppliers of Customers' – A Thriving Business Serving Restaurants and Private Accommodations
Along with private restaurants and accommodations, another business line has sprouted up in Cuba: the provisioning of customers in exchange for a "commission." It's an "under-the-table" activity to which former street hustlers are turning, as are active tour guides and other "experts" in dealing with foreign visitors.
There is no regulation prohibiting the owners of these businesses from "paying us a commission for bringing them Yankees," says Orlando Jiménez.
Many restaurant owners and the self-employed involved in renting rooms prefer to carry out this practice discreetly, to keep from drawing the attention of inspectors to the profits that allow them to pay their " customer suppliers."
"I started out selling CDs of Cuban music in the Callejón de Hamel. I got them on the street for 12, but the tourists paid 15, so I made 3 off each one,” Jiménez explained.
"Now I take the Yankees to houses that rent for 25 to 40 CUC, depending on the area. The deal is a 5-CUC commission for each day rented. I also offer currency exchange services. If the foreigner doesn't want to wait in line at the CADECA (Exchange Office), that's another commission," he adds.
Some small business owners use a system of signed business cards. "They're important to the commission business," says Leonor, who rents rooms in Havana. "Otherwise, I'd have just anyone bringing me foreigners, and you have to be careful about crime."
"I have my two regular providers, who have my signed card. If they’re busy with other things, they provide it to people they trust. They have to bring a card with my signature in order to be receive," Leonor explains.
"The rental commission is 5 CUC per day, but if the foreigner has breakfast, lunch and dinner, I add 2 or 3 more CUC to the commission," she explains.
There are houses for rent known as mataderos (slaughterhouses), for prostitutes that only work for Yankees, says Sonia, who owns a business of this kind near the Malecón (breakwater) in Havana.
The rate ranges from 10 to 15 CUC per hour, and "the girls get a 5-CUC commission, something extra, in addition to what they charge each Yankee for their services," she says.
A business that everyone "eats off"
Bars and restaurants with prices way out of reach for most Cubans also have connections with "purveyors of customers."
Their owners admit that, in addition to avoiding trouble with inspectors, caution allows them to avoid being "saturated" by an excess of undesirable offers. "The earnings from commissions are attractive," according to the owners of a luxury restaurant in Old Havana.
The commissions at places like the one they have can range from 3 to 5 CUC per dish ordered by foreign customers.
If it is an off-menu dish, like crocodile meat, the commission can be as much as 15 CUC. Cocktails and wines, meanwhile, are worth commissions of 3 CUC.
According to Saúl Matos, the driver of a coco-taxi, the commissions business has become a racket "that everyone is eating off."
"There are slow days when I only get two fares, but I make up for it with the full service I offer the Yankees," he says. "If I convince them to eat or drink at my places, I get a commission. Sometimes they even treat me, and I make more."
"If I get an intermediate fare, but I'm able to pick up other Yankees, I help out another driver, who pays me a commission. All this also creates a 'rapport' with the Yankees, who end up leaving you a tip, which is appreciated," he adds.
Tour guides and drivers who work for state agencies also have established connections with private sector businesses.
Sandra, a guide in Havana's historic center, says that the commissions are a business "that is easy and trouble-free," but "it’s better to keep it hush-hush, because you never know."
"Tourism packages offer complete travel plans, but if you have the charm and the knowledge you can squeeze other things in while barely getting off the route," he says. For this "its helps that the establishments are promoted on the Internet," he says.
"If in a month you manage to take 3 package tours of 8 to 12 foreigners to the restaurants on your agenda, you can make 5 CUC for every dish they order," he says.
"Those profits are shared with the driver and the head of the tour operator. The competition is tough, because many people on the street have experience dealing with foreigners. But our advantage is that we operate within the legal framework, and have better contacts throughout Havana and the provinces."