HAVANA — Mauricio Estrada left Cuba in 2003 full of the same frustrations as so many others eager to move away. He married a Spanish woman, moved to Barcelona and got a job as a prep cook.
A dozen years later and divorced, Estrada is back, this time as the proprietor of a stylish Iberian-themed restaurant, Toros y Tapas, decorated with old matador posters and the taxidermied heads of longhorn bulls.
“Having my own restaurant is a dream,” said Estrada, 48. “I never could have done it if I’d stayed in Cuba.”
Estrada is a repatriado, a repatriate, one of the growing number of Cubans who have opted to move back to the island in recent years as the Castro government eases its rigid immigration rules. The returnees are a smaller, quieter countercurrent to the surge of Cubans leaving, and their arrival suggests a more dynamic future when their compatriots may come and go with greater ease, helping to rebuild Cuba with earnings from abroad.
Not since the early years of Fidel Castro’s rule, when his leftist ideals brought home a number of exiles initially sympathetic to the 1959 revolution, have so many Cubans voluntarily returned.
The difference is that today’s repatriates are not coming back for socialism. They are coming back as capitalists. Which is to say, they are returning as trailblazing entrepreneurs. Prompted by President Raúl Castro’s limited opening to small business and his 2011 move allowing Cubans to buy and sell real estate, the repatriates are using money saved abroad to acquire property and open private restaurants, guesthouses, spas and retail shops.
Cuban authorities said they could not provide up-to-date statistics, but in 2012, immigration officials said they were processing about 1,000 repatriation applications each year. The numbers appear to have increased since then, at least judging from anecdotal evidence and the proliferation of new small businesses in Havana run by returnees.
Communist authorities no longer stigmatize such Cubans or view them as ideologically suspicious, provided they’re not coming back as anti-government activists. Virtually all Cubans who emigrated are eligible for repatriation unless they are deemed to have committed “hostile acts against the state.”
Returnees say the paperwork takes about six months to process. It allows them to return home with a shipping container’s worth of goods and to regain access to the socialist country’s benefits, including free health care and food rations.
For Cubans nostalgic for home or determined to build small businesses on the island, repatriation offers travel privileges few others enjoy. Cubans returning from Spain, for example, do not have to renounce their Spanish citizenship and the all-important European Union passports that come with it, allowing them to travel far more freely than ordinary Cuban passport holders, who need visas for practically any country they wish to visit.
The repatriation trend is a classic case of “Cuban ingenuity,” said Pedro Freyre, a partner and an expert on Cuba trade laws at the Akerman law firm in Miami. “It’s an instinct for taking advantage of any opening, and the perception that with this mechanism an expat can have the best of two systems.”
To be clear, the number of repatriates is dwarfed by the more than 70,000 Cubans who left the island in 2015, the highest figure in decades and nearly twice as many as departed in 2014. The emigration wave is being driven by a range of old and new factors, from the island’s perpetual economic troubles to new fears that better relations with the United States will bring an end to the unique U.S. immigration privileges extended to Cubans.
For Enrique Soldevilla, 34, the December 2014 announcement that the United States and Cuba would begin normalizing relations was the decisive factor in his return home after a decade in the Dominican Republic. Optimistic that the U.S. thaw would bring better times to Cuba, he moved back to Havana in April, giving up a well-paid job in audio and video production.
Life in the Dominican Republic was good “professionally and financially,” Soldevilla said, “but something was always missing.”
He felt a “spiritual need” to be in his home country and culture, with his family close by.
Someone like Soldevilla would have had few options just a few years ago, when restrictions were much tighter on private business and independent labor. But today, more than a quarter of Cuba’s workforce is not employed by the state.
Soldevilla has been working as a freelance producer, using his international contacts and his skills to get contracts with foreign clients. He has done casting work for the U.S. reality TV show “House Hunters,” something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when Cubans were prohibited from having cellphones and going online was all but impossible.
Poor Internet access is still a major headache, but Soldevilla can take his laptop to a tourist hotel with WiFi when he needs to conduct business. “I’m not earning as much as I did [in the Dominican Republic], but the cost of living is a lot lower. And I’m happier here,” he said.
Many of the repatriates, like Soldevilla, are returning from Europe and Latin America. Cubans in the United States may be more reluctant to return to the island because of their relatively high incomes. But American economic sanctions also make it essentially illegal for any U.S. resident to go to Cuba and run a business. And the ability to buy property remains mostly restricted to Cubans who live on the island.
For Kelly Sánchez, the 2011 overhaul of Cuban real estate laws was the biggest factor in her decision to give up a job as an advertising executive in Spain and return to the Old Havana neighborhood of her childhood.
The change meant that a Cuban could acquire a residence that could also house a small business.
Sánchez bought a 200-year-old house in the city’s historic quarter, and she now operates it as a small hostel called Casa Vieja. The ground floor has 15-foot ceilings and doubles as an art gallery; she has a bar and dining room on the roof deck. Sánchez’s rooms rent for about $40 a night, and demand is so high that she said she’s almost entirely booked for 2016.
“It’s insane,” she said, referring both to the demand and the myriad challenges of running such an operation in crowded, crumbling Old Havana.
When Sánchez left for Spain in 1998 as a 24-year-old, she was an unemployed university graduate with an engineering degree and a frustration that drove her to depression. “I was desperate to get out of here,” she said.
A professional career in Europe “is what I needed to grow up,” she said. “It made me the woman I am today — smarter, more confident, more open-minded.”
Like Sánchez, restaurant owner Estrada describes life abroad as a kind of international business school, an education in capitalism. Estrada said he has struggled with the training and management of his Cuban employees, who he said still treat their jobs as if they work for a government-run business. Pilfering is a problem, he grumbled, along with tardiness and poor customer service skills.
Like other private restaurant owners here, Estrada said he prefers to hire workers with no experience that he can train to his standards, rather than hire employees who have picked up the bad habits of state-run businesses.
“In Spain, workers take their jobs seriously,” Estrada said. “They know that if they don’t, they’ll be out on the street with nothing to eat.”