A Cuban flower grower’s journey to the private sector

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Flower grower Isidro Sanchez Jr. walks shirtless through his small farm. Photo by Jon Braeley.

Drive off the main road, down rocky dirt lanes, past concrete houses with cactus hedges, past men on horseback wearing wide-brim hats, and you’ll reach the farm of the Sanchez family in Cuba’s eastern province of Holguín.

Like his father before him and grandfather before that, Isidro Sanchez Jr. works the land as an independent farmer. But these days, the sturdy 45-year-old has lots more options of how to do business.

The Sanchez family received its plot as part of a government redistribution after Cuba’s 1959 Revolution. For decades, they depended on the state as an intermediary to buy and distribute produce from their farm. The family received payment only in cash, and only in Cuban pesos.

But with recent economic reforms, Sanchez now has a license to sell directly to buyers as well as to the state. He’s teamed up with fellow entrepreneurs in a venture that offers landscaping and related services to hotels and others. And he can be paid in pesos, Cuba’s CUC currency, or even by check.

“Now, when we get big contracts, I can hire more people,” said Sanchez, walking shirtless through his small farm that grows ornamental plants, from palm trees to roses. “Before, I couldn’t do that.”

More options means chances for higher income. By selling direct, Sanchez can charge more than what he’d get from a state intermediary. His clients can get a better deal without middlemen—a lower price and longer-term guarantees on the quality of the produce, for instance. And he can pay the government more; his 10 percent tax paid on higher revenue puts more cash in state coffers.

Sanchez now proudly employs six people full-time and up to 18 on major landscaping projects. Yet like other entrepreneurs in Cuba, he faces challenges, especially to obtain supplies. There are no wholesale markets or retail stores to buy farm inputs, so he relies on government distributors.

“Sometimes, it’s a bit hard to get fertilizer, because you have to wait until the state brings it to you and sells it to you,” said Sanchez during a walk through fields at the farm.

Misleidys Gonzalez, 33, teamed up with Sanchez several years ago to sell landscaping services and floral arrangements to hotels and others under the Belleza Maxima or Bellmax name. She’d left her job as a government nurse earning less than $20 per month, hoping to expand her horizons. She chose Sanchez as her farming partner in this eastern province, partly for practical reasons.

“He’s very responsible and hard-working, has good fertile land to develop, and had a truck. With the vehicle, we could easily transport plants and crews,” said Gonzalez. “Renting vehicles costs more.”

Sanchez still sells some products through state intermediaries. Among them are flowers bound for cemeteries—including Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s ashes are buried. On a recent weekday, his crew filled a trough with hundreds of small roses—some red, yellow and pink, and some two-toned—all ready for transport. Quipped Sanchez’s jocular dad, Ignacio Sr., already 82: “Now that the old man [Fidel] died, they’re buying a lot more flowers for the cemetery.”

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